Waking at 3 a.m. with sweat-soaked pajamas, snapping at our husbands or co-workers, sleeping fitfully, cringing from headache pain, forgetting where we put our keys or where we were going in the first place, cringing from embarrassment as yet another shirt-soaking hot-flash overtakes us; women who are approaching mid-life know all-too-well the havoc that fluctuating hormone levels can wreak.
From hot-flashes to heart palpitations, these delightful harbingers of "the change" can torment us for several months to several years before we actually stop having periods. Perhaps that's why most women who are post-menopausal, rather than feeling old or sad, find themselves feeling more joyful and optimistic than ever. Ahhhhh . . . sweet relief!
Our hormones have so much to say, but not just about how we feel physically. These natural chemicals effect how we feel emotionally as well. In fact, they might just have a lot more to say about who we are and what we want at any given point in our lives than we ever realized.
In her book The Wisdom of Menopause, Christiane Northrup, M.D. explains that the same hormones that wreak havoc on us at menopause have been influencing us for our whole lives and in ways that have shaped those lives. Traditional wisdom suggests that we look to societal influences when we are trying to discern why we behave the way we do but Dr. Northrup submits that our hormone levels may be as much to blame for the roles that we assume and the choices that we make as do the norms of the society to which we belong.
Although there is always variation in how we lead our lives, there is a common pattern that many of us follow. As little girls, we are generally inquisitive and energetic. We are keenly aware of the world around us and seem to have a sort of radar for social injustice and unfairness. Have you ever noticed how so many girls love animals, babies, the underdog? In our youth, we girls believe that we are capable of anything.
By adolescence, much of that focus on the important issues of the world and much of our bravado seems to fade. Adolescent girls tend to retreat and become concerned with body image, social relationships and attractiveness. Self-esteem plummets as social comparison escalates and moms wonder what happened to the self-assured daughters who were going to save the world.
There is no doubt that the roles and values prescribed by any society have an influence on our psychological and social development and our behavior, but is society the only factor, or is there some biological programming involved? Is there a species survival mechanism embedded in our genes that drives these changes?
According to Dr. Northrup, the hormones that flood our systems at puberty cause us to overlay our focus on social justice and active leadership with a preoccupation with body image and attractiveness to potential mates. It's not that adolescent girls totally lose touch with their values or the real world. They simply become more focused on their primary biological role which is to reproduce and nurture.
It all sounds somewhat bleak to those of us who have a feminist mindset, doesn't it? But don't give up! There is some good news. Our hormones shift again as we head toward menopause. The biological drive toward childbearing and child-rearing having been fulfilled (whether through literal parenthood or through other nurturing activities) the hormones that fueled this drive are begin to recede. Along with the hot flashes and headaches, the personal passions and the social/political interests of our youth begin to re-emerge. Looked at in a more positive light, those harbingers of "the change" can be seen as liberators.
Menopause is a time of transformation and part of that transformation is unpleasant for sure. We see the changes that we are going through reflected in the trials of night sweats and foggy thinking. We see them reflected in the mirror as wrinkles or gray hairs. But we also see them reflected in the person we have become, in the ways we have grown and in the possibilities for our future. If the good doctor is correct, our hormones really are our friends. Okay so that friendship may be go through a a bit of a rough patch as we head toward menopause but it, and we, will survive.
There truly is a light at the end of the tunnel. If you don't believe me, talk to some women who have already made it through. Once we jump over the physical hurdles we find on the menopausal path, we find ourselves, not at the end of the road, but at the beginning of a new and exciting path. At mid-life, as the hormonal fog begins to lift, our vision clears and we seem to see ourselves anew. Given time, we emerge with renewed confidence and a clearer picture of who we are and what we want out of life. We reconnect with our passions and with the larger world. We see wrongs that need to be righted, causes that need to be fought for and passions that need to be pursued. Whether societally encouraged or hormonally scripted, our mid-life desire for change and for reinvention is just a natural part of life. Make the most of it!