by Dr. Rachel Coleman
We’ve all heard the jokes about “menopausal women”—maybe we even told them or laughed at them, before we arrived here. I’ve noticed something about those jokes—they are almost all based on the “big three,” the triad of depressing symptoms commonly associated with “the change.” Hot flashes, grumpiness, weight gain—for non-menopausal or pre-menopausal “outsiders”, those three sum up the entire experience. It’s the package every woman is taught, explicitly or implicitly, to expect in her “mature” years.
However, I’ve discovered that both the deepest challenges and the greatest possibilities of this season of life lie in the elements of change for which no one prepares you. No one tells you how many times you will want to punch someone–the person who includes you in the category “women of a certain age,” or the cashier who assumes you get the “senior discount,” or even your wonderful, beloved thesis supervisor! I earned my PhD at age 56, and at one point in the process, this lovely man shook his head and said, “You’re doing such great work, I wish you could have done this twenty years ago.” Uh, yeah, I was a little busy—raising kids while in full-time ministry in another country and then working two jobs so my husband could earn his doctorate and the kids could graduate from college without debt.
No one gets you ready for the moments of grief, when you realize this is not a “mid-life crisis,” since almost certainly more than half of your life is now behind you. Worst of all, no one prepares you for the deep, wrenching theological crises—in the early months of my sudden entry into menopause, when the physical and emotional symptoms hit like a wrecking ball, I went through an anguished questioning of the “reach” of the Incarnation, since it incorporated only a male body. Could Jesus really identify with the fullness of my kind of humanity? (That’s another story for another essay.)
There are two other “no one tells you” elements of this season that have impacted my already-long menopausal journey. Both are reflected in the title of this piece (apologies to Lord Byron for reworking his famous line) and both represent the richest and most challenging (re)learning and (re)defining that continue to characterize this season. The first is the experience of redefining what it means to “walk in beauty.” The other is the stark reality that a full night’s sleep is something that has become only a distant memory. This last one was what put me over the edge, what turned my prayers into a nasty mixture of pouting, protesting, and peevish back-turning. I wanted my sleep-like-a-baby, eight-hour nighttime refreshment back—right now! After the first few turbulent years of can’t-get-to-sleep-and-can’t-stay-asleep (yes, there are reasons menopausal women are grumpy!), I’ve settled into a rhythm: comatose by 9:30 p.m., wide awake by 4 a.m. No more fuming when I see the clock, no more desperate attempts to recapture sleep—because what awaits me is undisturbed time with Jesus, journal, and java. Treasure! This has been a season of great spiritual growth and richer, fuller writing, teaching, and preaching as a result.
Embracing the (re)definition of beauty has been equally challenging and equally rewarding. The forced abandonment of “cute” shoes for “wanna-be cute” footwear that supports flattening arches and arthritic feet, the changes in skin and hair, the increased effort required to maintain muscle tone and endurance. . . the list goes on. Every look in the mirror confirms the growing gap between your reality and the young faces and figures that grace the ads, the magazine pages, and the television screens. At some point, you confront a choice. Either you buy into society’s monolithic and monochrome category for beauty and then fight like a maniac to fit your menopausal self to that increasingly unattainable standard, or you embrace the counter-cultural notion that beauty is polyvalent and polychromatic and then embark on a journey to discover those possibilities. (You can read about one aspect of my journey here, “Gorgeous Gray,” parts 1 and 2.)
An unexpected helper for me in this process has been Mary of Nazareth. Not the young Mary of Luke 2, whose robust and radical faith has been romanticized, sentimentalized, and forever frozen in youth by artists through the ages. No, it’s the 40- or 50-something Mary of Luke 24, John 19 and Acts 1, whose fierce faithfulness carries her to the foot of the cross and then to the Upper Room and Pentecost. It’s the (dare I say it?) menopausal Mary who intrigues me—the woman who wears the pain of widowhood, whose body bears the ineradicable marks of multiple pregnancies and years of hard work, whose face is not the seamless visage of youth but the creased map of a lifetime of tears and laughter, whose hair is streaked with white (perhaps overnight from the trauma of watching her first-born’s execution). Who could deny the enduring beauty of this woman, who undoubtedly knew the reality of sleepless nights and the pain of multiple losses, including the loss of youthful vitality?
Probably no one prepared her for the sometimes ludicrous effects of aging on her body, and like all women everywhere, she had to grapple with each new reality as it presented itself. And probably, like all the rest of her son’s followers, she was also unprepared for the explosion of spiritual vitality that happened on Pentecost. I am helped immeasurably by imagining this strong, beautiful woman “of a certain age” as she embarked on the discovery new possibilities for vibrant living in her “mature” years. I am intrigued with the thought of Mary rising at 4 a.m. to sit with a cup of whatever coffee-equivalent first-century Palestine offered and listen to her son’s voice through the presence of his Spirit. May we, like Mary, walk in beauty through this season!
Dr. Rachel Coleman blogs at WritePrayLove, “The intermittent musings of Dr. Nana.” It is a random mixture of devotional thoughts and theological reflections on a wide range of topics. She is an adjunct faculty member and course writer in Biblical Studies at Indiana Wesleyan University; an adjunct instructor and course writer in Bilingual and Spanish language Biblical Studies programs at Asbury Seminary-Orlando, Hispanic Christian Academy of United Theological Seminary; and on the Theological Education Team (Latin America), One Mission Society.
Oh, how I love this!
Several years ago, I played the role of Mary at Christmas time, but NOT the young, fresh-faced virgin, but the “menopausal Mary,” reminiscing about her son’s impact on the world. It felt good to broaden her character for all the church attenders who show up once a year and only know about the young girl in the blue tunic kneeling beside a feed trough.
Michele, that’s awesome!
I too have abandoned the bargaining, pleading, and general feelings of being a victim due to inability to sleep well. My routine tends to be up at 3, work for 2-3 hours, and then try to catch a quick nap before the day really starts. It’s far from ideal but it works. Thanks for this piece.
Dorothy, blessings on your “wee hours” fruitfulness–and on those power naps!
Wonderful post: I could really relate. I *think* you may have included the wrong link for the post about your gray hair — something I’m keen to read about b/c I also went gray this summer. I will try to find it on your blog. Thank you for this post; it’s beautiful and encouraging.
Thanks for letting me know about the link. You should be able to find it in the blog archive, but I will see if we can get that fixed.
Beautiful! Yes! You’ve captured it so well! I’m dressing however I want at this point, not counting hours of sleep (and trying not to even look at the clock for the 4 a.m. wakeup, or whenever), and wearing my hair long again, down to my waist but often in a messy bun, because I can and that’s how I like it. Birkenstocks, thank you. No heels.
Thank you for turning our eyes toward Mary, who also bucked the culture by running around with this ragtag band of followers of her blessed Son. So much encouragement in considering Mary. I’m going to look at those chapters again with Menopausal Mary in mind as I consider what she might have been doing within the church. I’m certain there’s a role model there for this phase of life. Great post!
Thanks! As a friend said yesterday, there’s a lovely freedom in this stage of life, isn’t there?