When I was a child I confidently declared that I would marry the man of my dreams. These things would happen easily and tidily to order: fall in love, marry, have kids, peacefully grow old and journey in bliss towards the bright light of old age, with heaven waiting at the end of the tunnel. All little girls paint this kind of picture as they compare notes, asking, “How many kids will you have?”
The story turned out less organised. Not many boys were interested in me during my teens and twenties. Their eyes were all over other longer-limbed beauties with looks that would make them quite at home in a Hollywood movie, strolling nonchalantly across the deck of some hundred-metre pleasure cruiser. When I lifted my eyes from my books and found true love, I was into my thirties, trying to hold down a crummy job, clinging to the wreckage of my independent, lonely life.
Luckily, Eddie came to me single and unburdened by heavy personal belongings. Still we put off marrying: life was fine, so why change it? And babies? What about them? Even after we married, they were something that came later and most probably to other people, not to me: not to an undomesticated, complicated woman with a disability, whose only physical blessings were dark hair and good teeth. Not until I was peering over the horizon towards the big Four Oh, were we blessed with a child. We spent ages calculating: “Do you REALISE that when she is twenty-one I will be almost sixty? If she waits ‘til our age to have kids, we will be too doddery to babysit.” The sums made me both wistful and rather grateful.
I flung myself into motherhood. One drawback of being an older mum is that doting grandmas and grandpas are rather rare. Not being blessed with lots of family around, I had little choice but to immerse myself in the practicalities. One of these was breastfeeding. If my daughter ever reads this she will blush, but the point is that nature’s nurture acts as a natural contraceptive. An older woman might watch out for irregular or non-existent periods signalling early menopause, but patchy periods at this time could equally have been caused by breastfeeding so when nothing started happening every month I rather carelessly ignored it. At the other extreme, I was too tired to care that bleeding for six weeks was unusual, a hint that my body clock was erratic. When my bleeding stopped for good, I was just forty-two. At first, I was simply so grateful not to be haemorrhaging blood down the toilet. Then, when the hot flushes and waking at four am became a regular feature, I reluctantly conceded that I was menopausal. And I had a three-year-old to look after.
For a day or two, I railed against Fate. Menopause was supposed to fill the gap, the space of quiet after the kids have grown tall and gone off to broaden their minds or to set up home in the Urals. Menopause happened to youthful-looking women in their mid-fifties, not to careworn hags just after being forty. Where was the justice in discovering that I was quite a good mummy BUT I couldn’t contemplate having any more kids, sorry about that?
Ever the realist, I made the best of my shameful situation. Feeling ancient before my time, I dropped, “Of course, when you are menopausal, as I am…” into conversations, just to test the reactions of my friends. No-one fainted, or gave any sign of being surprised, but then, I probably looked older than my age: knackered from lack of sleep and chasing a breezy pre-schooler, my baggy tops and dark elasticated trousers splotched with cheesy mashed potatoes and toilet training traumas.
Loving and caring for children is exhausting, and often there is no-one to turn to. The loss of workplace networks, the loss of status, of income, and the isolation of being the main or sole carer for many hours at a time, are just some of the burdens of modern motherhood. I could have found childcare and gone back to work – in theory – but on top of everything else, menopause flicked a switch in my internal systems and changed everything around just enough to be a total nuisance. Sleep was a piecemeal affair and my energy and emotions swung about. Night sweats, hot flushes and the loss of my appetites didn’t bother me, but the pain did. Suddenly my right foot could not take my weight and it sang with nerve-juddering agony almost continuously. If I wanted to stay awake during the day, popping pain relief pills didn’t work.
No-one wants to be seen crawling around on their knees when their neighbour pops in for a chat. Even for a mother with mobility issues, this just wasn’t the example I was hoping to set my daughter. Crawling, rocking and howling in agony were what she should have been doing, not me. She watched as I wept. A useless visit to an orthopaedic surgeon gave me the shot of indignation I needed to go on a quest for a pain-free life. It helped to galvanise me, when I realised that no-one knew me better than I did.
Looking back, I can see how lucky I was. Timing is everything, and when Seline started weaning and demanding lots to eat, that was when the pain in my joints really kicked in. From first noticing that sugar gave me mood swings, I began to re-educate myself about eating healthily, not just once and a while when I was feeling virtuous, but all the time. Having responsibilities forced me to grow up. I also pondered the whole subject of ageing, reading books which offered plenty of food for thought. Bathroom cosmetics were in at the start of my campaign. Squinting down the long list of ingredients written in tiny writing on a bottle of frothy shampoo, I discovered a skin irritant….that got me thinking.
Since menopause, there are foods I avoid, because eating them makes my body hurt like hell. I used to enjoy them anytime, anywhere, but they now go on the rampage through my system and cause acute pain or coughing, wheezing and general discomfort. I have arthritis all over my joints and live with knowing that “someone like me” is often confined to a wheelchair by the age of forty. So taking care with what I eat is a small price to pay.
Whenever I feel deprived and wish I could have that double choc-chip burger with chips and salsa which everyone else is chomping with such relish, I take the plunge and eat some. What the hell – it can’t hurt, can it? If the answer is OUCH – YES IT CAN, I nod and sigh. The pain and irritation convince me, once again, that I am not “making it up”. If I wait a day or two, the pain leaves.
Tea and coffee, sugar, milk, beef, potatoes, tomatoes and a few other bruisers are all rare visitors to my plate. I count that a small price to pay for being able to walk with my daughter, live independently and sleep well without taking medication.