My name is Mary Case and I’m 69 years old. I started menopause when I was 42, so as of now I’m almost thirty years away from my last period.
As a career, I’ve always worked for and with museums, and particularly in leadership positions in the last fifteen years. When I was young, my ambition was to be a Country and Western singer; I’d have images of myself with a baroque hairdo and a pointy bra and a fringy jacket, like Dolly Parton.
I have no memories of menopause ever being discussed by the women in my family while I was growing up. My mother went through it also when she was 42, and she said to me later that she still would have been having babies if she’d not gone into menopause. She didn’t speak to anybody that year; she was mentally ill from the beginning of her adult life, but that really drove her over the edge. She was a woman who never wanted to have kids and was literally enslaved to what she was doing. My father took the job of warden at Buck’s County Prison after he retired from the Marines, and in their marriage it was assumed she would then become the prison matron and raise their seven children. She died before I was old enough to be thinking about menopause, but I never spoke to her about much, so it’s no surprise I didn’t talk to her about that either.
When I went through menopause I couldn’t remember things. For the first time in my life I had what we refer to as senior moments; for example, I’d walk into my office and sit down with my staff and say: “Today we’re going to do… ah, ah… I’m sorry, I had a big plan for us today and now I can’t remember a word of it.” And of course there were the hot flashes, which were basically a lead-in to not being able to sleep, and when I don’t sleep I have trouble focusing on anything. The idea that you would be in a meeting in an air-conditioned room and see other women opening another top button or rolling up their sleeves, you’d realize oh, there are other people who are doing that too. And at the time I was going through all this, which was twenty-seven years ago, there were no good resources to refer to; I couldn’t find any materials that were useful to me or answered my questions, such as how long is this going to take, what’s the norm, what can I expect. My doctor laughed when I said I thought I was in menopause, because I was so relatively young. In order to establish the average age for menopause at 50, which is the rule of thumb, you’re going to see women who go through menopause at both ends of that curve much earlier and much later. In my thirties my skin began to change; it was subtle, but it’s what we see in older people, that crepey alligator type of skin. I could pinch my arm and see it, and I thought what the hell is that? Well, it’s one physical sign of a loss of estrogen.
I took estrogen for over a decade— from ages 42 to 55—and that was an interim period, where everything was more or less like it had been; and when I stopped taking it I had hot flashes again, though they were fairly mild, and I began putting on weight in places that it had never occurred to me could happen. And then within the past five years I noticed I’d become invisible. In Washington DC, we’ve had a real influx of young married couples with children moving into our neighborhoods, and I’m so invisible to these people they could run me down on the sidewalk with their strollers and scarcely notice it. It’s very surprising to me to walk into a room and not have people immediately want to engage with me, because that’s been the norm for me all my life. But what that does is put you in an observer’s role, and that’s a beautiful perspective to have, and maybe that’s where the wisdom and empathy I feel I have more of comes from. I’m a little more sanguine about the world and less angry; I’m able to manage a whole range of things large and small and enjoy my day a lot better, which all has to do with ageing and not having to make a career for myself, or any of that stuff that used to matter so much. It’s a great vantage point from which to look back now and understand what matters, because you don’t take as much time to reflect on what’s going on around you when you’re younger.
I think the phrase “change of life” is a useful one to demonstrate or imply that something is happening with your hormones. Up until menopause I had highs and lows that were calibrated to my menstrual cycle, but after it that modulated a great deal, which was quite helpful. It was balanced by the estrogen at first, which put me in a place where I could be predictably the same person every day, whereas when I was having my periods I never knew who was going to show up. It was such a relief to stop thinking of myself as being functionally manic-depressive; then, by the time I stopped taking estrogen in my mid-fifties, I was a different person anyway. But back when I had PMS there were many days I woke up and felt like there was a huge tar ball on my chest which I had to roll off of me before I could get out of bed. I always did get out of bed, but it wasn’t necessarily easy. I still have some of those highs and lows, but these days I pin that to being unable to sleep as well as I’d like to. And the fact that my schedule is more open and flexible, that I could take a nap or sleep in a little later if I wanted to, makes it a bit easier to take.
I’ve discovered that I can be kinder and more open about myself, and that I have considerably more energy at 70 than I ever thought I would have at 50. The role models of my mother and aunts when they were 70 weren’t pretty stories; they weren’t enjoying their lives because of the duties they felt they had to their church, their husbands and their kids. My duty was to my sisters and brothers, because my parents were so impossible, but as I’ve aged I realize I don’t have to take care of each one of them; I have a duty to be there for them, but it’s not possible for me to fix them all and get them what they need. I can actually remember at the age of four years old looking around at my mother and father and sister and brother and thinking these people are fucked up, and I’m going to have to fix them. I didn’t know the term fucked-up at the time, but I knew it was going to be my role, which was terrible.
Two of my sisters have died, and my other sister has taken it as her responsibility to be there for their children, and she’s recruited me in that activity. So we are now mothers to those five children and grandmothers to their kids, and that’s kind of fun. The other thing I’m trying to do is find a way become more involved in my neighborhood without taking on a major leadership role. And I’m spending more time with my group called the Capitol Hill Village, a nonprofit quality-of-life organization of stereotypical affluent highly over-educated Washington baby-boomers who all think they’re going to live to be centenarians. We have a walking club and an excellent literary club and a range of programs and services and volunteers to help people live comfortably at home as they grow older.
I would like to have had other women to discuss menopause with. It strikes me that there’s so much our medical system doesn’t do for us, and so if there was an ongoing group about menopause or wellness at our local hospitals that would be a fantastic resource for people. When you’re going through menopause all by yourself it’s fraught with confusion and insecurity. I’ve seen major changes in women’s lives when they’re in their fifties and sixties; they get the message that if you’ve got something you want to do you’d better do it now, because you’ve got far fewer years ahead of you than behind.