The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The weirdness of menopause is more than a reminder of my own mortality

Placeholder while article actions load

Remember when you went through puberty? How your body changed rapidly in new and astonishing ways? Maybe you thought, “Wow! This is kind of weird. But I’m becoming an adult.” It was sometimes disorienting, but often exciting. Soon you’d be driving and voting and having sex and (legally) drinking. Pretty great, right?

I’m 51 and I’m learning that menopause is a lot like puberty. But instead of unveiling the mysteries of adulthood, it often feels as if it’s pushing me toward the encroaching grave, reminding me that I have fewer days in front of me than behind me and, for good measure, that my skirts that once fit perfectly must now be consigned to the “donate” pile. (O, hips! Why have you betrayed me so?)

As my post-menopausal internist told me recently, “I know. The whole thing is just weird. Try to roll with it and only worry if any of the symptoms seem like they might be cancerous.”

Salient advice, indeed.

But truthfully, it’s not my larger hips that are bugging me. I always had a high metabolic rate and knew it wouldn’t last forever. And despite being disabled with myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, I’m still toned. I walk my mile to mile and a half each day on my walker and while I miss my former strut, I’m deeply glad I can still walk.

No, what’s bugging me is that I’m supposed to know better than to worry about the superficial stuff, like my faded youth and burgeoning rump size. I’m well-read. I’m a feminist. My best friend died nine years ago and, as such, I’m grateful for each day. I live in Seattle, for God’s sake, a hub of “body positivity”! Objectively, I understand the scientific reality: My body no longer produces eggs. If the apocalypse comes, you’ll have to repopulate Earth without me. (Though I can distribute some truly gorgeous size 8 pencil skirts. That’s nearly as good, I think.) I never wanted nor had children in the first place so, for me, womanhood was never tied to fertility. And I would never, ever judge another woman’s body the way I judge my own.

So why don’t I revel in my curvier hips? And celebrate the gray hairs flecking my temples like merit badges for a life well-lived? Instead of discovering new lines around my neck and thinking, “What the hell is happening here?”

Because, if I’m honest, I think these neck lines freaking suck. And more will arrive soon like ants on ice cream, and I hate turtlenecks and don’t want to invest half my yearly income in scarves. Even the good parts of menopause seem fraught with morbidity: Most of my life, I found it annoying to shave my legs, but now that I have almost no leg hair, I look at my eerily smooth calves and thighs and wonder, “Am I old?”

And while, at 51, I know I’m not old, I also know that well-read, Seattle-based feminists aren’t supposed to care if they’re old or worry about eventual scarf budgeting. (I don’t think I have to embrace caftans yet. That still seems years in the offing.) Plus, I’ve had it easy overall. I rarely get hot flashes, my thick, curly hair has retained its volume and occasional kudzulike tendencies, and strangers usually think I’m younger than my actual age.

My aforementioned internist recently asked me, “Did someone say something that hurt you? Because you eat right, you exercise, and your test results, under the circumstances, are great. What’s really bothering you?”

And I had to admit the real problem: I remember what I thought of menopausal women when I was in college. I started referring to myself as a feminist when I was in second grade, but when I was at the University of Washington, my mom and my aunts discussed menopause openly. That was smart, emotionally healthy and very much their right. But it mortified me in that way that only your elders can mortify you. Each time they discussed buying a larger bra size, I wanted to sand off my fingerprints, change my last name and go on the lam. I was young! I did push-ups each day! My upper arms would never soften like theirs! I was invincible.

Ha, ha. Ha, ha, ha.

So, for me, menopause is more than a reminder of my own mortality: It’s a reminder of my youthful stupidity as well. And that the young woman who viewed tank tops as her birthright now checks sleeve-length before buying T-shirts forces me to admit that my body is, in more ways than I realized, outside the locus of my control.

Perhaps because I’ve been disabled and lost my best friend, I wanted my corporeal self to stay recognizable more than I knew. And it can’t and it won’t and I’ll learn to accept it, sooner than later.

Because I’m alive and here and have ample, delicious food and a safe home of my own and all of us know most of the world’s denizens aren’t so fortunate. I’m spending my finite time worrying about what is, ultimately, sort of ridiculous.

Do I wish I could magically know everything I know at 51 and still look like I did at 27? Yes. Without a doubt. I’m getting wiser, but it’s not like I’m Socrates.

Like millions of women before me, I’ll figure this out.

But a tiny part of me will always long for my beautiful pencil skirts of yore.

Maybe the trick is learning to accept this foible, too.

What female athletes need to know about menopause

Women’s sexual problems are finally getting their due.

I’m getting horrible hot flashes. What can I safely do about them?