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Not What We Expected

It happened on the day of my 8th grade class trip to Hershey Park. A quick restroom visit before boarding the bus to head home revealed that I had crossed the threshold to womanhood, a.k.a., I got my first period. Without cramps or much fanfare, there it was.

I had expected at least a lot of pain, but what I got instead was a sinking feeling in my stomach as I started to think about how my life was going to be different from then on. It was a quiet, reflective ride home for me on a noisy school bus full of kids amped up on Cokes and Hershey kisses.

What I realize about that moment now was that I was actually grieving for my “little girl” life that I knew was ending. Was I ready? I had so many doubts and apprehensions. All I knew about the process was what I learned from the requisite 6th grade “health” film for boys and girls of a certain age. This big change was pretty much glossed over at home.

Upon telling my mom, I also got a response I was not expecting. I got a warm hug. (While my mother is a loving person, hugs were not a daily thing.) This demonstrative display of emotion signaled to me this was a big deal. And then she said the thing that would stick with me as the seminal conversation from the event, her voice catching, she said, “Oh, you’re just getting started, and I—am at the end.”

She was referring to menopause. I was a late-in-life child. My mom was 53 and explained that she was going through “the change” at that time. Wow. That was a lot for a 13-year-old to take in. I did some math, so that meant that I would be in this new life mode for the next 40 years and that she was at “the end.” This sounded harsh and arbitrary. While I was not particularly happy about my situation, it seemed to me that hers was decidedly worse. Suddenly that 40 years of having my period seemed like a good thing, AND that it would be an eternity until it was “the end” for me. Phew!

Needless to say, my impressions of menopause were firmly seeded in my subconscious that day and those impressions were difficult to shake. For a long time I just didn’t let myself think about it. To me there was nothing positive about it, so what was the point? I went on with my life and it would be a very long time before the subject of menopause came up for me and my mom again.

Looking back, that whole thing about “the end” really deserved further explanation. It may have saved me years of angst, because as I recall, my mother turned 54 later that year and then 55, 56 and so on. Today, my mom is 96 and lives happily with my brother and his family, including some pretty young grandkids, in California, and admits she is living her best life.

So somewhere between my mother’s “end” and now, she managed a new “beginning”. I remember her keeping busy over the years working on our cherished family home, playing bingo with her favorite neighbor, going to as many garage sales as she could drag my father to, helping me raise her grandson, traveling to new destinations with my sister, and hosting some of the best family gatherings in that cherished home.

And guess what? My 40-year “eternity” came to an end three years ago. It did not come to an end with a sense of dread as I expected, rather a sense of resolve and a resilience about a future that I could design, navigate and fashion to inspire me and hopefully others along the way. That is the goal. While I may not end up living with my son in southern California one day, I certainly intend to be working on my best life, just like Mom is.

Do you recall your seminal conversation about menopause? The narratives we believe about menopause can shape our experience with the process. For more information, read our “There’s Nothing Shameful About Menopause” feature.

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