WARNING: This is a very Regina Logan-like post about a topic of great concern to older women. If anyone reading this hasn't had an older woman over 50 tell you how life really is for her, let me just apologize up front if you get your illusions about your mother, lover, wife, girlfriend, sister, aunt, or other older female busted by anything I say in this post.
This blog post has literally stayed in draft mode for months, but in working on DATING A SILVER FOX, I have now given up trying to find a nicer way to approach this subject. This passage of life is so defining to my older female characters that I wanted to talk openly about it before I release the book containing my oldest characters yet.
So first, here is the biology discussion in case you missed sex education class or didn't get to hear the one for girls.
Menstruation is a determiner of womanhood in a way nothing else is. However, the dictionary definition does not include the sheer magnitude of life-altering-crap-to-deal-with that the onset of menses brings once a month. One day you're a girl playing baseball with your guy friends and the next you're a bleeding, cramping woman who can't play at all for 5 to 7 days. Then as if that weren't bad enough, you're literally ordered by the females who preceded you in this rite of passage to quit whining and handle it because you can't stop it nor can you cry for a week every month for the rest of your life just because you feel sorry for yourself.
And this is just the lovely starting point most of us have for what we not-so-affectionately call our "period" or "monthly cycle". (I'm going to skip the other nicknames, but there are many.)
Yet as limited as the definition of menstruation is, the definition is of menopause is even worse. Stopping the menses is not a solid moment in time where the menses brake pedal goes all the way to the floor in an older woman's body and just stays there. Forget that illusion. It's not like that at all. First, the female must survive peri-menopause where the body practices stopping. Yes, you read this correctly. It practices first.
Peri-menopause (aka reverse puberty or walking-through-hell) begins as much as a decade before the menses stop completely. The peri-menopausal woman in transition to full menopause lives in constant crisis mode. The 40's are torturous for some. After age 50, exercise, diet, and a healthy sex life are prescribed as medicine because being good to yourself is not a "when-you-get-around-to-it" option anymore.
Then after menses do finally stop at "approximately age 52, but could be as late as 60" (silly stats), there is still the rest of the mature woman's life where she will have to deal with almost daily physiological changes that are like tsunamis, volcanoes, and earthquakes going off inside her constantly.
Now I'm going to recap (like they did in sex ed class) just in case the ranting summary was hard to understand. I simply could not edit out the bitter tone of having never quite made peace with my biology.
PAUSE FOR DISCLAIMER: Ages and spans are just my opinion, not medically sanctioned, not mathematically accurate. I am going for the gist. It is not the biology that is most important, but the fact that it requires energy, emotion, and many other character traits to deal with it. All I have tried to do is hit the averages most medical sites tout as statistics.
Okay. Now for the recap.
Ages 1-12 -- a female says "I don't understand this and I don't want to do it."
This is either a time of blissful ignorance where a female doesn't know what's coming until age 12 or a period of time spent in dread if she does. In the rare young female, there is some mystical anticipation but that only happens if she has had exposure to some Zen-about-menses role model handling it gracefully. Unfortunately, this oh-so-rare occurrence is the basis of the myth that females don't mind bleeding profusely EVERY month. That's completely untrue and I refuse to say otherwise to make anyone feel better anymore. Think about it. Of course the 12 year old girl minds. She hates it. Who wouldn't? Get real. She doesn't want to do it. No female dreams of this happening.
Ages 13-mid 20's -- a female says "I hate my mother."
This is the age of profound searching to find a way to gracefully accept the monthly cycle. By this point most females prefer to hide their cycles from the world and/or stop/slow them from happening with birth control. It is also when the still very young woman spends all time NOT spent worrying about handling the cycle wrestling with worrying about the safe expression of her growing sexual urges. Honestly, it takes a lot to decide what mating will entail. Boyfriend? Lover? Husband? Is she going to have to stay on birth control for decades? She turns to experienced friends as she simultaneously shuns both her mother and mother nature, assuming rightly that if they couldn't stop her from bleeding and hurting each month, what good are they.
Ages mid-20's to 40ish -- a female says "At last, all the suffering makes sense!"
This is roughly a decade and a half of settling into deciding life might not be so bad when 1) the sex is good, 2) men are nice, and--often through default experience--3) that getting married and having a baby is the most amazing thing in the world. Monthly cycles still are the pits, but the now grown woman usually decides to stop hiding the fact that she has and/or hates them because it looks like mother nature knows what's she's doing after all. By age 25 her mother also looks a little less stupid. During her 30's, her mother surprises her with snippets of wisdom all the time. By age 40, her mother has morphed into being one of the smartest, bravest creatures in the world. Of course, her mother is likely 60 or more, but stay with me--don't jump ahead yet.
Ages 41 (or so) to 52 -- a female exclaims "Mother nature changed her mind? Why didn't anyone warn me?"
This is a time of the reversal of everything that has happened between ages 12-40, only with full cognition of the physical unwinding. The unwinding is validated by frequent doctor visits where the now maturing woman is forced to promise to take up gym, vitamins, and dieting in exchange for stalling the inevitable happy mood loss that sometimes accompanies menses cessation. Going from having no choice in the matter of having menses initially, now the woman is told she has no choice but to deal with them ending. And oh by the way darling, grit your teeth a bit because the process will be causing some strange things to happen. Doctors now replace your mother in the "what good are they" camp since they cannot stop you from aging. They can only hand you hormone supplements to slow the progression while simultaneously patting you on the head. The head pat translation is "Act your age, stop crying and feeling sorry for yourself every month. Go away and just be grateful it's not worse."
Even though the process of menses ceasing is yet another sizable load-of-crap-to-deal-with, the mature woman is often also caught between raising teenagers and becoming a caretaker for aging parents. It's really hard during this time to find the energy to care about herself, no matter how much of her own well-being is at stake or how many doctor threats she receives. Yet amazingly, after 50 is often the most interesting phase because during this time, some will-to-survive-all-the-crap kicks in, followed by a panic to act that refuses to be suppressed, no matter how well she was trained up to that point to be nice. All the energy a woman has up-to-now invested in everyone else in her life starts to get immediately refocused on saving herself. The most common evidence of this occurring is that the woman begins to ruthlessly get rid of everything that isn't working in her life, such as a bad relationship, a bad job, a bad house, or even a bad hair style she's worn most of her life.
Teenage or adult children say "I don't know what's wrong. Mom has gone totally crazy." Spouses say "I don't know what's gotten into my wife. She takes my head off some days." Many things she does gets blamed on the sudden fluctuating temperatures of any environment this older woman happens to be in at any given moment. I ask you now to think about this more seriously. Being overheated is hardly enough to cause all the busting loose that is happening. People in her life just hope that is the case. I hate to destroy such a comfortable illusion, but no--that's not what's happening.
My theory is that Honey/Mom/Aunt X/Sis has just had enough of waiting for things to be like she wants. And after all these years she's really, really, really sick and tired of being nice.
Ages 53-the rest of her life -- the female says "OMG, it's now or never."
If the mature woman has actually followed some of her doctor's advice, and the meditation classes manage to calm the blood buzz she has going on, during this phase she now does whatever it takes to keep her physical self aligned with her mental self, emotional self, and spiritual self. With age comes some wisdom, but also a very realistic view of her body as she starts to accept that freedom from the burden of her monthly menses has turned her into a time bomb ticking off the rest of her life.
This is including the life she's been waiting to live more fully. OMG!!
Beyond the age of 50 is when many women do radical things that freak out all the people who know them, things like publishing their own books and selling them, or riding motorcycles, or talking openly with friends about sexual matters in public (again, real list is too long to mention). People who know what she used to be like look away embarrassed and feeling sorry for her, but people who don't know her are naturally drawn to her because of her joie de vivre.
Biology lesson over. Now let's wrap up why I choose to create so many older women characters.
Frankly, I love the over 50 age as an author because it is when a woman finally starts living her life most sincerely even if it is only because there is no other choice. This is why most of my heroines are menopausal. I completely confess to channeling my character of Dr. Regina Logan from DATING DR. NOTORIOUS right now to write this post. She was one of my favorites because she was a kind of authentic woman I never dared to be, but always admired.
While the math, ages, and attitudes I mentioned in my faux biology lesson are mostly exaggerations reflecting my own experience, every female born participates in some version of this reality every waking moment of her life. That's why I show my older female characters dealing with their physical changes and show the males they allow to remain in their lives being supportive of their efforts to do so. If I pretended that a heroine's age didn't matter, I might as well make all my female characters the same age. Since that age of bliss would be around 10 years old from my perspective, instead of sexy romances, I would be writing children's books about a girl who only cared about playing baseball for days on end and what kind of superhero she'd like to be one day.
Age 54 is right around the corner for me, so it's fairly obvious which phase I've entered. I wish I could believe there was a time coming when I'll look back on my menses and think having them was no more profound an aspect of my life than keeping a bad 80's haircut through most of the 90's. But if that actually happens in reality, I will be amazed.
Until then, I'm just going to continue to write the stories of my older heroines and give them whatever kind of happily ever after they want.
Lydia McCarthy, my heroine from DATING A SILVER FOX, is next.