It Happened to Me: I Went Through Menopause At 38

I was all about tackling lady problems. Until it came to menopause. I figured by the time it came around I’d be so old I wouldn’t care about being a dried up old hag. Until I turned 38 and found myself, in a word, menopausal.

Aug 3, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

Being female, I’ve always thought of myself as, well, pro-woman. In college, I stormed on DC for abortion rights. Later I volunteered for Planned Parenthood. I was all about tackling lady problems. Until it came to menopause.

That was a word so foul I barely wanted to whisper it, let alone talk about it. I figured by the time it came around I’d be so old I wouldn’t care about being a dried up old hag. Until I turned 38 and found myself, in a word, menopausal.

At the time I was living in Qatar, a tiny peninsula sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Dubai, sticking up into the Persian Gulf. Going through menopause in an Islamic country was not what I’d had in mind. Ever. As it turned out, it was probably the best place I could have been.

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I’d grown up caught between the 1970s and the 1980s. I learned that a woman needed a man like a fish needed a bicycle. Also, that girls just wanna have fun! It was a highly confusing time.

I was on board with my mother’s wish that I not follow in her footsteps and become a stay-at-home, suburban housewife, but too much independence smacked of sprouting unwanted hair and never attracting a man. Where was the fun in that?

And so I found myself saying things like, “Well I’m not a feminist. But I believe in equal pay.” Or, “I’m not a feminist. But birth control should be covered by insurance.” And my fave, “I’m not a feminist. But a woman shouldn’t have to sleep with her boss. Unless she wants to? Wait. What exactly is a feminist?”

I wanted a career, I also wanted a family. I didn’t think you really could have it all, so I thought, “Career first, then family.”

When I did meet and marry my other half, I was in my 30s. Frankly, I was shocked that my “plan” worked. My beloved was so tall and dark and handsome and kind, I was astounded he’d not been snatched up, that he returned my love. And I knew the world needed more people like him in it. Yet already we’d seen so many of our friends’ marriages turn into child facilitation arrangements. Before it was too late, we wanted to adventure together, build a strong foundation. Kids could wait.

I was 37 when I took a marketing job in Qatar, with the idea that the relocation would boost my spouse’s journalism career. His newspaper had folded, and so it made perfect sense to leave our newly renovated home, our friends, and our family, to relocate eight time zones away. By the end of the three-year commitment I made to my employer, I'd be 40, the perfect time to start on that family.

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Author on the beach: frumpy, smoking, and married.

But life in Qatar was, in a word, horrendous. It’s a desert, so I knew it would be hot. I had no idea about the humidity. Air traveling over that sand didn’t have time to drop its moisture; it was practically sweating. I certainly did. Constantly.

Then there was the job itself. With no staff and no talent pool -- the vibe was Wild West meets American mall culture -- I was trying to organize a million-dollar event that involved Carnegie Mellon University’s trustees, His and Her Highness of Qatar, and the Hooter's corporate jet. Most nights I startled awake in bed, bathed in perspiration, my mind ticking through a never-ending list of things to do.

That my periods had stopped coming mostly made me grateful; I figured it was a reaction to stress and travel. The first six months I “lived” in Qatar I left the country 10 times, including four trips to the U.S. That’s 8,000 miles each way. Then a friend back home made me promise I’d see a gynecologist.

“Lisa, you’ve got a cyst the size of an orange on your ovary,” the doctor said. “That’s why you’re not getting your period.”

Awesome, well, mystery solved. See ya!

He wanted to schedule surgery right away; I thought not. I knew plenty of people who’d had cysts on their ovaries; it was no big deal. Words like cancer and rupture did not occur to me. I barely had time to make that appointment, anything requiring anesthesia would have to wait.

So it was another three months before my doctor handed down the final verdict. A difficult post-op he did attribute to stress, but the rest he credited to a combination of hot flashes and hormone surges. Childless and only 38, it had been 12 months since I’d menstruated. I was in menopause.

My first response was relief. Thank, God I’m not losing my mind. I had a medical condition I could take steps to alleviate.

A few years back I’d interviewed Kathy Smith. She’d just done a book on perimenopause, the years prior to menopause. She recommended yoga and supplements and acupuncture. And then she said, “I don’t know why they call it ‘the change.’ Menopause is seen as the end. The end of femininity. The end of being a woman.”

Absolutely, I’d agreed.

Jesus, I had to have been in perimenopause at the time.

I told my other half if he even suspected he was going to want to have children he should just leave me. He pulled me close and said, "Baby, I didn't marry you for your ability to conceive."

But there couldn’t have been a better time or place to have kids. Qatar in the early aughts supported its expats having children -- private school tuition was part of employee packages, healthcare was free and nannies were plentiful and inexpensive. Thus I became the most unlikely person ever to try artificial insemination.

My beloved and I had always scoffed at people so narcissistic they employed high tech methods to procreate. But then, I’d never wanted kids until I met my other half. My desire was directly attached to the man I loved. I wanted his children.

Terrified as I was to shoot myself with hormones in the wake of the havoc they’d so recently wrought on my body, I went for it. Our path to parenthood began with a trek down the school’s long white corridors to my department’s storage archives. There, amid boxes of invitations, branded banners and the giant smiling faces of my dean and that damn CEO mounted on foam core, I peeled back my jacket and pushed down my skirt so my husband could inject me.

But the shots affected neither my mood nor my ovaries -- halfway through the treatments a sonogram revealed that nothing was happening -- so we stopped.

“The next step for to take would be to find a donor egg to implant,” my doctor said.

This was definitely an extreme measure, but if my other half had given any sign, I would’ve done it in a heartbeat. He did not. In fact, we were talking less and less. Rather than talk about how devastated I felt about not being able to be a mother -- part of me felt guilty for even wanting this, as if I was clinging to an outmoded model of womanhood -- what we did talk about was going home. He would leave first to look for work, while I stayed behind to keep up with the mortgage.

I didn't like the idea of the separation, but I told myself to take at face value his reassurances that he didn't like it either. Right up until about a month after he left, when he delivered the blow.

“I want a divorce,” he told me over the phone. “This is not negotiable.”

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The author in the desert, after the husband left.

It felt as if my skin had been peeled away from my flesh, a sensation as physical as it was mental and emotional. I was about to turn 40 in a country that valued women primarily as wives and mothers. Despite my impulse to hop the next plane out of Qatar, I was immobilized. The days rolled into months and still I stayed.

Over the course of the year that followed I deepened my yoga and meditation practice. Less effort on the mat showed huge results; astoundingly, the same thing was true off the mat. I worked less and traveled more. Yet my budget was increased and I hired four people. I took on interns.

“Why do you wear the veil if you hate it so much?” I asked one.

“Sure, I could stop wearing it. Then I’d be kicked out of the house, my family would disown me, and I’d have nothing. So yeah, that’s my choice.” Then she fixed me with a bright smile and ran off to meet some girlfriends.

“It’s not for men,” said another. “It’s for God.”

Finally I took on a whole group. They were sitting outside my office, giggling and enthusing about getting married.

“Not so fast,” said I. “You’ll only have to move in with your mother-in-law, and that’s gonna suck.”

The girls laughed harder. “You must have picked the wrong mother-in-law!”

Finally I realized, these women didn’t need my idea of a happily ever after. It wasn’t so different from theirs, anyway. The minute I realized I was no longer able to have a baby, I was certain my partner of six years would want to leave me. Whether that had anything to do with his decision in the end made no difference. That I believed menopause made me less desirable was enough to show me I was the one holding on to gender stereotypes. It was time to stop, and ask myself a question.

What would I do if I weren’t afraid?

I knew immediately. I’d do the most pro-woman thing I could think of, make the dream I’d been willing to provide for my partner come true for me. And that’s exactly what I did. I moved to New York City to write.