At forty-nine, the experience of having two pre-teen daughters living in my house is like having a plate-glass window into which two birds are constantly flying— smack! crisis! shrei!—every five minutes. Piercing screams come from the bedrooms over ever-new emergencies. “My belt!” “My zipper!” “My chin!” or “My shoes!” That’s if they’re lucky enough to have two of the same kind of shoe. My daughters and I are all in transitional stages of our development: They preadolescent, I perimenopausal, and so, more often than not, in our volcano-pile household, it’s just “My shoe!”
Whereas many of our Mad Woman moms had us in their twenties, I, along with many of my Gen X cohorts, birthed my brood in my late thirties and early forties. We sisters in the new menopause are the first generation blessed with the task of guiding our daughters through wild hormonal fluctuations while living through our own. Or as the late great Erma Bombeck used to say: “I’m trying very hard to understand this generation. They have adjusted the timetable for childbearing so that menopause and teaching a sixteen-year-old how to drive a car will occur in the same week.” Of course, this is a hopeful notion. It is presuming my daughters get to sixteen.
I remind you that a menopausal woman’s hormone levels are the same as a preadolescent girl’s. That none of us is fertile means that none of us is consistently firing those magical hormones that we’d like to associate with women, or at least with respectable women. Which is to say we’re all thinking of ourselves first, rather than about men or boys we’re dating or would like to date, and as such no one is paying much attention to her appearance (or sometimes even hygiene, it seems). Everyone is on her own personal emotional roller coaster, which corresponds not to a moon cycle but to an orbital spray of God knows which planets, some of which inspire us to spend eight hours painting an incomprehensible mural about horses and birthday cake on our own bedroom wall. In addition, without those internal chemicals that promote nurturing, bonding, and nesting, we all lack that magical Doris Day mind-set one needs to cheerfully fold dinner napkins, towels, sheets, and laundry, to cut up vegetables or fruit or bake muffins for other people, or even, particularly, to empty the litter box. Sometimes I feel our house is coming to resemble a boardinghouse for bachelor serial killers.
Granted, I’ve been living with my girls for a decade already, and it has never been particularly easy. I remember wheeling a double stroller through airports, pumping breast milk in temporary apartments, chasing toddlers across Target parking lots in five different cities. I have endured such sensory violations as lice, peed-on car seats, and five-year-olds’ birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s. (For those not in the know, Chuck E. Cheese is like Las Vegas for kids, with constant buzzers and bell chimes and coins clattering. For the Chuck E. Cheese mascot think giant mouse, macarena-ing in a baseball cap, whose fur typically appears to be smeared with suet. My daughters were so uncoordinated they would pull their arm back to throw a Skee-ball and it would fly out behind and hit somebody in the back. There is a wine grotto where you literally shove your mug into a wall under a spigot!)
But now that I am forty-nine and perimenopausal, a new horror is dawning on me. Looking back to my early forties, those still-fertile years when my body was suffused with nurturing “love chemicals” like estrogen and oxytocin, I had a thicker protective epidermis—almost like an elephant’s hide—against the annoyances that, it turns out, children can be. I had the ability to type coherent text into my computer while around me my children were shout-counting with Dora or Sharpie-mustaching their American Girl dolls or stroking the dog’s pelt with my personal hairbrush.
While I love my nine- and eleven-year-old daughters, these days, as I continue to hotflash more and more, there are times when I find it hard to bear the actual sound of their voices. (This reminds me of that very special menopause symptom cited in 1857, called “temporary deafness”—if only!) I pick them up after school and am newly stunned by how quickly my tween daughters speak, how loudly, and at what an incredibly high pitch. There my girls go singing nonsense songs off YouTube, chattering away about who has a crush on whom and, perhaps most irksome of all, eagerly retelling me the plots of their favorite television shows. I believe parents have some obligation to try to listen to our children’s thoughts, probably, but I don’t believe there’s anything in the manual that says we have to listen to them describe the plots of television shows.
Dinner is worse. Back in my previous marriage, when Mr. X was on the road working and it was just me and the girls, I fed them early, sometimes on TV trays. I’d snack later, while making the lunches for the next day. Everything was loose, everything was mellow, and all was well. Unfortunately, in his formal WASP way, Mr. Y believes in a “dinner hour” where everyone sits down at the table at the same time. I think it’s a nice idea in theory. But I am a perimenopausal woman with increasing head ringing and hot flashes, and now there are even night sweats. It’s like the inside of my head has itself become a Chuck E. Cheese. At forty-nine my strong preference would be to eat dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon in a darkened cave in Antarctica. I have become this kind of hulking, irritated bison who truly wants to be left alone as I eat. To be fair, it’s partly because of what I eat. On the rare occasions where Mr. Y lets us do Make Your Own Taco night—he thinks it’s boorish to eat with one’s hands—out of years of habit I will try to roll up a burrito using lettuce instead of a tortilla. Trembling with hunger because it’s already almost 6:00 p.m., when by rights my door should be closed to the world with a Do Not Disturb sign, I jut my jaw forward to bite into the collapsing thing. Tomatoes are dropping, it’s a losing battle—and when my teeth close against each other, half the construction falls onto my neck— and now my entire household starts pointing at me and laughing (“Mommm! How gross!”).
“Good God!” I exclaim, standing and picking up my plate. “I love all of you very dearly, but I can’t stand another minute with you!”
* * *
But if you’re the perimenopausal mother of a tween, the trouble runs deeper than all that.
It’s tough in middle age in general to be an old dog learning new electronic tricks. My thumbs are too fat to write texts on my iPhone, and my eyes are too dim to read them. I don’t know how to turn off the Kindle, so when planes are taking off I frantically take a pillow and “smother” it. There is no device upon which my girls won’t keep playing with the ring tones, so when the next thing goes off I find myself feeling completely addled—was that my phone, is there a space-alien invasion, or has the microwave finished some popcorn? And do the space aliens want some?
But in fact none of this has prepared me for the peculiar horrors of Facebook. When Hannah first introduced it into our lives I was neither aware of what to do with Facebook, nor of the fact that one is not even supposed to be on Facebook until the age of thirteen (Hannah is eleven). Never mind. My own Facebook account seemed to exist only for the purpose of enabling me to peer into the relatively benign world of my keyboard-tapping daughter and her out-of-town cousins. As I’ve experienced it, preteen Facebook is typically a sleepy, as-innocuous-as-a-Christmas-letter world of angsting about the English paper due tomorrow while qvelling about the latest funny cat photo, finished off with a curt BRB or GTG (Be Right Back or Got To Go). My daughter’s set are the sorts of kids who friend their grandparents and aunts and uncles, the better to accost them to buy candy bars for the school PE program fund-raiser. Even Internet predators would have to struggle to stay awake through the continual pelting of trivia, as relentless as an avalanche of stuffed animals.
One night, while I’m writing at the computer . . . well, to this day I cannot account for how this happened. Perhaps it was a temporary glitch or experiment Facebook was trying. I swear to God, all I know is I was sitting there at my computer, and suddenly on the right side of my screen I saw this conversation unrolling in real time. It appeared to stem from a post on a page of one of my daughter’s friends (he posted a photo of what appeared to be a badger in a Dodgers cap). Perhaps I was seeing this post because my daughter opened her Facebook account on my computer, and hence when she opened one for me there was a period of strange hybridization between our two identities. Even today my Facebook page states that I am a fan of Bruno Mars, Starbucks Mochachinos, and Keyboard Cat, all artifacts of my daughter’s. So I can’t account for the mysterious mechanics of this, but suddenly, scrolling down the right half of the screen, in real time, is a Lord of the Flies comment thread of sixth-graders “flaming” my completely wide-eyed and innocent Hannah, she of the leotards, goofy glasses, and angel wings.
The thread is something like:
J33T: Here’s my funny cat photo. JAZZ12: LOL!
11YEAROLD “DJ” RONALD K: Ha ha ha.
[SUDDEN AD FOR “FARMVILLE”—WHATEVER THAT IS]
J33T: JK, jk.
[SANDRA’S OVERLY IMAGINATIVE AND VULNERABLE 11-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER HANNAH]: LOL You’ve been BOBBED! [Another joke emoticon of some kind]
GEORGE12: OMG, Hannah—being Bobbed is so OVER!
[SOIAVEYODH]: OMG, George . . . Why are you being so MEAN????
LILI: Oh Hannah don’t be such a spaz.
J33T: How about my funny cat photo
[SUDDEN AD FOR STARBUCKS HAZELNUT BLIZZARDS— APPEARS TO BE A TWO-FOR-ONE COUPON]
GEORGE12: Why are you so WEIRD, Hannah?
LILI: ROTFL [Actually this is wrong—ROTFL is only one of the ones I remember—she probably put something down like @#$@1234ff3. Whatever it was, it was clearly dismissive and meant to hurt.]
[SOIAVEYODH]: I am not weird you guys! I’ve changed since fifth grade! I have LOTS of friends now! [My poor sweet baby! She is in sixth grade now at a new school, a more sensitive performing-arts academy that better suits her fragile personality.]
JAZZ12: Why did you use to chew your hair in science, Hannah? That was weird.
LILI: Agree with g.
[SOIAVEYODH]: LOOK IN THE MIRROR It’s you guys who are WEIRD!!!!!
GEORGE12: LOL. Said by someone who’s FACEBOOK FRIENDS WITH HER MOMMY!!!!
I go upstairs. I physically pull my daughter off her laptop— aka out of the burning building. We sit on her bed, she weeps with the hurt of it, I form a body block around her, easily (the large fleshly cape of me), and I shore her up. This is easy to do in the moment.
In the twenty-first century there is no lack of parental discussion of bullying. There is a national antibullying movement. There is probably a Facebook page against bullying, possibly an app, and in all likelihood a Pepsi-Cola Kickstarter page sponsored by Ryan Seacrest. Furthermore, for us former-nerds-turned-creative-class-parents, there is no lack of sage aphorisms about bullying with which you can enlighten your children. One can begin with the easy softball—mocking the mean kids’ (inevitably laughable) spelling (instead of TTYL—Talk To You Later—they may get the letters mixed up: TYTL). You can say, roundly, and with pretty provable meritocratic confidence, “Such a rocket scientist as George12 will surely be serving me slaw in eight years at the Sherman Oaks El Pollo Loco!” You can also say: “You know who was bullied? Lady Gaga! Her high-school peers shoved her into a trash can, she invented a fabulous dress out of trash, and now she is an international rock star worth twenty-two billion!” And amazingly enough, it is true!
In short, drying her tears, my daughter is able to dust herself off, have dinner, finish her homework, read a book, work on one of her fairy-tale dragon stories, pop onto Facebook one last time to post a funny cat photo, and go to bed, snoring soundly. In the morning, in one of her spectacularly odd middle-school costumes (hoodie, bathrobe, hair in pigtails tied with orange pipe cleaners), she will cheerfully sail out again, like the ever-optimistic Fool of card 0.
While of course, her perimenopausal forty-nine-year-old mother lies awake until 4:16 a.m., wide-eyed with worry.
I stare at the ceiling, my gaze penetrating into darkness as my hot flashes rage with surging and dropping hormones. I know from modern parenting books that my generation is sternly advised not to become hovering, overprotective helicopter parents. And certainly middle school has long been awful. Middle school is the pack of wolves surrounding the hapless lamb crumpling in slow-motion tears under his or her backpack. It was, in my own case, the proud handstand performed at the eighth-grade talent show, the too-tight white pants suddenly ripping, the wobbling, veering side-crash, ending in a grotesque fart. It was the bouquet of dead flowers shoved into one’s mailbox, with parodic “Hallmark card” courtesy—hey, thanks!—of the popular kids.
Suddenly I am recalling the time I myself ran for seventh-grade treasurer—a post literally no one else wanted but that as a geek I was thrilled to campaign for. My campaign featured hand-drawn posters, the design cribbed from a corporate health campaign at Hughes Research, where my father worked. I lovingly traced the image with a gizmo called a pantograph. I remember how in Mr. Vincent’s fifth-period government, Jodi Schneekling (can’t you just tell by the name? Schneekling?)—she of the Farrah Fawcett flip, Kork-Ease sandals, Chemin de Fer jeans with laces crossed in front, like the secret Masonic sign of some evil tween dungeon mistress—turned toward me. “Let’s see that poster,” Jodi said. Flattered at her interest (she was popular!), I flopped it open to her. It was drawn in ten different colored pens, with the catchy tagline: “It’s harder to get a rhino to rumba than to have a great year without electing Sandra Loh for 7th grade class treasurer!”
Jodi looked at it, slitted her eyes, leaned toward me across our desks, and whispered: “Sandra? I wouldn’t vote for you if you were the last person on earth.”
Peculiar historical note: Elected boys’ vice president of our whole school that year was a popular surfer named Sean Penn—oh yes, the very same. Sean Penn was widely regarded as affable and easygoing. That’s right. Compared with me, Sean Penn? Affable.
So all right, yes, these are the sorts of things a normal person would laugh off three decades later. But what I experience instead, as I hotflash in the night, is the explosion of my emotions for my daughter and for my eleven-year-old self into a single, palpable, slowly burning-upward spine flame. The future and the past are one and the same as I burn with rage and hormones. Fertility’s heightened levels of estrogen supposedly calm the parts of the brain that experience hurt and agitation when slights are perceived. Supposedly that’s because it is not evolutionarily useful for mothers to harbor grudges over past injustices when they should be expending energy nurturing others and preparing them for the future. But, of course, neither my daughter nor I are processing those chemicals. Our insults (past and present) are raw, and without that protective estrogen coating—fasten your seat belts!
“Stop chewing your fingernails,” Mr. Y murmurs, slapping my hand away from my mouth as I lie awake at 3:23 a.m. “Just because your eleven-year-old has one bad experience, you don’t have to negatively anticipate what’s going to happen to her over the next seven years.”
“True enough—of course not,” I say. “That would be ridiculous, overcatastrophizing.” (Note canny use of multisyllabic therapy word.) “Except, except, except . . .” I stare into the blackness.
“Why is there never a consequence?” I push on. “Oh no, in the decades beyond, the George12s of the future will reappear at some twentieth high-school reunion as a bland realtor or similar, having no memory of the incident, only dispensing matchbooks with the name of their realty company that everyone is connected to via linkedin.com! As we all turn increasingly gray.”
I hear a snore.
Why I train like an Olympian with Stef and subsequently can’t sleep, while Mr. Y laconically trades hair tips with Fabrizio and sleeps as if he has just done the Pyrenees leg of the Tour de France, I don’t know.
With Mr. Y unconscious, I continue to worry. Alone in the night, I can’t help but wonder: Am I passing down some legacy that should have stopped with me to my child? Am I infecting my child with my own uncoolness? Look at George’s statement: “Said by someone who’s FACEBOOK FRIENDS WITH HER MOMMY!!!!” My daughter is clearly too damn open, and trusting, and unashamedly close to me—she has no protective middle-school shell.
In being too good a friend to my daughter, have I helped her self-esteem rise a bit too nosebleedingly high? Look at those exotically ragtag outfits she invents, and runs around in! My daughter has no lack of loving, nurturing adults in her life, who enable her to go to museums and the theater and Cirque du Soleil and encourage to her write fantasy stories. Not only do I approve of said fantasy stories, I also help her arrange them in antique fonts. What kind of training is this for the real world? This smothering attachment parenting is evidently piss-poor preparation for sixth grade and for the George12s of the world. But then I realize something else.
“Facebook friends with your mommy”?
George12, you have made a fatal mistake. Cue Darth Vader music.
Because if Mommy is on Facebook, she can read in real time what everyone is typing—including you, George12. And while the word “mommy” suggest a nice lady in a housedress with a tray of nummy-nummy muffins, this mommy is deep into perimenopause, and she doesn’t have any estrogen left (the hormone that makes mommies “nice”). My womb is so empty one need only brush aside the cobwebs to make room for the tool kit of medieval hurt I’m going to bring down.
Let’s just say I have known George12 ever since he wept and peed in his pants his first day in kindergarten. This mommy’s fanny pack contains iPhone photos of George12 at the Cheesecake Factory from back when all the kids were still real friends, when I bought George12 not just a deluxe pizza and red-velvet cheesecake but, if memory recalls, a second Cherry Coke. This mommy knows quite a few of George12’s secrets, like— something that would surprise his famously conservative, Armenian, limo-driving dad—his penchant for musical theater.
I am actually hyperventilating with anger. It is as if I’ve taken five hits of testosterone and nine of crack. I’ve never done crack, but I assume this is what it feels like. Need I remind you that during the change, testosterone does not wane? In some women it actually rises.
Which is not to say that this mommy’s anger-management issues are new. Oh no: These were in full swing even when Hannah was in her crunchy-granola preschool, where a philosophy of “nonviolent conflict resolution” backfired and spawned a literal axis of four-year-old evil. One day the play yard bully—Andy Johnson—pulled this “Mommy” down and started punching her in the face. When the other crunchy-granola parents weren’t looking (they were hand-grinding organic hummus) I picked the kid up, pinned his arms back, and whispered, very, very quietly: “Andy? You punch me again and I’ll kick you in the stomach so hard you’ll wish you’d never lived.”
In short the question is not Am I going down to the schoolyard to take this twelve-year-old out, it’s Which ball gown shall I wear?
Content with my savyy plan of action, sometime before 5:00 a.m. I fall asleep.
Excerpted from “The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones” by Sandra Tsing Loh. Copyright (C) 2014 by Sandra Tsing Loh. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reseved.