Books October 2011

The Bitch Is Back

Are menopausal women mad, bad, and dangerous? Yes—but they’re really just returning to normal.

And of course, you can only expect it to get worse. I am a member of the “sandwich” generation, that group that must simultaneously care for elderly parents and support children. Never mind that I have lost the dreamlike 40-ish haze I was in during nursing and babyhood and toddlerhood, when the peach fuzz of my daughters’ cheeks made for a heady narcotic, when my heart thrilled at all their colorful pieces of kinderart, when I honestly enjoyed—oh the novelty, for someone who had pursued abstract subjects in college and graduate school for 10 years!—baking birthday cakes. Fifty-ish now, when I squat over to pick up their little socks and snip quesadillas into little bowls and yank fine hair out of their brushes, as I have now for the thousandth time, I feel like I’m in a dream, but a very bad, very sour-scented dream. I am fast losing patience with the day job of motherhood. Worse yet, I’ll be in the full fires of menopause just when my girls are in the full fires of adolescence! (As my good friend, the family therapist Wendy Mogel, observes, in her calm Zen/Torah–like way, “What wonderful insight you’ll have into their mood swings.”)

Meanwhile, my Shanghai-born father is 90 years old, has Parkinson’s, and is in a wheelchair … But that doesn’t mean, with his eerily Jack LaLanne–like resting pulse of 38, he isn’t frighteningly willful and able. Every day, my dad wheels himself down to the bus, shouting at his Malibu neighbors and at passing Mexican day laborers to help him; three hours later (via a trip that involves several bus transfers and all the shouting for help that comes with), he arrives at the UCLA campus, where he crashes chemistry and neurobiology lectures, wheeling himself to the front row, asking loud questions, disrupting the class, then going to the bathroom, getting stuck in the stall, and ordering Ph.D. students to help him. The bewildered science departments have been calling us, as well as the UCLA campus police, asking us to remove him or at least assign him a caregiver. We have to reply that we do have a full-time caregiver, but my father is impatient to get out in the mornings, won’t wait, and indeed, just as often, enjoys the sport of evading capture. I myself have chauffeured my father around, but eventually found myself unwilling, when the men’s room was five feet away, to continue to (manually) help him urinate on the street.

In light of my father’s situation, I have to question some of the clear-seeming lines Northrup draws. As she puts it:

Learn the difference between care and overcare. True care of others, from a place of unconditional love, enhances our health … That’s one reason why volunteering and community service feel good and are associated with improved health. Overcare and burnout result from not including ourselves on the list of people who require care … The way to tell the difference between the two is to be aware of how caring for another makes you feel. You must also be 100 percent honest about what you’re getting out of excessive care giving.

Pretty easy for you to say! The problem is, “overcare” is the only thing that ensures functioning lives for the many people who depend on the average woman. Sure, I could give it up—but the police and neighbors call every single day of the week, everysingle day. Who’s going to do the caring if I don’t overcare?

How often do I feel, midlife, as though I am in a strange Island of Doctor Moreau–like science experiment? My preteen daughters are flashing more and more midriff as they cavort to the (PG or R? If I could only make out the LYRICS!) gangsta rap of Radio Disney. My ridiculously old father is a giant baby who wheels his own crib into traffic, pees into a Starbucks cup, and still wields, intact, his own power of attorney. As I grow ever more sullen about it all, I feel I should be living alone in a perimenopausal cave.

So, who will supply all the caregiving when a whole sandwich generation of 50-ish women checks out? Maybe it will be men: related and hired men. I think of a phalanx of us standing recently in my father’s dining room in Malibu, trying to figure out a schedule for his care—or at the very least, for his capture. (From their homes in Northern California, my brother and sister provide all the financial and emotional support to all the caregivers, which is considerable.) In the room at that moment were my Chinese stepmother (74), myself (49), Filipino Nurse No. 1 (female, 60), Filipino Nurse No. 2 (female, 59), and Filipino Nurse No. 3 (male, 41). Who of us were going to take care of my dad? Since all of the women in the room knew all too well the difference between care and overcare, essentially everyone has now quit except for the 41-year-old male, who alone has the strength to heft my dad’s wheelchair in traffic, needs the money to support his own family of six, and is paid accordingly (which is to say well, far better than many young college graduates I know). I think also, thank heaven, of my girls’ 50-something father, he who holds up the other end of the 50/50 custody balance beam. He is unfailingly calm and patient, buys them fashionable new jeans and tennies, braids their hair, punches new holes in their pink belts, takes them camping, cooks them baked beans, and butters their corn on the cob. By a natural chronology that doesn’t imprison him in this Island of Doctor Moreau–like time line—given that he would not have dreamed of wanting to do all this as a touring musician of 25—my ex, I think, became a father at just the right stage, which is to say older. At his age, my girls have such a wonderfully nurturing father, he might as well be a mother.

I finally went for some estrogen replacement to the woman who would turn out to be my fabulous new gynecologist, Valerie—who is not in my Anthem Blue Cross PPO plan, but whom my demon lover insisted I go to anyway because that was our lesbian neighbors’ recommendation.

With kind blue eyes and a comfortingly patterned knit cardigan, exuding an air that you might expect from a Scandinavian maiden aunt, Valerie gently interviewed me—while continually handing me tissues—as I sat on the archetypal metal table in my own paper gown, weeping for what seemed like an hour. And I must tell you—as a middle-aged woman who labors mightily every day to wear the mask of being sane, admitting to experiencing only the narrowest spectrum of emotions, from good-humored cheer to only the lightest irritation, a mood soothed easily with a good chuckle thanks to NPR—that it is beyond delicious to ramble aloud about the infinite varieties, colors, and shades of one’s depressions and to discuss, ad nauseam, a month’s worth of various panic attacks (going heavy to light, light to heavy). Valerie, listening quietly, wrote down the dates of my periods on a tablet, lending my ravings a reassuring scientific structure, then she gave me one of the most deeply comforting speeches I have ever heard (who from central casting would you get to do it? Streep? Mirren? Lansbury?):

“Sandra,” she said, “I have this theory. Let me see if I can describe it for you. I think some girls are paper-plate girls, and some are Chinets. Paper plates collapse even if they have nothing on them; Chinets can take a lot heaped on them and never break. Yes, right now things feel very unstable, and you’re having an emotional response to what is a purely physiological phenomenon. But I think, at heart”—and here she leaned forward—“you’re a Chinet girl. What we’d like to do now is take some of the stressors off your plate, while at the same time temporarily strengthening its foundation.” And with that, she gently smeared the tiniest dot of clear estrogen gel on the inside of my wrist, and even though she said it would take a few weeks to take effect, I instantly felt high!

In conclusion, gentle reader, here are some handy tips, from women who have survived The Change. (These come after the project of draining your parents’ savings so Medicare can pay Filipino male orderlies to do everything.)

The first is a fantastically freeing gambit called “Now That I’m 50.” As my friend Denise puts it, “Now that I’m 50, I don’t visit my fighting in-laws in Cleveland anymore. My husband can go off and see them if he wants to, but I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and you know what? Never again.” (Beat.) “I’m 50!”

Another is one of my own invention that I call “Stuff It, Barbara Ehrenreich.” For years, I was afraid to hire domestic help, because Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in Nickel and Dimed that to have a Third World woman scrub your toilets is to oppress a fellow sister. But now that I can afford it, and I’ve come out of denial over the fact that to have a house cleaned professionally is unbelievably fantastic, once every three weeks, I bring in Marta—whom I refer to sometimes as Marta, and sometimes, baldly, as “the maid”—and when I do so, I silently flip Barbara Ehrenreich the finger. I’m (just about) 50!

A third, related, survival tip is to have no shame. The middle-aged women I know, clawing their way one day at a time through this passage, have no rules—they glue themselves together with absolutely anything they can get their hands on. They do estrogen cream, progesterone biocompounds, vaginal salves, coffee in the morning, big sandwiches at lunch. They drink water all day, they work out twice a week, hard, with personal trainers. They take Xanax to get over the dread of seeing their personal trainers, they take Valium to settle themselves before the first Chardonnay of happy hour. They may do with just a half a line of coke before a very small martini, while knitting and doing some crosswords. If there are cigarettes and skin dryness, there are also collagen and Botox, and the exhilaration of flaming an ex on Facebook. And finally, as another woman friend of mine counseled with perfect sincerity and cheer: “Just gain the 25 pounds. I really think I would not have survived menopause—AND the death of my mother—without having gained these 25 pounds.”

Sure, we’re supposed to take calcium pills to avoid brittle bones and hip injuries at 90, but who worries about living long when we’re just trying to get through the day? In the end, the real wisdom of menopause may be in questioning how fun or even sane this chore wheel called modern life actually is. And if what works is black-cohosh tea with a vodka chaser, and an overturned Greek chthonic head as a chocolate-fondue fountain, then bottoms up! Avast, ye vampires and werewolves and pirates! Arrrr!

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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