So one year ago exactly I wrote a post about being 53 and a half and still menstruating. It remains one of the most read and commented on posts of all time on this blog.
Clearly, I hit a nerve.
A uterine nerve.
I’m joking, but I’m pointing to something important. If we are still menstruating vigorously at 53 or 54 (as I am, at this very moment, I might add), what version of womanhood are we enacting? We have no models, no icons — just our own rarely acknowledged experience and absurd calculations (my math tells I’m on something like my 14000th tampon across my life span).
This is an invisible version of female embodiment. There is wide cultural exploration of the notion of the invisibility of aging women, but this is like a Russian nesting doll of invisibility within invisibility. I have reached the age where I’m not seen as a potentially mate-able female by the broader world, but no one told my uterus, which is continuing to thicken and shed, thicken and shed, a door opening and closing on a motion sensor triggered by a random bird flying around on the periphery.
Last year my post about still menstruating was kind of chipper. Hey, being a late menopause-er is actually good for your longevity, and for your heart and bone health! Maybe the estrogen is keeping me energized and my skin young! I may have better brain function and memory longer!
A year later, I don’t feel quite so chipper about this. I feel fatigued, more hormonally anxious, more crampy. Like it’s a guest I had a great time with the first night, but now they just won’t. leave. And they’ve started snoring.
The cultural tropes around period identity are all about the glory of fertile womanhood. Margaret and her bust-improving pals, the ladies of the Red Tent — their bonding is around their fertility, their tie to the moon and the earth, the Power of Woman to Give Life (or, in the suburbs of the 1970s, kiss boys for the first time). But for us middle aged menstruators, it’s a paradoxical identity. Our tie is about the absence of an absence. It’s the persistence of something that has outlasted its usefulness, something we don’t talk about. Even our physicians just shrug and acknowledge that we are outliers, no harm, no foul, no meaning.
So what is there to learn in this limbo, in this absence? What is our Red Tent? In this space between crone and fertility goddess, where are we? Where do we foregather? What do we uniquely know?
I’m not sure how to say it exactly, but I think one of the things I know because of this is something about a meta-view on what drives me, what makes me happy, what makes me fearful and anxious. My particular extended dance version of peri-menopause is that the time that used to be occupied by a kind of cranky but predictable PMS now brings fatigue and, often, a kind of hormonal anxiety storm. These moments seem to fuse the weepiness and disorientation of puberty combined with a deep knowledge about adult darkness and fear for the world. Susan and I often commiserate about this, sort of joking that this feels like when we were 13, but now we have “real problems” — and the spiral of hormonal anxiety can bring a kind of existential despair about the world, along with wakeful insomnia where we can’t imagine getting through the tasks of the next day.
But we’re in our 50s. And even as we’re experiencing them, we know those storms will pass, that the force is temporary and its weight an illusion. Climate change and the state of global politics isn’t — but we know we’ll be able to cope with it, again, in the morning. But there is knowledge to be distilled from the anxieties that make themselves known. When we let ourselves stay in the eye of it, we see real wisdom, the deepest questions and yearnings about who we are, who we can be.
The great thing about being 54 and having a few tools at our disposal is that we then have the capacity to look at those moments and reflect, understand what we want and who we are more fully, more deeply. And we have the strength, the force of will, the — dare I say, grit — to do something with that knowledge.
I remember once, when I was in my early 30s, having dinner with a woman who was turning 50, and I asked her what she had learned she would want to share with younger women. The question made her uncomfortable and sort of pissed off. I think it was the first time I really realized that the wisdom that “comes with age” also requires engagement with self-reflectiveness, clarity about what aging is meaning to us. And if we don’t have that, aging makes us feel only loss, deterioration, fear.
I have long appreciated the notion that women’s , 60s and 70s can be a “gift of time” – a space to be creative and fully authentic, unleashed from roles and rules. I am coming to believe that this time of straddling of fertility/menopause can be a gift of self-reflexivity. The hormones, the cramps, the fatigue — they’re not fun. They’re not the journey to self-reflection I might choose. But their noisiness helps me not ignore things I should be paying attention to. What do I want to be doing as I enter the semi-retirement decade? What IS my legacy? How can I navigate the world with grace? Where am I operating out of fear or safety, and how can I change that? How do I want to care for my body as it ages?
What about you? Are you over 50 and still having periods? And what meaning are you making of it?
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives, works, and cramps in Toronto. She coloured her hair grey last week but still can’t make it look the way it did when she left the salon.