My periods began as suddenly as they stopped.
There was nothing gradual about my onset into the menstruating world, nor my stepping out of it. I was 12 years old, away at summer camp (because, of course) when I woke to both blood stained underwear and mortifyingly on the mattress beneath me. The only thing available at the camp store were menstrual pads the size of bricks. Just perfect for summer activities. I came home and thought I would be like my other friends who told me periods in the beginning were far between. But nope, mine were, from the start, every 28 days, scheduled and on time.
I remained that way for decades, reliably shedding my uterine lining, it was who I was. I never felt more like the portrait of womanhood than when I was both pregnant and lactating. I had a baby in my belly and another nursing at my breast when my husband snapped a photo of me grinning like a kid at a surprise birthday party. See me, I am woman!
Long hair, round breasts, ample hips, a face with cheeks like apples. When I looked in my mirror, it showed me my mental reflection back. But then, just as suddenly as I was catapulted into the life of estrogen, I was literally yanked out. When I was 58, my periods stopped. No gradual ebb, no diminishing tapering off the drug of who and how I saw myself. Just, one summer evening in July, it was over. I looked at the calendar and my monthly confirmation of woman, never returned. No time to prepare or read or find out anything. Again, my friends told me, “Oh, it'll be some time in between, on and off for awhile.." Just as before, not in my case.
The physical changes and how we react and readjust to no longer menstruating, this is menopause mentally. But, physically, hair and skin and body shape and hormones. Internally, are we still supple, fruitful in our role as women? We are now something new, women still, yes, but a new definition of woman.
Before menopause, your ovaries produce a hormone, estrogen a sex hormone. It is responsible for what makes us female, uterus, vagina, menses, breasts, sexual desire. As estrogen levels drop, the impact on your hair, skin, and your body, libido, may take a hit.
But do you know what else may take a hit? The way you, as a woman, see yourself. For me, my carefree wild mane of Andie MacDowell seemingly overnight grew into a witch's broomstick. Dry, brittle, coarse. My skin, once plump and vibrant, grew paper thin and looked in need of a good sanding. And my hands? Please, not even a week long soak in hot paraffin at the best spa in town could revive the turkey claws I now had to claim as mine.
This, none of this, should have been a surprise to me. But it was. Because no one talks of menopause and its changes. No one brings up menopause and if they do, it is disguised in whispered jokes of hot flashes only. As if there is a shame to it.
I wish I had known what was coming, the changes to my body and how it feels. I mean, estrogen is a SEX hormone, of course, menopause's plummeting levels will affect our bodies. I am not a superficial woman, and I absolutely knew I would be aging, but this occupying of a different shell, sent me reeling. I, like I always do, took to books and online searches and journaling, to help me understand, how we and women like me, adjust and step into this next chapter that is our lives. But why did I have to dig so deep to find out anything about what happens with menopause?
Although it didn't happen overnight, there is a now a new, growing openness about menopause. And I am grateful for it. There are products, medications, people talking, doctors learning and women refusing to live in a world where we can be made to feel like menopause should be a shrouded, private, subject. This new attitude is just going to get better.
What I have grown to see through time, resources, asking questions, seeking information, and a shifting of lenses, may not be a glowing complexion of youth (dear God above, have you seen a baby's skin lately? Glorious) but I am alive, and my vision for my life is sharper. I recently left a job of 13 years for a more deeply satisfying one, I have begun submitting my work again.
There is excitement in this road ahead for all of us, together we are learning about our health, life's changes. I promise you, we are who we always have been, menopause will not change that. The only difference is now we are beautifully becoming women with lives of wisdom and reward.
Alexandra Rosas is a Colombian writer, story teller, and public radio essayist. She has had her work published in Huffington Post Latino Voices, and was featured with the internationally known oral story telling organization, The Moth. Her essays have been published in over a dozen anthologies. She is an award winning parenting magazine columnist and blogger. But, of all these things, her favorite recognition is that of Mom. You can hear her stories at The Moth.