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The first time I got my period, I didn’t tell anyone.
I stuffed a crispy wad of school-grade toilet paper into my underpants and tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. I was 11, a shy and self-conscious child.
I’d attended the requisite sex-ed assembly, girls and boys segregated to separate classrooms to watch clinical films detailing the fallopian tubes and semen. The videos probably even discussed puberty being a time of transition. But there was so much they didn’t broach. They didn’t say: you will grow hips and breasts and hair in hidden places. You are metamorphosizing; you are being revised. You will leave your child-body behind.
Now, as my own kids approach adolescence, I’m seeing our friends’ and relatives’ children stumble toward puberty. Their bodies stretch and strain, sprouting small eruptions of acne. They’re beginning to wear makeup or experiment with different clothing styles, or they’re cultivating a bored, apathetic expression like tweens have probably been doing since the Paleolithic era.
I’m stunned by how visible this transition appears from my adult vista. When I was in middle school, I had no idea that as my body changed, as I tried on different styles of clothing, makeup, and friends, my transformations must’ve been so obvious to the adults around me. I think of the kind middle school teacher who, when seeing my heavy-handed first attempts at makeup application, told me, “Your makeup looks very nice.” By contrast, a male classmate had asked me something along the line of “What happened to your face?”
How tender to discover that puberty is so apparent, the way we try on different personas, the way our bodies burst and flower. I understand why some cultures develop rituals around this change; the process is as stunning as a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Perhaps we should have puberty cocoons where children could rest on their path toward adolescence, protected from prying eyes.
Maybe I feel extra tender toward those hovering in that liminal space between childhood and adolescence because I’m in the middle of my own metamorphosis. I’m in perimenopause, often referred to as “reverse puberty.” But unless you’re a member of my immediate family with a front-row ticket to my mood swings and migraines, the threshold I’m crossing is a much less obvious one.
As women leave our reproductive years behind, we tend to meld into the background, indiscernible from all the other women who impossibly young grocery cashiers refer to as “ma’am.”
We women hold so much. My responsibilities and to-do lists are more intense than ever. At the same time, my moods are erratic, my memory less reliable, my mornings often decimated by migraines.
The past few years have not been especially kind to me; they’ve brought a pandemic, my dad’s illness and death, and the health struggles of other relatives. Over and over again, I’ve had to surrender. To the reality that life is both hard and beautiful. That my bandwidth is narrower now than I’d like. That my to-do list cannot be my higher power. That no matter how much or how little we accomplish in a given day, we are worthy of love, compassion, and tenderness.
I am old enough now to understand the significance of metamorphosis. I am wise enough to realize I deserve care and gentleness. I am scared to be entering the unknown, to leave part of myself behind.
Or maybe menopause isn’t leaving ourselves behind, but the containment of all the versions of ourselves we’ve ever been: the girl, the teenager, the woman, the lover, the wife, the mother, the middle-aged woman, the old woman. Maybe we’re meant to hold all these parts lightly, lovingly.
This time, during this becoming, I will not pretend that nothing is happening. I will do for myself what I couldn’t when I was 11; I will soften. I will hold myself more gently. I will care for myself radically, unapologetically. I will talk with friends and search for rituals that might help ease us over this strange threshold, witnessed and unalone.
I will accept that some days are warrior days, days when we hold all the things, imperfectly. Other days are cocoon days, chrysalis days; days meant to be still, to soothe.