A Chaos of Edges: Welcome to the Perimenopause

Sara BranMost women are born with their life quota of egg follicles, somewhere around 2 million of them. In an average life, these eggs diminish to about 750,000 by the onset of puberty to around 10,000 by the age of 45. Medically, the menopause describes the moment when a woman runs out of eggs and has her final period. The menopause is only ‘diagnosed’  after a year without menses, but actually this varies greatly from woman to woman.

For a long time before this menopausal ‘moment’, women experience seismic shifts in their chemical make-up at a pace as individual as their life stories. This is the perimenopause, a process which begins around the age of forty to forty-five and takes several years to complete.

Although many women (and men) view the prospect with dread, the perimenopausal years present a precious opportunity for healing and spiritual growth ~ if only more of us embraced them fully, fiercely with wild and open hearts. Yep, the PM. It’s where it’s at sister. Provided there’s somewhere to sit down and it’s not too far from a toilet.

Perimenopause is a time of enormous change as significant and bewildering as its reverse mirror, puberty. Women’s later years are potentially  a time of crystallization, a process of obtaining clarity as we gather up the fragmented self and cluster into new forms. The elements are all the same; we are still us, but we are arranged differently. I personally feel a need to reclaim the missing pieces of myself, those fragments lodged in unfulfilled dreams and unfinished business; those pieces still stuck in the hearts or minds of old loves. I feel the need to gather myself home before it’s too late.

Many of my female friends over forty are feeling daunted by the imminent onset of the ‘change’. It looms on our horizon like a gathering storm of ancient soot and carnage. Our air is heavy with anticipation, we’re all forecasting doom and it has to stop.

Native American traditions view the older woman as ‘the gatherer’ who ‘walks in beauty’ replenishing her internal landscape while her external shell decays.  For women with children, the perimenopause can feel like a homecoming, a reintroduction into a extraordinary place called “the self” after many years of caring for others.  Sadly these days, there are few elders lining the streets and cheering us on in this endeavor. Many women, just like me, are going through this stage of their lives with young children to look after and the push/pull of opposing needs is aching.

As far back as fairytales, older women have either been the ‘stepmother’; malcontent, skeletally thin and brimming with poison, or the wizened yet wise. In the mainstream media,  older women are pretty much invisible. With such a narrow choice of role models, it is no wonder that, although the menopause is not a disease, around 2.5 million women in the UK choose to medicate their journey from fertile to infertile. We commonly turn to HRT or antidepressants at mid-life and risk increased chances of developing breast cancer, thrombosis and strokes among other side-effects.

Botox may freeze an older woman’s face into a fictional eternity, but we still rot inside if we hate who we are. We are so terribly bad at ageing in the West ~ it can feel lonely facing the challenge of these years in a world that takes it’s beauty one way; neatly packaged and low-fat.

As I age, I am a chaos of edges, an ill-defined mess, a burgeoning of bosom, a geology of indiscriminate crevices and I am determined not to loathe it although, sometimes, bravado crumbling, I do.

I am so tired of women hating the skin they’re in. So, so tired.

[This piece is abridged from an article, “Coiled Snake Unwinding” originally published in The Mother Magazine]

5 Things I Really Should Know By Now: Notes on Growing Up

When I was a child, I assumed that by the time I was in my forties I would have achieved certain things. I imagined I would be living a life of sophisticated inner-peace as I breezed around my creative business empire wafting of Eau du Coutts and Cotswolds. Instead, I exist in a primordial soup of chaos fuelled by caffeine and crumpets and what is more, there are important things I STILL don’t know such as:

1. How to reverse park

Sorry, but I just I can’t do it. It gives me a hurty neck and I get all confused. I have parked blocks away just so I can do a fronty entrance.

(And yes, all the above also applies to sex.)

2. What I want to be when I grow up

I’m not sure whether the lack of certainty here is about not knowing what I want to do, or not being sure what the general signifiers are that one has ‘grown-up’ and I’d like to know. Is it about having your hair ‘done’ regularly and acquiring a mortgage? It’s certainly not about having kids because that’s sent me into some kind of potty-talk induced decline. Plop. You see, the word still makes me laugh and I know I’m not the only one.

So what is it? HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE A GROWN-UP if no one gives you a certificate in assembly to you show that you are? I am a big believer in having something to work towards like a badge or a small engravable trophy. So until the passage to adulthood is made clear to me and broken down into small, achievable goals, I’m not playing. *Folds arms, kicks over toy bucket and sulks.*

3.Which clothes suit me

This may be a natural consequence of  Point 2 above, but I have no idea what looks good or even acceptable on me any more. This is partly because my middle-aged body is a stranger to me (as I explain in this blog). I usually go out looking like a cross between Fearne Cotton and Fern Britton which looks something like this:

Britton Cotton Bran

My face, Britton’s boobs, Cotton’s pegs

I’d be on my own What Was She Thinking page every week if I were a magazine. I don’t have a little black dress that always works, my killer heels do actually make me want to die and the last time I wore something saucy in the bedroom, my husband got the giggles and did a tiny sick in his own mouth.

I used to know this stuff, but it seems that ‘the knowledge’ fell out of my croissant along with my children.

4. How to save money and be all sensible about investments and ploppy stuff like that

You’d think by my mid-forties I’d have some savings or own some ‘stuff’ but my net worth has about the same value as an actual tiddler-net from an actual garage. I have put aside exactly diddly, zilch, nada, not a sausage. I like to think that this is because I have chosen instead to invest in skills that I do not have to ever retire from like writing and having v. smart children who I have guilt-tripped into making sure they feel they owe me.

“You will look after yer dear old mum won’t you? ” I say to my talented girls as I drop my pants and show them my caesarean scar for the 6,000th time.

So, if all you own is one cardigan, a pair of unwearable shoes and a hair dryer, you are not alone my friends.

5. How to accept that my husband really does love me

I just assume that I irritate the hell out of my husband and that at some point he will get fed up and leave me. I press his buttons daily (no, not those ones) in a perpetual test of his love like my 6-year-old smears bogies on my living-room wall to test mine. Even after 12 years of his consistent, patient, steady loving, I just can’t relax. Perhaps I just don’t really believe that I’m that lovable, or maybe it’s because I’m a child of that dreadful hairy 70‘s era when men did what the fuck they wanted when they wanted with whom they wanted while women were stuck somewhere between liberty and tradition. Why is it that women assume they will be left for a younger, prettier version of themselves, and men assume they will be abandoned for a richer, better provider? Perhaps the old adage is true, that until you truly love yourself, you won’t believe that anyone else can. Or perhaps learning to let someone love you is Lesson One in growing-up.

The Empress’s Old Clothes: On Why Every Ageing Woman Needs Patti Smith

Patti SmithCall me reckless and foolhardy, but I thought de-cluttering the attic would be a constructive way to spend a drizzly London Sunday. Fast-forward three hours however, and I was sitting on my bed in emotional turmoil, weeping over ‘old stuff’.

It all started innocently enough. The initial few feet of clutter comprised a series of dusty suitcases, lined up like dutiful soldiers. The first couple I opened were harmless containing as they did ‘Our Summer Things’. Sandals bent out of shape by last year’s sweat; beach dresses stiffened by seawater; t-shirts smelling of sun lotion from our holiday in Spain. I jumped when a couple of unspent Euros dropped onto the floor and noisily spun themselves into stillness. The next suitcases were more emotional, ‘The Ones With The Baby Clothes’. However, my nostalgia for the newborn days of my daughters was held in check by equally potent memories of how bloody hard it was.  So I happily kept the most precious items, things the girls might like ‘for their own kids’, and let the rest go to Oxfam. And then, just when I thought I was safe, I spotted the mother of all suitcases tucked away at the back of the eaves. Pillar box red and large enough to contain a small horse, it beckoned like Pandora’s Samsonite box.  “Open me” it said.

And so I did.  In it were layers of my old clothes, things I would have been wearing around the time I got together with my husband eleven years ago. I pulled them out one-by-one stroking the fabrics like and old lady finding stray cats. I tried desperately to remember the ‘me’ who wore the clothes, and found that rather like recalling the face of a dearly departed one, you remember the general idea, but the detail is lost. You think you won’t forget, but oh, how you do.

The clothes were all in sizes six and eight (UK sizes) like they belonged to a child. There was the top I was wearing when my husband proposed to me, and a t-shirt I was given when I toured Japan in my singing days. I found one of my few concessions to designer labels, a mint green Malene Birger skirt I bought off a friend who was at my wedding but who I’ve since lost touch with. There was a collection of eclectic items bought on Haight Street during my San Francisco years. “These are my old skins”, I thought to myself, “shredded layer upon layer, and I hadn’t even noticed I was changing.”

I was totally shocked to find these clothes defining moments in my past more powerfully than old photographs. The contents of the suitcase were like some terrible haunting, a ghostly revisiting of my old selves. I found myself almost superstitious about throwing any of it away. Perhaps because these things were there with me in the past, tangible witnesses to who I was then. They held my body, they were next to my skin and now they cannot even begin to contain me.  I couldn’t possibly get one of those tops over my burgeoning bosom now; my old waistline is my new thigh. That I was ever that small and streamlined strikes me as ridiculous and yet there’s a part of me that wants to crawl right back inside these acrylic and cotton castes of my old self.  How ironic it is that at a time when there is physically so much more of me in the world, I am at my most invisible culturally. I look up from Pandora’s suitcase and catch a glimpse of myself in the bedroom mirror.  I notice that I am kind of boggy now, moon shaped bags under my eyes, crevices when I smile. The angularity of my face has gone and there is no definition in my body.  The clothes remind me that I was once a wiry little missile, completely airborne, with a vision and expectations of the world that were arrow sharp. (The fact that I was this way due to lots of cigarettes, habitually skipped meals and a nervous system on fire matters not in my hankering for youth). The body I have now reflects what is needed now; be vigilant it says, buttress yourself against disappointment; scare the off the enemy  with the sheer size of your arse. I am a mother, my family’s frontline of defence, fattening for the domestic pot into which I would happily jump and boil myself if it would save my brood.

My outer appearance reflects my inner state. My mind, like my jaw line is ill-defined, constructed of fuzzy edges. How I long to forge sharp new neurological pathways in my brain or travel across America in a camper van, but instead I stick to what I know is needed for the greater good.  My goals feel less defined because they are less about me and perhaps it doesn’t really matter, but I do seem to find myself in an uncertain sea. Interestingly, the directionlessness I feel is being played out in the very cells of my being as my hormones shift towards menopause. There’s just no routine anymore. Yes ladies, perimenopause starts around age thrity-five and ends around fifty-five; that’s twenty years of chemical ping pong we all have to play without a goddamn bat between us.

I remember my granny  saying that she never felt old, that she never noticed time passing, and I know what she means now. In the Tarot of midlife, I am shifting from the Empress card of  fertility and family to the High Priestess, the goddess within. Sitting with a group of friends recently, I noticed how inward my energy has become. I am no longer reeling things in towards me, but instead am an observer, offering a bit of advice if asked.  On good days, I am journeying from Mother to Wise Woman, on bad days from youthful pretty hot stuff to boggy earthbound sloth. I would be lying if I said I don’t I miss something of the ‘me’ in Pandora’s suitcase; all that delicious youthful power that turns heads and breaks hearts. Now, I’m thankful if I get though a social encounter without breaking wind. But there are compensations; I’ve got funnier as I’ve got older, I have far more permission to be ridiculous now than I did when I was young.  And I have a bosom of Shakespearean barmaid proportions. Proper, bawdy lady bazookas that came free with child-rearing.

For those of you who aren’t there yet, midlife feels like this: You are standing alone in the middle of a large, flat desert plain; the tallest thing for miles is you. In the not so distant distance, a heady black thunderstorm is gathering and starts rolling towards you. Before you see the storm, you can sense it; the air is static and filled with moisture, pockets of heat surge and fall and lightening starts splitting open the sky and skewering the earth.  Man, I really wish I could put a tree somewhere in this metaphor, but there is nowhere to hide and there is nothing to do but stand tall and hope it strikes quickly.

If it had a soundtrack, midlife would be accompanied by the juddering strings of a suspense thriller or perhaps the ghostly crackle and bleep of one of those creepy satellite dishes listening for life on Mars. “Is there life over 50?”  The message is sent out across the universe and if you listen hard enough you can hear the whispers of invisible older women answering, “Yes, don’t be scared.”  But that’s my point, I can’t bloody hear them so I don’t want to throw the old me into the Oxfam bags yet. Where have all my cultural icons gone? Where are the amazing sisters who will pull me through the next phase of my life? Where are the older women who have survived motherhood (yes, it is a question of survival) AND the menopausal storm without resorting to surgery and its demeaning ugly sisters Botox and Microdermabrasion?

As I reached the bottom of the Dreadful Suitcase of Hell, I realized that Patti Smith is the only woman I could think of who can guide me now. She found her voice again at 50 and released a violent warrior of an album in the wake of her midlife fury. And so, with Patti on the CD player I finally found myself able to bag up the past and send it to the charity shop. I did however keep the shirt I was wearing when my husband proposed. That was, when all is said and done, a bloody good day.