The year I turned 44, I felt like I was either going to explode or disintegrate. Mostly explode, though, because I felt emotionally stirred up in a way I couldn’t remember ever having experienced, even in adolescence. I wanted to run wild, go travel the world, start everything all over again, or just blow up my normal life.
Of course, I knew I couldn’t run away or light any bonfires — I’m happily married, I have two school-aged kids (late marriage, late parenting). At the time, I had a non-existent budget for far-flung adventure, no time to myself, and had just started over in a new career, where I was struggling to advance. When I looked in the mirror, I saw the softening of my jawline, the permanent lines on my forehead. Everything felt mucked up, disappointing, and gray.
What was wrong with me? Turns out…it was just Peri-Menopause. Turns out, mid-life is the ultimate portal for reclaiming your life. Wait, what? Let me explain.
For women, Peri-Menopause is an 8-year lead-in to Menopause, which is official after twelve consecutive months with no menstrual cycle, average age 51. But this dry definition fails to explain the ground-shifting perspective-altering changes that often happen to women as they travel through the dark forest of Peri-Menopause and emerge into the new terrain of Menopause.
When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, practically no one thought of “The Change” as anything other than an absolute drag. We’ve all seen way too many memes and bad jokes about hot flashes and night sweats. Menopause was seen as the end of life, when women dried up and gave up. Now that perspective strikes me as sexist — and worse, perhaps, is that it completely misses the point.
- It’s Not a MidLife Crisis — It’s an Opportunity
One of the first articles I read that showed me how to see my experience as something more than a burdensome hormone-fueled mood disorder, was Brene Brown’s The Midlife Unraveling. In it, she describes everything I was feeling, but not as a crisis, instead as a slow and necessary “unraveling,” and ultimately as a rebirth. As she points out, many people think midlife challenges are about the fear of death, and certainly there is an element of that. But it’s more like you have the let the “old” you die to become the authentic YOU that you need to be, before you actually die. It’s not about reclaiming your youth with tattoos or wild binge nights out (unless that’s what you truly desire!). It’s about reclaiming your mature true self, including the parts of you that may have gotten lost along the way, as you tended to your career, or supported your spouse’s career, or raised your children, or took care of your aging parents.
Women who hear the invitation to “unravel,” as I have, can either ignore it, or embrace it. It tends to hit just when you think you have it all figured out. Suddenly, you’re restless inside, and you may think you already “have it all,” so what’s the problem? You can ignore it. You can take anti-anxiety meds, the sleeping pills, the injections that hide the frown lines, you can take on more responsibility at work, seek out the accolades. But if the midlife unraveling has you by the hair, yes, the voice inside you may settle into a hoarse whisper— but it won’t stop calling you completely. Don’t ignore it! It’s your chance to get down deep to your mature authentic self before time literally runs out.
2. You’re a Mother, Not a Maiden
Since I first started researching women’s mid-life experiences in books and articles, and talking to other women I know, another idea has rung true: we can discover self-love in our 40s, in far greater measure than we did in our younger years. In my youth, I was full of energy and beauty, but I was also self-absorbed, insecure, and hyper-focused on the accumulation of knowledge about my place and how to exist in the world. That meant desperately seeking out a career path that was acceptable to my parents, but also, testing my boundaries, navigating sexual relationships. It was a completely different time of life, one I don’t identify so much with anymore.
Every 40-something woman I know has stated unequivocally that she does not wish to be in her 20s again. Why is that? I’ve been following feminist leader Sarah Durham Wilson on social media; she is the creator of the The MotherSpirit and the archetypal Maiden to Mother movement, which is based on the Celtic archetypes of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. She writes that in our 20s we were “maidens” who were taught by patriarchal stereotypes to be pleasing and pretty and eager for male attention. But as we move into our “mother” years (which is about the mature feminine, not necessarily actually mothering offspring), we embrace our true power. Wilson frames women’s aging not as a loss, but as a rite of passage that is deeply powerful and needed in the world. Her writing makes me want to move through this passage to show up more fully human and own my power at a level that is sacred and transcendent.
Learning more about women’s psychological archetypes is a mind-blowing window into the history of women’s rites of passage, which we have long forgotten. Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes about the Wild Woman archtype, the female soul, and the recognition of her gives us all the instincts and knowings we need for our lives.
3. Do It For the Daughters (and Sons)
Last year I read Glennon Doyle’s bestseller, Untamed. I teared up every couple of pages, because her book gives voice to so many truths. One impactful part for me was when she writes about how much freedom she allows herself — or not — and how that affects her children. She writes that she asked herself, “Is the decision to continue abandoning yourself really what your children need from you?” Abandoning yourself is something no one intends, but the “mental load” of being a woman in the 21st century world can sometimes cause us to bury our needs and forget what really makes us happy. Or maybe what makes us happy starts to change inside, while our outward lives stay the same.
Doyle writes, “What if a responsible mother is not one who shows her children how to slowly die but how to stay wildly alive until the day she dies?” This is the refrain that I think of every day: My children will believe they have permission to live only as fully as their mother has allowed herself to live. So I have to resurrect my dreams, reclaim my power, step into my strength, and show them what that looks like.
How you navigate your passage through Peri-Menopause and into the mature feminine stage of your life can be a lesson in how to own your power. Show the children in your life how to unravel into your best self, (even if you are single and the only children you know are your cousin’s kids you see at the holidays). Seeing a woman bravely excavate her truth from the castle she has created of her life is Real Representation.
As I am nearing my 47th birthday, I don’t have it all figured out. I’m in the middle of Peri-Menopause, wandering through the forest looking for tasty truffles or patches of sunlight, building forts, and following new paths that look promising. My inner compass was spinning three years ago, but the dial has started to slow, and I know my true north is discoverable. I will not walk out of the woods as the same women who stumbled in. I am ready to continue the journey.