Adolescence was kind of a mystery when I was a tween. Actually, we didn’t call tweens “tweens” in the late 70s/early 80s, sort of the Iron Age of coming up with clever, merged names for stuff, and there were lots of other things of whose names we did not speak. My mother was a full-fledged feminist at that point, but a large part of her era’s brand of feminism was about minimizing the differences between men and women. Maybe this is why I didn’t know anything about getting my period — heck, I don’t think I even knew it was going to happen — until I read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. In fact, there’s a fair amount I wouldn’t know about the world if it weren’t for Judy Blume. Not that I enjoyed her books, which also included vivid details about wet dreams (Then Again, Maybe I Won’t) and teenaged sex (Forever, a book of which I think I may only have read the “good” pages — the ones my friends dog-eared so they could share them, or maybe read them over again alone in their rooms, which was something that never occurred to me to do since masturbation was another thing nobody ever told me about). I didn’t like them, partly because even at that age I could tell that “literary” was not a primary value considered by the dog-ear-and-share teen set, but mainly because those books scared the shit out of me. I was an immature kid, a year younger than most of the girls in my grade, and I’d been very happy in the dark, thank you. I didn’t want to know about any of this stuff, which seemed entirely gross and overwhelming. Trying to figure out why girls wore skirts when they could wear infinitely more comfortable shorts or overalls was way too complicated for me, I certainly couldn’t imagine celebrating when I started bleeding out of my vagina. In fact, I don’t know anyone who did, in spite of what Judy wrote. And while my mom was helpful about it when I finally had it (late. I was 14 or 15, which seemed eons after everyone else), she didn’t use tampons, so I still had to figure all of that out by myself. But to me, being a teenager was basically about feeling stupid nearly all the time, so to have this one additional thing I was utterly clueless about just seemed normal.
Little did I know how many more holes there were in my knowledge (a lot of it, coincidentally, regarding orifices). I didn’t start masturbating until my 20s, since I basically didn’t even know I had a clitoris until I was introduced to it by my first real boyfriend at age 21, so I guess that’s when I started to understand and pay attention to my sex drive, but I still didn’t notice any connection between it and my cycle. Once I got on the pill, I was very regular, and didn’t have period symptoms like moodiness or bloating or cramps, so, aside from taking birth control and my uneventful annual gynecological checkup, I never had a need to think about what was going on in my uterus at all besides the usual monthly messiness. Until, that is, my 30s. That’s when the hormones hit the fan. It didn’t help, no doubt, that my mid-30s was when my midlife crisis started — and yes, I do mean this one, the one that’s still going on. I know that probably sounds precocious, and I certainly don’t have plans to die at age 68, but that’s when I started thinking about my biological clock — or, once again not at all precociously, even realized I had one. So that’s when I really had to start considering what the heck I was doing with my life: what my current relationship was all about, where my career was going or not going, and how I was going to make the rest of my life happen — the one that I’d always imagined would start when I sold my first screenplay or made my first feature and then continue successfully from there to all the other things I wanted like kids, money, property ownership. Because it clearly was not happening so far.
As you might imagine, the first step in all that was therapy, and it was my therapist who introduced me to the term “perimenopause.” As in, “Maybe part of the reason you’re moody and depressed is that you’re going through perimenopause.” Which is not something that a woman who is hoping to have several more years of fertility wants to hear, even if she doesn’t know what it is, exactly, because it has the word “menopause” in it, and that is definitely bad. So my gynecologist gave me tests for my hormones and everything looked normal, but still, I could feel that it wasn’t — or at least, not the normal that I’d been used to. If I wasn’t having perimenopause, I was definitely having something, because all of this stuff was happening to me. For one thing, my sex drive had definitely gotten stronger. I wanted sex every day, if not more than once a day, even if my boyfriend didn’t. Which was weird. I hadn’t been taught that that degree of desire would ever be, well, me. Yes, I’d missed regular sex during the nine years I hadn’t had a boyfriend, and that was why I’d learned to masturbate and occasionally made bad choices about men. Still, my need to get laid had never been so strong that I’d made really bad choices, like I knew it drove a lot of other people to do. Now, suddenly, I felt like I could relate a little more to those who felt driven by their genitalia. I had chalked it up to the fact that I was having good, regular sex, after being starved of it for so long, but I was starting to realize that there was more to it than just the horniness. I was also a lot moodier — depressed, anxious, irritable — and it was indeed a lot worse around my period.
I resisted the idea that this was happening for a long time, because it’s the worst type of stereotype that women are ruled by their cycles and made irrational, “hysterical” by our hyster-areas, rather than the way that society beats us down and makes us hate ourselves. But it was impossible not to notice that it wasn’t just these outside forces having an impact on me, something was going on inside me too. And it did seem like, finally, some of my friends were talking about it — like we were finally realizing, in our 30s, it was time to pay attention to what was actually going on with us, rather than what everyone told was supposed to be going on. And of course there was the Internet, although, as usual, whether that was helping or hurting was something of a toss up. You sure could find a lot about how women were at their sexual peak in their 30s, because that was hot, but scientifically established research about all of this other female hormonal business? Not really. So this became my major introduction to the fact that not just my body, but the mind and emotions attached to it, that I always thought of as wholly independent and under my control, were going to change as I got older whether I liked it or not. I could pretend it wasn’t happening, or I could accept it and find ways to cope.
Little did I know that there was to be even more stuff for me to find out, a lot of it had to do with having babies, or not having babies. The pain women go through during childbirth, the likelihood of maternal mortality, how many things can go wrong — these were all things I only discovered when friends started having children or trying to get pregnant. I found out only long after it happened that two of my friends had come pretty close to dying during childbirth — and then they each went on to have more kids! This floored me. Then I had four miscarriages/non-viable pregnancies myself and wrote about it, and all my friends were suddenly telling me about their experiences with that. I mean, it was as if these were things we were all just supposed to go through and then shut up about, because nobody wanted to hear the gory details. Post-#metoo, it strikes me as being very similar to sexual harassment and assault. Women have always just been expected to suffer through all sorts of things and never complain, never talk. Because a large part of our value was in how well we lived up to all of the roles of womanhood — ingenue, sex kitten, helpmate, housewife, caretaker, subordinate but necessary breadwinner — without letting our personhood get in the way.
And now, finally, menopause. Which is like all of these things but also worse, because it also has to do with getting old, and that is something, as women, we can never talk about. Again, it’s supposed to be each woman’s dirty little secret, hidden by hair dye, Botox, and plastic surgery. Aging is a process that happens to literally every human being, but yet again, women are made to feel like there’s something wrong with us when we can’t stop time. And then, to add insult to injury, we stop being fertile, which means we lose the final thing we had going for us if we weren’t hot or good cooks: we could at least make babies. Then, we get all of the fun symptoms that go along with that: hot flashes, lowered libido, dry vaginas, mood swings, irregular periods…You thought you hated your period before, but at least with most of us it was predictable, now it’s not even that. Some women bleed a lot more, some bleed more often, like every three weeks or so instead of four, but not exactly, so you always have to be prepared, carrying your not-so-little bag of tampons and mini-pads around basically 24-7. And the moodiness becomes practically a month-round thing too (and it’s not just grumpiness at never knowing when you’re going to start bleeding — although can you imagine men putting up with that? Offices filled with middle-aged, menopausal men — upper management at any corporation, perhaps the entire insurance industry — would basically cease to function).
All of this is normal for women, but you’d never know it from popular culture. Except for the occasional joke about hot flashes and the movie Something’s Got To Give, menopause doesn’t exist there. So how are we supposed to know that what we’re going through is what everyone else is going through? Not just to get advice or support, but even to get a sense whether or not something is wrong. I mean, how soon you’re supposed to call your doctor if you have a Viagra mishap? We all pretty much know that now because it’s been the punchline in so many rom coms and sitcoms and other kinds of coms. Menopause? Still too icky to make jokes about, apparently. If men don’t experience it, I guess it’s not “universal” enough to be funny.
I think some of this has changed. My friends who have girls certainly talk to them about a lot more than we talked about with our parents. But I still think the message of our culture is that our experiences of womanhood, the good and the bad, the sad and the fucking hilarious because it’s so terrible, are not worth sharing — unless they‘re a turn-on, which, I’m sorry, most things in life just aren’t. I have to wonder, when are we going to stop internalizing the message that what happens to us just doesn’t matter as much as what happens to them?