“My period started again,” I said, passing by my husband, Dyami, in our living room. By “again”, I meant two days after it finished.
He sat watching TV, but looked up at me with concern. “You okay?” he asked, muting the sound.
“I’m fine,” I said. I tried to pretend I believed that.
Saying “fine” was, at best, wishful thinking. I wanted to be okay with my newly irregular periods. I wanted to be okay with what they could mean.
I feared it might signal menopause.
All periods are mundane, but each one—or its absence—can upend your life. I already experienced the loudest change, pregnancy: parenthood grabbing my body and transforming it into an incubator to my two beloved daughters.
But that particular rollercoaster is nearly eight years in the past. After our second baby, my husband got a vasectomy, I stopped nursing, and periods became exquisitely ordinary. Foolishly, I thought they no longer held surprises.
Until, in the last few months, not yet forty, my ovaries stopped behaving themselves. Periods came more frequently, not less. Clearly, my fertility had a trick up its sleeve.
But what, exactly?
The month before, during another weird period, I Googled my symptoms. They could mean I was sick in some unusual way. Or, more likely, my body could be starting a journey into menopause.
I did not want to be sick. But was I ready to be old?
At thirty-nine, I’d thought myself too young to ask that question.
When I was a teenager, my mom, then in her mid-fifties, started noticing hot flashes. She told me my grandmother started menopause late as well. I tucked that bit of family medical history away like a lucky charm. I would not have to worry about “getting old” for a long time.
I told myself I wouldn’t care about aging, anyway. I would age with pride, dignity, and equanimity.
I felt sure I’d stay blasé.
But as my period stuttered, I didn’t feel blasé.
Smiling stiffly at my husband and his questions, I marched up the stairs to our bedroom. It was getting late. I needed to wind down for the night.
It’s fine, I told myself again. I didn’t want to whine or complain about it. If it was The Change, it was natural. Healthy womanhood, not a crisis.
I distracted myself with a book in our bed. A few minutes later, I barely registered Dyami coming into the bedroom. He sat down next to me and put his arm on my stomach, as if protecting me from something.
“Are you sure you’re this okay with the possibility of menopause?” he said. “I’m surprised it doesn’t seem to bother you.”
I wanted to tell him he was wrong, that menopause was natural, and that I was ready to get older. That I looked forward to the wisdom and freedom of middle age.
But when I looked up into Dyami’s face to tell him that, I started to cry.
No—I started to wail. And then I opened my mouth and made things worse.
“I don’t care how I’ll look after menopause,” I almost shouted at him. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.”
Even as I shouted it I knew I protested too much. Clearly I cared a lot.
The Change was coming, my body insisted. Even if these symptoms were red herrings, I would experience menopause eventually. But who would I change into? What kind of woman would I become? Would I like that person when I met her?
Dyami got me a box of Kleenex while I considered who I wanted to become. And then, clear as day, I knew. I thought of a woman I’d known slightly almost twenty years ago. Her name had vanished from my mind, but regardless, I wanted to age like her.
I pictured her as I best remembered her: wearing paint-spattered overalls, pigtails, no makeup, and a pair of men’s underwear on her head.
Later, I dug through albums from college and found her name written next to a few pictures. Valerie. One of the leaders of a Bible study I attended in college.
My senior year of college, I attended a church workday to help paint someone’s garage. We worked outside on a sunny Saturday, talking as we moved the paint rollers up and down the wall.
Valerie, who must have been in her early fifties, showed up in her overalls. I gaped at her.
She looked beautiful. Her outfit, her careless hairstyle, her unadorned face—all of it spoke of a woman deeply comfortable in her own skin.
As we painted, she grabbed an old pair of tighty-whities from the box of painting smocks and pulled them over her hair, laughing, saying they were the best way to protect it from spatters.
A little shyly, I rummaged for another pair and put them on too.
I hardly spoke to her during college; she wouldn’t remember me now. But before and especially after that workday, I regarded her with a bit of awe, like a movie star you approach with deference.
I longed to age with her grace and humor. I longed to have beauty that shone because it came from within.
But when I looked at her, it was as a child pressing their face against a store window, knowing they don’t have enough money to go inside.
Now, on the bed with Dyami, I wondered where my sense of alienation and disconnection from Valerie had come from. Why had I felt she was out of reach? Why, when I thought of my identity as a woman now, did I assume I would inevitably fall short?
I wiped my eyes. I knew why. I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.
My mother is lovely and stylish, and she creates beauty. As a teenager, she competed statewide with her handmade ball gowns through 4-H. During my childhood in Arizona, she subscribed to Vogue’s sewing magazine, special-ordered fabrics from a store in San Francisco, and made me clothes for most of my birthdays and Christmas.
Mom loved fashion. She organized her wardrobe like a general marshaling her troops: evaluating how to fill gaps and strengthen weaknesses with strategically deployed resources.
She’d learned to surround herself with beauty heading off to college, her father recently deceased and her suddenly single mother struggling to make ends meet. As a high school senior, Mom visited Michigan State and noted the other girls’ beautiful wardrobes—their sweater sets, their coats and dresses and skirts. She went home and replicated that luxury with her sewing machine.
“I looked just as fashionable as anyone,” she’d tell me years later.
It wasn’t just clothes, though. When Mom cooked for company, she worked magic: turning radishes into roses, boiled eggs and olives into tiny penguins, carrots into scalloped frills. When I was in kindergarten, she hosted older neighborhood kids for cooking classes in our kitchen in Phoenix, teaching them how to make Hollandaise sauce and perfectly cooked broccoli.
Our kitchen gleamed. Tasteful tile lined the backsplash and island, every last utensil hid in its place. The cane-bottom chairs had carved curlicues in their backs that almost looked like raptors with a single, grinning eye. Behind our oval kitchen table hung a lithograph of a carrot, freshly pulled from the earth.
Later, I’d remember that carrot and wonder why it filled me with unease. I knew our family had been unhappy in that house: our father, my two older siblings, Katie and Steve, but most especially Mom. I remembered Mom yelling; I remembered the paddle that hid in its drawer. Still, though, why did the kitchen shimmer with such fear—the chairs with their grinning birds of prey, the cabinets hiding knives, and the carrot yanked from its home?
I was a teenager when I remembered.
By then, Katie and Steve, one after the other, had stopped living under our parents’ roof, though they each visited regularly. That house in Phoenix had been the last time we were a family. Now, the two of them back for a rare visit, we visited our aunt, uncle, and cousins in California.
It’s worth mentioning that both Katie and Steve are adopted, that I, the lone biological child, was a surprise. It’s worth mentioning that on my forehead, I have the same birthmark as our mother, a pale purple flame.
Sitting a little apart from the adults, we kids shared memories. Our cousins had visited our old house in Phoenix once, years before.
Steve mentioned the kitchen. “Remember the hole behind that carrot picture?” he asked Katie and I, his voice light, but laced with bitterness.
I stiffened. Suddenly, I remembered why the kitchen frightened me.
Katie looked at him and grimaced. “You mean where Mom put your head through the wall?” she said.
“Yup,” Steve said. “Broke the drywall. And they just covered it up.”
I opened my mouth and closed it, filled with sudden panic.
I still don’t know what disturbed me most.
Was it remembering, viscerally, why that house terrified me? I’d probably only been four or five when Mom hurt Steve. I remembered very little from back then.
Did I feel disturbed understanding how I’d lost the memory? I hadn’t really forgotten. I concealed it, telling myself it could not have happened.
But largest and most shameful of all, I wanted to keep forgetting. I did not want my brother to remind us. The adults were only a few feet away, and Steve was telling. He was telling our cousins the violence underneath the bright, clean surface of our family. Casually, as if it would not matter if the adults heard.
I did not want to hear about my brother’s pain because I cared how we would all look.
Would coming to terms with my mother’s violence be easier if I did not love her and if I did not know how much she loves me?
Would it be easier if I’d witnessed everything first-hand? I knew the hole behind the picture existed not because I’d seen Mom create it, but because of testimony. When my brother told me his frequent nosebleeds as a child weren’t only because of his dairy allergy, or Katie told me Mom sometimes smashed her and Steve’s heads together, I have to take their word for it.
But their stories feel right. After all, I often felt afraid of what Mom would do. And the one time she hit me in third grade, for reading instead of doing my homework, her anger felt like a hurricane tearing through our house.
And yet growing up, when I got frightened or sad, Mom would come into my room, her silk blouse or ultra suede skirt swishing in the dark. She’d sit by my side and listen as the hot tears spilled down my face, fetch me a Kleenex, then spread a cool washcloth over my eyes until I quieted.
I was a lot like her, she told me. Every time she said that, I thought of our twin birthmarks. I wanted to be my mother’s daughter. I wanted to be close.
I grew up believing she loved my siblings—but could not help but love me best.
She would probably disagree; she always said she loved us all just the same. That she had done her best by them, and still did.
Dad would tell me, when I tried to figure out what went wrong with our family, that Katie and Mom had always been like oil and water, even when Katie was a newborn. Both my parents told me that Steve, perhaps with some unnamed learning disability, and Katie, with her bright, hot brilliant energy, made each other worse, and our family a living chaos.
Before and after my siblings left, I adored both of them, but was closest to Katie, who was only three years older. She and I made elaborate soap operas for our stuffed animals and raced down the block on roller skates. We stripped the Mexican bird of paradise flowers for scientific concoctions. Once, Katie, Steve and I built a fort in a palo verde in the scrub brush. We sat together, content.
But once they left, I wanted my life to be normal, to feel normal, and it was easier to do that if I forgot my siblings’ absence, if I forgot Mom’s violence, if I thought of myself as an only child. It was easier if I accepted that our family worked best without two people there. Easier to blame the adoption and assume my siblings were irreparably broken. Easier to cover over the inconsistencies: namely that I’d never had trouble living with my siblings. That I’d been afraid of Mom, not Katie and Steve. It was easier to pretend.
I wish that repeating I do not care do not care do not care about appearances had nothing to do with my past. But, of course, it does.
It’s tempting to write off mothers who struggle to do right by their kids. Easy to demonize them, simple to pretend we do not understand their darkness.
But as a new mother, I once put my sleepless newborn on the couch and screamed at her. Her eyes startled at my rage, and she began to wail. I felt a cold wave of fear wash over me.
Losing control was effortless. The abyss was before me, all the time. Was this how Mom had felt, so many years before?
Mom was the first woman in her family to go to college, studying Home Economics at Michigan State in the early sixties. Some people called that major the “Executive Wives Program.” One of her professors assigned Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to her class; years later, with chagrin, Mom told me the book bewildered her.
Friedan’s classic talks about “the problem that has no name,” explaining the disquiet and dissatisfaction many housewives felt in the fifties. Told that housekeeping and childcare would fulfill them, they felt empty instead. Friedan describes with caustic wit the condescending, sexist and inane advertisements aimed at housewives, vividly portraying how media patronized women. Filled with increasing rage, despair, and ennui, yet told their lives were ideal, middle-class white women wondered what was wrong with them.
I read Friedan’s bestseller myself as a new mother, soon after I screamed at my baby. The anger in its pages surprised me because it did not feel obsolete. Reading it, I finally admitted to myself I felt trapped at home. I felt trapped even though, unlike Friedan and my mother, I’d had a choice. I also empathized with the bitter, Faustian bargain women of my mother’s generation struck to survive: spit-shining lives that did not bring anyone joy.
Reading Friedan, I could see how doing your best might not be enough for your children or your family, and that despite decades of feminism, few in our culture have compassion on mothers who struggle. It made me ache: our sentimentality about motherhood makes it hard for any of us, myself included, to admit we’re at the end of our rope.
All this to say: I have compassion for my mother. I am angry with my mother. I am bewildered by my mother. I love my mother.
Growing up, watching my mother carefully manage her clothing, her face, and her hair while our family heaved and fractured, I did not know how to hold her contradictions in my heart. I did not know who to identify with—my siblings, or my parents? My mother, or my sister? Outsides or insides? Beauty, or truth?
I could not even conceive of mixing oil and water together to find peace.
Is it any wonder that as my womanhood changed, I despaired of the contradictions inside of me? Is it any wonder that, given my uneasy conscience, I did not know if my daughters would admire me?
As I cried to my husband, I assumed I was alone in my bewilderment. Alone like I had been as a child with both my siblings gone. Alone and cut off from Valerie with that underwear on her head. Alone and at odds with my mother.
But it turned out that feeling bewildered about The Change put me in very good company.
When I started searching for feminist writing on menopause, I expected to find a plethora of resources like The Feminine Mystique. I expected each narrative to rip the pretense off of my expectations of aging. I expected to find a path for myself in the stories I read.
Or, at the very least, I expected coherence.
Apparently, that was wishful thinking too.
Take Betty Friedan. In an interview in 2005, Freidan grew irate when questioned about menopause, “insisting that it does not exist—and shouldn’t be talked about.” Decades earlier, in The Feminine Mystique, Friedan had argued that “that anatomy is immaterial” to women—including hormones. She hadn’t changed her position in the ensuing decades. When the interviewer persisted in mentioning menopause, Freidan got angry, saying, “What the fuck are you asking me?”[i]
Betty Friedan, in denial?
Or, take a paper I found chronicling feminists’ shifting responses to menopause. It was titled “What Do These Women Want?[ii]” The writer surveyed the radical swings, discrepancies, and shifts of feminist ideas about menopause—from dismissive to accepting, advocating treatment or decrying medicalization. Some feminists thought The Change was natural, some thought it was a curse, and some, like Friedan, claimed it didn’t exist at all.
Even the physiological process of menopause turned out to be less straightforward than I’d assumed. Unlike when you get your period, there’s no clear sign fertility has left the building. The best indicator: once it has been a year since your last cycle, you can assume it has stopped. Similarly, the process and its symptoms vary ridiculously. Some women take more than a decade for The Change, others only a few years. Some women, especially those with oophorectomies or hysterectomies, suffer painful symptoms. Others barely notice menopause at all.
Even my own symptoms didn’t tell as clear as a tale as I’d thought. When I visited my midwife for a well-woman exam, and told her of my more-frequent periods, she smiled. She told me it could be perimenopause. Or not. It could also be stress, thyroid problems, vitamin deficiency or just my body’s quirks. She did some blood work to rule out the most likely culprits, and recommended I take some Vitamin D.
But the normality of my abnormality really sunk in when I mentioned my symptoms to a friend who’s a few years younger than I am. She told me her period had never come back after the birth of her toddler.
Denial, bewilderment, ambivalence, enigma: I was in extremely good company.
The day I’d cried to my husband, I felt ashamed of my emotions. I wanted to have a good, feminist attitude about aging. Except Friedan and other feminist icons did not go quietly into The Change. They wrestled and questioned and denied and harrumphed and argued and cursed.
Apparently I could feel however the hell I wanted to.
So what do I feel about menopause?
Under my shoulds and ambivalence lies my deepest desire: to feel connected to the women who formed my identity, so I can find peace with myself. To be, like Valerie, supremely comfortable in my own skin.
Which means accepting all of me, including being my mother’s daughter.
As a college student, Mom saw beauty around her and imitated it. She took what she had—the whole cloth of her ingenuity and skill—and made do.
Couldn’t I look for beauty in my past, and make do, too? Assume that loveliness could belong to me if I sat down and stitched it together?
I could stop telling myself I’m set apart from other women. I could believe that Valerie might be pleased to be my role model, as would my mother, my sister, and even the gloriously foul-mouthed Betty Friedan.
I could take the ambivalence I feel and accept it. I could get used to asking uncomfortable questions of myself and other people. I could weave my contradictory feelings with the contradictory expectations of our culture. As I raise my daughters, I could encourage them to question all those contradictions and construct their own bold garments.
I could give myself permission to occasionally behave badly, instead of spit-shining my imperfections.
I can keep watching the women around me, and, like my mother, allow their beauty to inspire me. ¤
[i] Susan Kolod, Ph.D., “Why Betty Friedan Threw the Body Out With the Bathwater,” Psychology Today, June 23, 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201306/why-betty-friedan-threw-the-body-out-the-bathwater.
[ii] Judith A. Houck, “‘What do these women want?’: Feminist responses to Feminine Forever, 1963-1980,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77, no. 1 (2003): pp. 103-132
Heather Caliri’s work has appeared at Christianity Today’s website, Relevant.com, iBelieve, SheLoves Magazine, The Mudroom, and Brain, Child Magazine. She blogs at HeatherCaliri.com, and offers a free mini-course on managing everyday anxiety. She lives and writes in San Diego, CA, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.