Don’t try to tell this to a mother sitting in the bleachers during a four-hour swim meet; or enduring a birthday party involving toddlers and craft projects; or resting in an armchair on a peaceful evening, savoring the heft of a tiny body and the scent of an infant’s freshly washed hair. Interminable or sweetly languid though they may feel in the moment, the childbearing years are startlingly brief. Fertility, which typically ends in a woman’s mid-40s, occupies less than half of her adult life. And then, if she’s lucky, she has 30 or 40 years in which to do something else.
Most people don’t realize how unusual humans are, in the way that nonreproductive females (how shall I put this?) persist. Females of most other species can bear young until they die, and many do, or at best enjoy a brief respite from breeding before death. This is true not only of creatures you might expect, such as rabbits, but also of long-lived mammals such as Asian elephants, and of primates such as gorillas and chimps. The odd exceptions—the Japanese aphid, for example, enters a “glue bomb” stage after her reproductive phase, ready to immobilize a colony intruder—only prove the rule.
The mystery of why women go on and on and on after their procreative function has ceased has occupied some of the great minds of the ages. I am sorry to report that many of those minds have not been forward-thinking. “It is a well-known fact … that after women have lost their genital function their character often undergoes a peculiar alteration” and they become “quarrelsome, vexatious and overbearing,” Sigmund Freud pronounced. The male-dominated medical community of the mid-20th century was similarly dismissive. “The unpalatable truth must be faced that all postmenopausal women are castrates,” opined the gynecologist Robert Wilson, who elaborated on this theme in his 1966 best seller, Feminine Forever. The influential book, it later emerged, was backed by a pharmaceutical company eager to market hormone-replacement therapy.