I don’t recognize myself anymore. At least, not as I’ve known myself for the 32 years of my adult life.
As the estrogen drains from my body, for hours every night I lie in bed in the dark, awakened by fever dreams, drenched in sweat, feeling pain deep in my bones. Soon I’ll have to drag myself up into the dawn and act like a normal (that is to say, nonperimenopausal) person — someone who sleeps well and painlessly enough to care about work and breakfast, feeding pets, chit-chatting with my family.
When I do make it out of bed, I’m first, inevitably, distracted by the tire of flab that’s been taking over my midsection for the last few months — doubtless while I’ve been busy tempering my middle-aged sorrow with too much cheese. One glance in the mirror confirms what I already know: I’m an alien in a lumpy skin suit, prone to dark thoughts and an uncharacteristic discomfort about interacting with the outside world. I don’t remember what it means to be me: small, loud, cheerfully pessimistic, modestly social. I’m not sure I’m actually in there anymore.
As it happens, another alien has been incubating in my apartment, in a roughly parallel time sequence: my 15-year-old daughter. She is, in this very long, very uncomfortable moment, my partner in female-centric chaos.
Other moms and teen daughters I know are currently wallowing through a deluge of arguments and frustration that stereotypes tell us to expect until the adolescent girls in our households leave for college. My daughter and I have hit a suspended period of stasis. So when I blearily crawl out of bed at 7 a.m. and grumble something along the lines of, “I’m exhausted and I feel like crap,” I find her equally bleary, exhaustion-bloated face nodding back at me over her steaming cup of tea. My morning-cheerful husband, overhearing, wants details — did his snoring keep us up? Are we coming down with something? My daughter and I ignore him. For a few minutes, I can bask in her silent affirmation that this way of living (are we actually alive?), while inevitable, is not sustainable.
Some mornings, sufficiently provoked, though, I might snap at my husband, “I’ve got zits on my chin. I haven’t had zits in 30 years.”
“Don’t talk to me about zits,” my daughter says, pointing to an angry-looking outcropping of her own that sprouted along her hairline overnight. Pimples are the least of our problems these days, but somehow, seeing these shared blemishes makes me feel slightly mollified — I’m just one ghoul gazing at another.
The best and the worst of our days now revolve around our cycles, which have lately become synchronized. Even in months when my cycle skips, I’m still bowled over by cramps. This means that for stretches of up to 48 hours, my daughter and I can be found curled up together on the couch, sharing a soft blanket and bowls of salty snacks, with no energy to talk or to move, just mute recognition of all the ways — with the cramps, and the pimples, and the misshapen abdomens — our bodies are betraying us.
It also means that I’m a lot more forgiving of her short-lived but intense mood swings than I might have been before the perimenopause kicked in. My own mood swings are decidedly vertiginous — the insomnia doesn’t help. So when my daughter is in a funk and decides to hole up in her room rather than meet up with the friends she was excited to make plans with a few days earlier, I can honestly tell her, “Me, too. I feel so uncomfortable in my own skin today that I can’t stand the thought of seeing anyone.” Let alone having anyone see me.
My appetite has waned considerably; there are days when I don’t eat much more than a handful of grapes, but somehow I’ve gained 18 pounds (oh, yeah, the cheese; I’m also losing my short-term memory). I used to swim every morning, but the sight of myself bulging out of a too-snug bathing suit is startling and depressing. So is the way the extra ounces of me move sluggishly through the water.
“You’re asking me?” my daughter says, wrestling with a ballet leotard that fit yesterday but today snags on various bits of her as she pulls it over her hips.
Embraced by this somewhat unusual familial bonding, I feel luckier than many moms and teens, who report they can’t stand to be in the same room long enough to consume a meal.
It also means that I find myself in something of a quandary. The only thing a perimenopausal woman looks forward to is the end of perimenopause. Sure, that means the end of the possibility of bearing more children (not that I want any more, but still), the end of the taut, clear skin of my 30s and 40s, and losing the hair that once graced my head but now clogs the shower drain. But it also, hopefully, means the end of a good amount of suffering.
Only, in my house, the end of perimenopause will also mean the end of this period of synchronicity in which my daughter and I — one of us waxing, the other most assuredly waning — are two essential components of one whole, bizarre machine whose function seems to be to generate discomfort and commiseration. I do find solace in one thought: I may be unsure about who I am these days, but I don’t feel that way when I’m in my daughter’s company. Then I know that I am, first, foremost and forever, her ally. With or without hormones, that is one thing within my control that I will try to keep the same.
Lela Nargi is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. Find her on Twitter @LelaNargi.