Single and in her early 40s, the author discovered newfound confidence in her romantic relationships once she embraced her truth: No biological timetable meant freedom.
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The man across from me glowed, the light of his phone casting a blue blush on his face. In the 20 minutes since we’d met, this was about the tenth time he’d checked his screen. Had he texted me from another OKCupid date? “Eli” was handsome, a doctor, and, by his own admission, stoned out of his mind.
“You told him you didn’t want to see him again?” my girlfriend, Sasha, asked the next day over coffee. “I mean, maybe he was texting a patient?”
“Can you imagine getting a diagnosis from him?” I laughed. “‘So sorry, you only have—oh, ‘scuse me while I swipe right.’”
But my girlfriend didn’t find it funny. High or not, Eli was a single, 40-something doctor living in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Sasha was, like me, single, spectacular, and in her early 40s. With Eli being the dating market’s equivalent of a unicorn, and Sasha and I on a par with feral cats, neither could believe I’d turned down a second date. Until recently, that kind of sangfroid hadn’t been my way, either.
Unlike most 42-year-old women, I’d stopped having my period four years earlier. I was post-menopausal. Early menopause—defined as the cessation of monthly cycles before the age of 40—is somewhat rare, and not without long-term health risks. Yet by the time I met Eli, I’d come to view myself not as a victim of early menopause, but a beneficiary.
Coping with the change of life was tough. Starting with that phrase, “the change etc.” The words sound so terminal, and they certainly don’t suggest something better is on the way.
Given my age, none of my friends had experienced this drop in hormones, and when I tried to share my experiences, I felt like I was burdening them with some dread, communicable disease.
“I kept waking up and it was like I’d peed the bed. I had to change my pjs twice.”
“Oh. Well. My husband woke me up like three times with his snoring. I know just what you mean. At least your, uh, problem will go away.”
But would it?
My mother was no help either. Both my parents viewed health issues as a kind of navel-gazing. Even trying to gauge how long my hot flashes might last was a non-starter.
“Symptoms?” Mom scoffed. “Besides my period stopping? Who remembers? I was busy raising two kids and working full time. I wasn’t able to indulge in symptoms.”
Early menopause happens in about one percent of American women, or about 13,000 of us each year. For some, it’s because of surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. For others, autoimmune disorders are linked. In cases like mine, it may be genetic, or there’s no clear reason. It’s not an illness, and the result is the same as menopause—estrogen levels drop causing the ovaries to stop producing eggs, and deterioration of vaginal tissues.
That last sentence was the killer.
Menopause came for me around the same time as my divorce. I was 35 when I married. By the time we started trying to have kids, it was already too late. Now my quandary was two-fold. It was hard enough to find someone to date, what were the chances I’d find someone who’d be open to non-biological children?
Then there was the problem of sex.
For a long while after my divorce, I had no desire for intimacy—emotional or physical. Initially, this apathy was a relief, but as the dust settled, I feared it might never return. I’d come of age reading Erica Jong and Judith Krantz. I felt comfortable mocking the fear of sexuality. But the end of sexuality—which was how I viewed menopause—scared the hell out of me.
There was one person I knew who’d gone through menopause early, I just didn’t want to ask about her erotic life. And she’d already shut me down on the topic. But if vaginal atrophy was the culprit here, there could be no source more predictive than my mother.
I tried, but couldn’t quite bring myself to ask directly what impact early menopause had on her and my dad’s marital bed. “So, how old were you exactly when you went through menopause?”
“I was 40. But it started when we were in Alabama. I thought I was pregnant again, Jesus.”
Based on this tidbit, I assumed it had not been the end of their sex life and left it at that. It wasn’t long before my worry subsided, and I found myself at the mercy of a relentless sexual appetite. Whether I was trying to plug the gaping hole inside my heart or satisfy the last gasps of my hormones was unclear. But when I did get back on the market, the shock of putting myself out there was less about using the Internet than it was about the extent of disclosure.
Every matchmaking site included questions about children, whether I had them, or if I wanted them. Checking “no” to the first question was easy, but I agonized over how to answer the second. If I said I wanted kids, did it imply I could have them? If I said I didn’t want any, would that eliminate men who already had children or who might be open to adoption?
Mistakes were made. Starting with Xtopher.
With experience I later gained, I might’ve suspected that any man who purposefully replaced the first part of his name with a symbol that could be interpreted as a warning might not be the best bet for a relationship. I saw nothing of the kind, especially when he asked me to see a band I was into.
In person, Xtopher was tall, blonde, and somewhat distracted. “One of my surfing buddies told me chicks love this music,” he confessed as he looked around the room. But between sets, he suggested getting together for a yoga class that weekend, and I deemed him boyfriend material.
When it was time to say goodnight, making out on the street corner with my new beau seemed tawdry, so I went into his kitchen/bedroom. Once inside, I was all in. I could not stop my libido’s momentum. Besides, we already had plans for another date.
Then the weekend came. And went. No phone call, no text, nothing. I was ghosted before ghosting was a thing. After a fetal weeping session, I deactivated my online profile.
That didn’t last long. I was far too relieved to know my sensuality hadn’t disappeared alongside my periods. My greater concern, considering how little I knew about my romantic prospects, was putting my newfound desires on hold. I treated myself to a big spend on toys at The Pleasure Chest and got back out there.
Rob, the very next man I met, seemed like a reward.
“You left a career in marketing to teach yoga?” he asked, over a tantalizing spread at Momofuku Noodle Bar. “What was that transition like?”
That Rob was a successful entertainment lawyer made his interest all the more intoxicating. But I’d learned my lesson. A couple of weeks later, when we finally moved our curbside makeouts to a couch, I told him I wasn’t ready for more. That I wanted to look forward to waking up with someone as much as I looked forward to going to bed with them.
In the kindest way possible, Rob explained that he’d recently ended things with a long-term partner, and he wasn’t interested in jumping back into something. This only made me want him more, but that was the last I saw of Rob.
I got better at seeing what was in front of me. Professor “Ben” and I met at the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar on Broadway. Normally I wouldn’t be caught dead inside that place, but by now I’d concluded it was better to do these meet ‘n greets in venues I didn’t frequent.
Over a hot chocolate, it became clear that this 30-something bro still lived with his parents, had no sense of humor, and hadn’t washed his clothes or his body in preparation for our meeting. When the check for our beverages came, he asked to split it. “I’m certainly not paying for yours,” I said, snapping my cash down on the table.
As I met “match” after “match” who was much shorter/balder/older/dickier than their profiles claimed, the upset of my body’s betrayal began to fade. I reconsidered what I had to offer. Surely a mature woman without kids was a bonus for some. At the same time, my hormones were settling. Sleeping through the night helped persevere in the face of this dating phantasmagoria, but I didn’t fully trust my body. Until I met “Josh.”
Josh took me to dinner near my Hell’s Kitchen apartment. He picked a nice restaurant, showed up in a pressed black Oxford shirt, and seemed genuinely interested in me. All good signs. Then he mentioned children.
Though kids were on my mind—namely because, at 41, I still wasn’t sure what might be expected of me with regard to having them—I thought the topic premature before the check arrived. Josh didn’t.
“I don’t think we need to worry about that just yet,” I evaded.
“Well, ovaries don’t last forever.”
Somehow, having someone else suggest I was damaged goods so directly flipped a switch. I wasn’t bad inventory, I was a survivor. Age, if we’re lucky, will affect us all.
Thanks to my obsessive nature and Google, not long before this encounter I’d come across studies linking aging sperm to mental illness in children. I looked Josh right in the eye, shared the information, and walked out of the restaurant.
In the decade following, I became significantly less interested in children. I was still willing to consider being with someone who had them, but I couldn’t imagine raising a baby.
Menopause had given me a superpower—I could hold off on progressing a relationship as long as any discerning man.
Before menopause, I’d dated under the time pressure of my fertility. If I was having sex with someone and we stayed together for any length of time, I considered how it might affect my procreation possibilities. To have two kids, I reckoned I’d need a four-year window before turning 40—one to decide if this partner was for the long haul, another to get to the altar, and one for each kid. And that was counting on the timing to be precise.
Without the pressure of biology, I became increasingly unwilling to compromise for the sake of a lover. If some guy thought I wanted to move too fast, or ghosted me, or acted like a jerk in general, moving on didn’t come with the extra regret that my prime was being wasted. I no longer had a timetable. I could pounce on him if I wanted, move on when I wanted, or give a hard pass when warranted. My passions had been mastered.
Or so I thought. Until I met a man who made me question all my logic.
One look into his amber eyes, and I knew my control had been an illusion. As our dates progressed, I’d practically flinch when he touched me. I wanted to be with him, and I wanted to wait. My regressive attitude confused me. Throughout my life, I’d railed against the idea that sleeping with someone quickly was fatal to relationship potential. I’d had plenty of ongoing affairs that began quickly. So I said nothing. Finally, he did.
“Are you worried about rushing physically?” he asked, not exactly laughing, but clearly not fazed. “Let’s just take sex off the table till after the first of the year.”
Something uncoiled inside me. Without wondering if this person I’d met on a dating website was going to become a boyfriend, a lover or a fling, I could simply enjoy his company.
We agreed on the end of January. And we almost made it. But standing at the edge of a lake in the Everglades as the sun fell, I looked again into his face and surprised myself. “I love you,” I said. I didn’t need to hear it back, I was just happy to feel it again.
It took longer than I would’ve thought, but when the right one came along, I was glad my body slowed me down. My now-husband has adult children, and at this point, grandkids sound perfect.
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