The year I turned 26 I was happily married, had a blooming career and was open to the possibility that I may never want children. My mother's reaction to this was shock and dismay mixed with a healthy dose of anger.
The year I turned 36 I was a divorcée with a loving boyfriend of four years, the owner of a blooming business and a very clear personal goal: I was ready for a family, and soon. My mother's reaction to this was one of completely unrestrained relief.
If you asked me to pinpoint the moment I became family-aloof, I couldn't. Perhaps it was a control thing or maybe part of my evolution. I needed to conquer before I could mother. I'll admit that looking back, I feel a little guilty for being so capricious about it, for admitting my disinterest out loud. I feel bad for upsetting my mother. There, I said it.
So I feel a fair amount of guilt, but should I? After all, I was surrounded by women my age who were married to their careers. In fact, when I was 26, I had only one friend who had children. My life had very defined stepping stones: college, grad school and a long list of work goals that filled up the page before marriage and children. And besides, what was the harm? I still had plenty of time.
Ah, time. Such a sneaky thing. That whole "You're only as old as you feel," or however the saying goes, I get it now. Thirty-six feels vibrant and sexy, youthful but wise. It feels strong, fertile. It feels like I still have plenty of time.
I was still wrapped up in this feeling when I began to experience hot flashes. I'd had them throughout the week and attributed them to the summer heat wave. When I told friends, one of them immediately joked that I might be going through menopause. She quickly retracted her comment, saying I was too young. But it was too late; the idea was already floating around in my brain like a loose balloon.
The next morning I did what any rational, intelligent and resourceful person would do: I did a Google search so I could self-diagnose myself. I was, for the most part, calm as I surveyed the list of common symptoms.
Irregular Periods: check, but that's pretty normal. Hot flashes: check. Palpitations: check, usually with the hot flashes. Weight gain (especially around your waist and abdomen): check, but this is where I always gain it. Headaches, breast tenderness, bloating, insomnia: check, check, check and check. Bladder control problems: in the most candid way possible, I will admit to having this issue recently, it's not out of control (just so we're clear), but it has happened on occasion. Sore joints/muscles: check, I have trouble with stairs lately. Dizziness/Lightheadedness: check. Dry Mouth: check. There are some others, but you get the picture.
A heaviness started to set in as I moved on to the list of causes.
Radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy...
My heart sank swift and hard.
The words stung. I stared at them for a long time. My face burned red and hot, and I couldn't tell if it was a hot flash or just reality setting in: This October will mark my 16th year of remission. I am a cancer survivor.
I went through the motions. I called my gynecologist and made an appointment. I visited dozens of early menopause sites. I cried and cursed my body.
Did I know this could happen? Was I warned? Did I ask? Did I have alternatives? My mind raced and probed, searching my memory for some place to lay the blame. But deep down, I knew the answers were irrelevant. We hadn't asked. We didn't care. We were just so happy that it could be treated. We had celebrated my remission with joy and humbleness.
I fought the urge to call my mother. No one could possibly understand the fear of infertility more than she could: She began her own struggle just after she turned 20. On the outside, my mother had displayed a kind of steely grace that masked the pain she carried deep in her heart for the children she could never bear. Her sorrow was real. Her frustration was never-ending, and her questions were never answered, as the doctors were never able to diagnose the problem. At 28, after eight years of struggling with infertility, she became a mother via adoption.
While she relished her role as a parent, the heartache of never giving birth weighed heavily on her. She later told me it crushed and consumed her and that she never felt 100 percent complete. I don't begrudge her for being so honest. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be a woman of her generation unable to do the one thing she believed was part of her duty.
So I didn't call her.
I called three of my friends instead. The first blithely told me not to worry, that everything would be fine. She said a long walk would help. The second started to cry and apologized profusely. I did my best to console her. The third, my best friend Lisa, mulled it over for a moment. "Well, are you surprised?" she said. "You have to be first at everything, you had to skip grades so you could graduate first, you were the first to move away, the first to get a real job, the first to get divorced. Now you are the first at menopause. Congratulations, you beat me to it yet again." Then she told me to break something. I smashed a plate on the front porch.
Over the next several days, I did okay. I deactivated my Facebook page and went into hiding from all of the chubby baby and over-the-moon bump photos. I refused to talk to anyone about it. I sat at home without the radio or TV on and stared off into space for hours.
When the morning of my appointment finally arrived, so did the anxiety.
That day, I learned many things. I learned that early menopause is very common for someone with my medical history. I learned that I'm good candidate to have my eggs frozen. I learned what FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) levels are and where mine should be. I also learned that there will be more waiting, that I will need to have my blood drawn on the third day of my period and I will likely have to repeat this for many months. I learned that my boyfriend is very pro-adoption. And a saint. I learned that if I'm grateful to be here, I have to accept the consequences of what it took to save me. But moreover, I learned that no matter how much my heart wants to tell me differently, this is not the end of the world. This time, I have options.