When you have a baby in your 40s, chances are you are hopped up on doctor-prescribed hormones. I sure was; for me, it was a viscous concoction injected nightly by my husband. After I had my son Leo, my OB/GYN mentioned off-handedly, “You know, with all those hormones messing around in you, you just may go straight into menopause.”
He was correct. Almost immediately, I became a freak of nature. How was it even possible to breastfeed while simultaneously plunging into menopause? A modern marvel, I felt like one of those news stories: “Grandmother Becomes a New Mother at the Age of 87.”
Indeed, women are having babies well into their 40s. But the idea that one could birth a baby while losing all signs of fertility still felt more like science fiction than modern medicine to me. In one memorable visit, a technician — using a sonogram to make sure everything was back in its proper place after the birth — told me that she couldn’t find one of my ovaries. “Should I be concerned?” I asked her. “No,” she replied, “sometimes they just shrivel up and go away.”
So began my walk down a long and unfamiliar hallway.
“I knew so much more going into both menstruation and pregnancy than I did going into menopause,” writes Darcey Steinke in her new book, “Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life.” Steinke’s book takes an unflinching look at what happens when fertility, her fertility in particular, ends — and something else, wild and unpredictable, takes over. In other words, it’s a story of possession.
Steinke chronicles the journey as a way to understand her invader, a marauder that first takes the form of a fireball, causing sweat to soak her sheets at night and her clothes by day. She starts a diary to track the frequency of her hot flashes, which sometimes amass to 10 per day.
Seeking to understand menopause in a more complex, spiritual and intellectual way, her journal expands to include a trip to the Miami Seaquarium to visit Lolita, a captive orca whale (one of the only other species that experience menopause, Steinke learns), as well as a questionable visit to a massage parlor in Paris. She excavates her deceased mother’s letters and journals and, in Amsterdam, attends a male-led conference on menopause. (Menopause, Steinke notes, “is often filtered through male bafflement and repugnance.”)
It’s not only the diminishing male gaze — what’s so often portrayed as our swift decline in beauty and desirability — for which women are needlessly blamed. More broadly, it’s society’s positioning of menopause and its view of older women that needs a reckoning. In an early part of the book, Steinke writes:
She goes on to catalog how the media casts menopausal woman. On “That ’70s Show,” for example, Red refers to “the horrible thing that has taken over your mother” to describe Kitty’s experience with menopause. When Robin Williams catches his prosthetic breasts on fire in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” he uses pot lids to put out the flames and remarks, “My first day as a woman and I am already having hot flashes.”
In a chapter titled “Lessons in Demonology,” Steinke tells us that in the 16th and 17th centuries, any sign of a woman aging — i.e., anything connected to menopause — was proof of witchery. “Chin hairs. Witch. Wrinkles. Witch. … If she was quarrelsome, angry, spoke loudly, and moved, at times, in quick bursts of chaotic energy to open a window or get a ladle of water, then she was definitely a witch.” Check, check and check.
Failing to locate an ally in the human world, Steinke ultimately finds a compatriot in the natural one. Without giving away too much, she takes a trip to the San Juan Islands, where she experiences a powerful communion with a whale named Granny, a possible centenarian and the probable grandmother of the Miami Seaquarium’s Lolita. It’s a moment of transcendence for Steinke, not between human and whale, but between two souls. And trust me, this is not as Marianne Williamson as it sounds.
While I’m at it, let me just say that “Flash Count Diary” is so much more than a menopause travelogue. Throughout, Steinke weaves her personal story with philosophy, science, art and literature, a hybrid that feels fresh and new in the landscape of traditional memoirs.
At the outset of her book, Steinke writes, “I want to read stories not of propped-up femininity but of people who are disoriented but also electrified by their new hormonal configuration.” Luckily, her cris de coeur has become the book we now hold in our hands.