Last night terrible cramps wove their way into my dreams. I'm one of those annoying women who says, "I've never had menstrual cramps," so I didn't fully understand what they were until I woke up. When I was giving birth to my daughter Lucia fifteen years ago, the midwife asked if I was having contractions. Having never given birth before I asked her what they felt like. She said they felt like menstrual cramps. I explained to her that I'd never experienced menstrual cramps so couldn't identify if I was indeed having contractions. But now, at age 51, I know what cramps feel like. Cramps are intense. They do indeed remind me of being in labor.
In the last few years contemplating my own aging, I have become compelled to understand more about menopause, both for myself and for other women. In doing this exploration I have learned a lot about the broader implications of aging for women, in particular the stigma and shame associated with the very process of menopause. Many women my age have no one to query about what her mother's menopause was like because so many of our mothers had hysterectomies. It seemed that twenty years ago, and still today, the medical response to this change in life has been to just take out those confusing female organs.
In my research of both scientific data and personal accounts of menopause, I have generated a working theory that there is a mirror-like symmetry between pre-puberty and post-fertility (aka menopause). Physiologically, both pre-puberty and post-fertility are times when we have lower estrogen levels. Emotionally and mentally, in the time before puberty--when we are little girls-- we are playful, unselfconscious and more authentically true to ourselves. Pre-puberty, girls operate from an internal compass. Once girls enter puberty they begin the long journey of a life in which they are assessed and evaluated on their performance and appearance. Puberty launches girls into periods and cramps and dating and parenthood and peer pressure and social media and media objectification. It is exhausting and unrelenting.
Then, in middle age, the time when our fertile window has closed, women come back to a stage more similar to our pre-pubescent selves. There is a decrease in estrogen, a slowing down, an opportunity to settle back into our true nature of childhood. This beautiful hormonal symmetry offers women in menopause a chance to re-meet this playful, unselfconscious self; we come home to our true nature again.
I don't know if the cramps will come again next month or if the cramps will be replaced with hot flashes tomorrow or next month. Maybe I'll have both. I'm prepared for whatever comes because I know, whatever it is, I'm on the road home again.