Last year my son entered adolescence at exactly the same time that I slammed into menopause. For a while, it seemed doubtful either of us would make itout of our respective hormonal passages alive. Will was 12 at the time, sonot technically a teenager. But all the signs of testosterone surges were inevidence. His upper lip was sprouting darkish fuzz. Without daily showers, he exuded the odor of an overripe compost heap. And there were the mood swings.One moment he was a perfectly normal human being capable of rational thought.Seconds later, he'd have morphed into a creature with fewer social skills than that slobbering, mandible-gnashing insect from "Men in Black."
Some random behavioral examples: Last September he purchased and installed a locking doorknob for his bedroom door. (I permitted said knob on the condition that I retain a key.) Concurrent with the lock installation, he took to beginning and ending most conversations with the phrase "close my door and leave me alone!" which he chanted mantralike as one long, eight-syllableword with the kind of intensity one might use when shouting a spell to ward off demons. Then, whenever I actually did leave him alone for a while, he'd emerge from his lair blinking cheerily and plead with me to keep him company while he did his homework. However, Will's notion of "company" didn't mean sitting next to him doing my own writing. It meant just sitting there period, holding myself in a perfect state of silent, earnest fellowship, staring fixedly (but not too fixedly) in his direction.
As for my mood swings ... Well, we'll get to that later.
Like many boomer women, I spent much of the 1970s building a career and having the kind of personal adventures that make for a satisfyingly checkered past. Midway through the '80s, I realized it was time to get down to business, reproductively speaking. Will was born a month before my 38th birthday.
Most of my closest girlfriends also had their kids late in the game, a choice that we considered largely advantageous. We were, after all, calmer, wiser mothers than we would have been in our 20s. We were still in good enough physical shape to outrun a toddler. And waiting meant that our careers were established enough to withstand the body blow having a baby inevitably delivers. There was, however, one teensy fact of belated prima-parenthood we somehow failed to consider: If you have your child at 38, when he or she is 12 years old, you will be 50 years old. Therefore, just when your beloved offspring's hormones are raging, chances are yours will be too.
Due to naiveti and/or denial, I completely ignored any approaching biochemical convergence and assumed I'd do fine raising a teenager. As a journalist, I'd often written about gang members and prided myself on my ability to get along with adolescents, tattooed or otherwise. In addition, Will and I had a close relationship that, together with a healthy sense of humor and a vivid memory of my own rebellious years, I figured would stand me in good stead as he entered the tumultuous teens.
There was a rough patch at the beginning of the school term as Will made the transition from our low-key community elementary school to the big, rigorously academic junior high where he was attending sixth grade. Yet we were coping, at least until my own Hurricane Hormone came ashore. First it was hot flashes and interrupted sleep. Soon my emotions also started going haywire, and garden-variety rejections from my budding adolescent that I had previously just ignored began to hurt my feelings intolerably. Petty kid issues such as failure to change the cat litter or fresh mud tracks on the new carpet left me wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth.
Then, at mid-year, Will's grades started to slide. His response to the problem was pure flight. Every afternoon he devised ever more creative means to avoid starting his homework. When avoidance was no longer feasible, he would freeze deer-in-the-headlights style for hours in front of his schoolbooks, refusing any suggestions or help, shrieking, "I'm getting it done!" whenever challenged.
Had I been a sensible, non-midlife parent, I would have simply set firm boundaries for study times and offered calming support when he struggled.Instead I was convinced that the skywas falling. I attempted to jump-start his productivity by issuing stupidthreats I never intended to enforce. ("If you don't finish reading thathistory chapter in the next 11 minutes, I'm going to take away your skateboard for the rest of your life!") Predictably, such tactics did zero for his self-confidence but amped up his "close my door and leave me alone" urges to the 100th power. The more he withdrew, the more furious and panicky I became until, night after night, even minor homework skirmishes escalated into theverbal equivalent of carpet-bombing.
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that I'm raising Will on my own.His dad had a cerebral aneurysm a few years after our divorce and isstill unavailable for active parenting. Sothere was no demilitarized zone, no other adult around who could take the heat off. There was just me. And I was getting crazier by the minute.
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The trickiest part of having a chemical imbalance, menopausal or otherwise, is that your ability to assess the appropriateness of your outsize reactions diminishes, especially if there's stuff in your life that's giving you tangible cause for concern. (And when is there not?) I mean, I'd noticed that my fuse seemed a bit shorter than usual, but I attributed it to stress over Will's difficulties at school.
I'd experienced a few wacko hormonal moments all through the fertile years of my life. I remember once during the first trimester ofmy pregnancy with Will having to pull over to the side of the road because "We Are the World" came on the car radio, and the thought of all those children starving made me cry so hard I couldn't drive. But this menopause thing was more akin to PMS on acid. I didn't just feel weepy, I felt like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."
In addition to my mental roller coaster, there was fatigue -- not the kind of tiredness to which most I Can Do It All mothers are prone. This was an exhaustion that leaves you feeling capable of little more than sitting in a rocking chair and making small chewing noises with your mouth.
It's uncomfortable being a teenager under the best of circumstances. But when your main source of parental security seems in need of a 72-hour psychhold, it's a lot worse. Will grappled for emotional purchase the only way he knew how: He acted out. One night he punched a hole the size of an apple in his bedroom wall. Mostly he slammed doors and shouted variations on the theme of "I hate you! I hate my life! I hate my life because of you!"
As his distress grew deeper, mine increased in equal measure, until I was out of my mind with worry about him. I could see that the storm bearing downon my son drew wind from previous storms, mainly the death of his grandfather and the catastrophic illness of his father. I also knew his run-of-the-mill teen rebellion was complicated by the fact that, as the single child of a single parent, he had only me to alternately reject and cling to for refuge. But now his storm had quickened my own, and back and forth it blew between us in woeful reciprocity. We had become twinned tuning forks of unhappiness, each resonating to the other's agitation. Except that I was the adult, the caretaker, the one in charge of keeping this child safe and sound through his adolescent passage. And I knew I was doing a damned lousy job of it. One desperate Friday afternoon, after yet another homework meltdown, I considered sending him away to military school.By Saturday, I wanted to send myself away to military school instead.
It all reached critical mass on an April morning when Will dawdled more than usual as he got dressed for school and nearly missed the bus. We successfully chased it down the street in our car and Will was able to get on at the next stop, but as I watched the school bus disappear with my kid securely on board, I began to sob hysterically, convinced that his lateness was incontrovertible evidence of my abject failure as a mother. It actually occurred to me that he might be better off without me.
Later in the day, I peered out from the murk of my hormone-fraught haze enough to comprehend I was in trouble. I called my doctor for an appointment.
Dr. Roberta Smith is a very smart internist who specializes in midlife women. "Well, what brings you here today?" she asked chirpily.
"My kid's 12 and I feel psychotic," I replied.
"Hmmmm," she murmured. "I think we'd better check your hormones." Two days later, she called me with the lab results. "Your estrogen levels are in the toilet. Do you prefer Estradiol or Premarin, or would you like to try the patch?"
"All of the above," I said. I'd already tried yam cream and everything soy and look where it got me. Now I just wanted the drugs.
It took a month and a half of fiddling with the dosages before I was able to discern a substantial difference. But by June, it was as if someone had waved a magic wand over my psyche. No more hot flashes. I slept normally. My energy returned. Both my fangs and my despair receded. I no longer wanted to send either Will or myself to military school.
Yet damage had been done -- to my son and to my relationship with him. So while I waited for the estrogen to kick in, I marched both of us to therapists and listened quietly while Will told each of them --- his and mine -- in minute and excruciating detail all the ways I was a terrible, horrible, no good very bad mother. As we left the last office, he glanced at me to gauge my reaction to what he'd said. The truth is that his verbal spewing left me gasping with anguish, but I said only, "I'm glad you were so honest." Then I watched as the knots of strain that had pinched his face for months began gradually to untie themselves. In August we flew to Montana for three weeks of mom-and-kid healing on horseback and a long trout streams in the Rocky Mountains. It was a trip I could barely afford -- and well worth it.
Now Will is in the seventh grade, and both his study habits and his general outlook on life have progressed to the point that I've agreed, God help me, if he gets A's and B's this semester, he can dye his hair the same color as Marilyn Manson's. These recent improvements of his are due in part, I think,to the fact that he's a year older and more experienced at organizing his time. And the extra year has also made him marginally better able to ride his hormonal fluctuations, not fight them. However, the primary reason we have no new holes in our walls is that the mother of the family is sane again.
There was nothing fun about the storm my son and I came through together. Moreover, in the middle of it, you could say, I lost hold of the tiller. Will saw me do it. But then I recovered the tiller again with a grasp that was, in some ways, firmer than before. He saw this too. I believe -- OK, I hope -- that the loss and recovery he witnessed will count for something. When you're a kid, you think loss is the end of the world, and when things go wrong, nothing will ever be right again. At least this time I could show him that with faith plus effort, some losses can be turned into unexpected gains.
Last week, I took it into my head to read Will most of this article, skipping over only the very saddest parts. At first I worried that my writerly blurtings might alarm him. Instead he looked oddly relieved that I'd exposed our foibles to the open air. He giggled at the funny places, then launched into a comic imitation of the pre-Estradiol me. "Oh my GOD!!!!! You threw the gum wrapper at the wastebasket and you missed and now it's on the floo-o-o-o-orrrrr!!!!! Oh my GOD!!!! You drank a Sprite and didn't recycle the CAN!!!! "A pause. "You were really like that, Mom." Another pause. "Hey, I know more about menopause than my cousin does, and she's 18, really smart and a girl. Now that's scary."
"Oh, well," I shrugged. "Oh, well," he agreed, and for the briefest of moments the boy-child's grin was laced with something remarkably akin to compassion -- not just for me, but for himself.