Like a lot of us from Generation X, Kate Hollander entered adolescence surrounded by “a wealth of information” about what was happening to her body, from books like “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret.” But four decades later, as her body began to change again, she at first had no idea what was happening.

“It was very frustrating. I would have rage episodes, sleepless nights, definitely the stop-and-go periods where one would be so bad I thought I was dying, and the next one was just spots,” said Hollander, who lives in Mount Washington and at first thought she was experiencing symptoms related to her Lyme disease diagnosis.

“My mom has a scientific background so we knew and understood what was happening to us in puberty, but as I got into my late 40s, all my girlfriends and I were like ‘What?’” she said. “You know to get your mammogram, you know to get your colonoscopy. Nobody talks about this.”

The “what” was perimenopause, the transition between reproduction and menopause, when periods have stopped for a year. It’s ironic that a Gen X so well-versed in puberty and periods can feel, as we enter middle age, that we’re suddenly without guidance.

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Then again, we’re used to being that way — unsupervised latchkey kids who won’t shut up about being self-sufficient, who were out in the streets ‘til the streetlights came on like “The Goonies” and bandaging our own head wounds. Of course it’s on us to figure this out, too, because that’s just what we do.

In 2019, the New Yorker had a headline that read “Where Are All the Books About Menopause?” and many have followed since. There are also new products — such as actress Naomi Watts’ Stripes line of health care products for those in perimenopause and menopause — and Facebook groups and forums to talk about these things in a safe, nonjudgmental place. Not all of us are used to talking about our bodies, but certainly more than in our parents’ generations. And we’re going to keep doing so.

“We have disposable income, and are at an age that we have real influence culturally, and we want to know what the hell is going on,” Hollander said. “We ask ‘Is this normal?’”

Normal is relative. “For some women, it’s a nightmare, and for others it’s a hiccup. But it’s such a mystery, like ‘Agggh! What’s gonna happen?’” said Julie Blamphin, 54, a certified yoga teacher in Annapolis. Her Celebrate The Pelvic Floor classes focus on strengthening the muscles that support many of our organs, including those weakened by menopause that can make it more likely that you pee when you laugh.

That indignity, along with insomnia, painful sex, weird weight gain, fatigue and a sudden girdle of fat that looks like you’re being eaten from the middle by a pool floaty, are common, but you wouldn’t know that if no one told you. Two years ago I co-founded a private Facebook page about perimenopause after a disappointing discussion with a gynecologist.

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She explained that I might have vaginal atrophy, a thinning of tissue that can make sex painful, and said, “It’s use it or lose it!” which was not super helpful to a single mother in the throes of a pandemic. Sure! I’ll go do that right now! The group was a place to talk to my peers, in a nonjudgmental, private forum, about what the heck was happening to us. I also found a new gynecologist.

Heads up: This column involves the free discussion of the workings of the female body, which some of you might feel squeamish about. That’s the point: Society, as a whole, does too, which is why we have to have our own discussions. The spell check on my Mac wouldn’t spell out the word menstruation, although there was a blood emoji available. Sigh.

Normalizing aging and what it does to our bodies will only happen when we actually talk about it — and when we stop talking about it like we’re ashamed of it. Diane McGowan, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Queen Anne’s County, is the “oldest in my core group of friends having gone through menopause first. But it was like a forbidden conversation. No one easily talks about it. They looked at me funny in 2020 when I’d reached the full year mark of not having a period and wanted to celebrate it.”

I think the shifting of the conversation starts with the gendered way we talk about aging. Hollander reminded me of the late former Sen. Bob Dole, who evoked the word “courage” in a 1998 commercial about erectile dysfunction. Meanwhile, Watts, who went into perimenopause in her late 30s, admitted worrying that “your career is over when your ovaries don’t work the way they used to.”

That attitude is, unfortunately, traditional, which is why projects such as “Our Bodies, Ourselves” felt so revolutionary as young kids (there is now a menopausal version). They were effective not just because of their scientific approach, but because they may have filled in information that our mothers may not have been comfortable talking about “because they may not have had the same resources, or the same level of candor we enjoy. We have no problem speaking out,” Blamphin said.

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Navigating that mystery is a form of self-care and balance, she believes. “It behooves us to advocate for ourselves. It’s kind of your job to do that,” she said. “I tell my clients ‘You’re doing the best you can.’ As much of a hot mess as this is, breathing and meditation can make it less of a hot mess. This is part of the awesome journey of being a woman, and our frigging awesome power.”

Does it always feel awesome? It does not. Doesn’t matter. It’s happening. Let’s help each other.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop... 

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