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The Secrets of Aging

Welcome to this week's Wednesdays with Wendy!
by Wendy Bradford

In sixth grade they probably showed a movie for mothers and daughters to attend in the evening, after school. The not-so-secret subject was menstruation. It was whispered about all day by both the boys and girls. Your best friend proudly shared her experience while you sat mesmerized and cross-legged on the carpeted floor of her bedroom.

After the first few, a girl gets the hang of it. There are private things to buy, and most drug stores double bag your square boxes of tampons, the diaper-like packing of overnight pads, and all the other boxes you have carried to the counter after standing in line, making eye contact with no one. If you were smart, you hid these things underneath magazines in your little handle cart and then avoided the stare of the teenage boy at the cash register. You threw gum into the pile, just because.

Sometimes you had to make your dad go out to the pharmacy for you, or you stealthily added "panty liners" to the weekly shopping list. And you grew accustomed to a little bit of shame about your unpredictable body.

In high school, you may have lived in constant terror that you would bleed through your tight jeans because you still had no idea what you were doing with all the boxes underneath the bathroom sink. "Can you check me?" you'd mouth to your closest girl friend, and then you'd walk ahead so you could get the full report. Your heart raced until you heard, "No, you're fine."

Then perhaps you went on birth control in your twenties, and you didn't think about your eggs, or bleeding, or babies. Or the end of those.

Years later, you learned the hard way that even though you don't menstruate while pregnant, you still get to stick a pantyliner, or several, on each day before getting dressed. Because all sorts of things are leaking out of you. You may even insist the doctor check your amniotic fluid more than once because there is no way this could possibly be normal.

When you were really, really close to giving birth to your first kid, maybe one really good friend told you to put maxi pads with wings in your hospital bag. "What on earth for?" you asked. Because what on earth would you need that for? (You still thank that friend for the advice.)

After your kid, or your three kids, nothing quite got back to normal. Things seemed to have moved around down there, moved up, moved over, moved on. But for the most part, you deal with the new normal because by now you are a pro when it comes to all things that seep, run, or leak from your body.

And then when you're getting a pedicure one day, skimming through a magazine with a gorgeous 40-something actress on the cover, showing her gorgeous baby bump, you read that "40 is the new 30," and that you are truly, spiritually, domestically, biologically, and blissfully in the prime of your life, you realize that hey, haven't I had my period for about two weeks now?

That can't be right. So when you get home, you take out your day planner, with all the kids' activities, the PTA meetings, and the parties for your husband's work noted, and you search back for the day with the big P encircled. Because by now, you have a system for everything. And that was 15 days ago. That can't be right. So you check your math because you have a lot on your mind of course.

You type into Google "period bleeding that lasts," and "long periods." And then you call the doctor's office, and they're closed. So you call the doctor on call because f*ck this. You make the next available appointment and hope you can find a babysitter because of course this is a vacation week for school.

You call the doctor on call again because you can't sleep and you're really freaked out. Each conversation begins with "I'm 43." She tells you to take a pregnancy test to be sure. But you are sure. Those few minutes with the test feel strange for so many reasons.

You go in first for the internal examination. You sit in the OB/GYN's office with a bunch of women who are younger than you are. You try to read your book and not think about why they are here.

You beg to get the ultrasound the same day because you really need to know what's going on, and you can't keep consulting Google. After making phone calls in the cold outside your OB/GYN's office, you find someone who can take you today, and you grab a cab. On the ride over, you want to text someone but you have nothing to say.

You have said "excessive bleeding" seven times today. While you wait in the next waiting room, without your pants, in a hospital gown and your snow boots, your husband calls to see how it went. Every woman here is older than you. There's a big sign that says no cell phones please, so you text him that you're waiting now for the transvaginal ultrasound, which sounds very technical and uncomfortable and cold. He is probably worried for you, which makes you a little bit happy.

When the doctor calls later to say they didn't find anything, you are lying in bed feeling scared and defeated, like you failed at something big. You ask all the questions you've gathered from Google about perimenopause, and hormones, and average age, and menopause, and symptoms, but she only wants you to come in for the endometrial biopsy first. She's not worried, and asks that you don't either. You get her to say "This happens," because just that makes you feel okay. And you have no idea if this does actually happen. There is no movie that explains it. No friend warned you there will be one period that may last for what seems like forever.

After a glass of wine, while sitting with your husband on the sofa late at night, watching the Olympics, you will ask him if he's sure he doesn't want another baby. When he asks why you want one so badly, you can't come up with a good answer.

And when you're sitting in Starbucks the next week, waiting to pick up your kids from school, and your doctor calls to say that everything was fine, and maybe you should come in for a chlamydia and gonorrhea test to rule those out, and you spit your latte out and insist that won't be necessary, you think Good god, what is going on?

But you talk to your 40-something friends who are also the new 30 and in the prime of their lives, asking them at a brunch meeting about their own cycles, and you find out that they too are experiencing weird things; you aren't the only one. And some of them are nervous too. And while 40 is strong and gorgeous and smart and successful and confident and achieved, there is more to 40 than we are being told in our thirties. The real 40 is complicated and bittersweet and lovely--and subject to laws beyond the pages of a magazine. The real 40 shouldn't be a secret in a doctor's office; the real 40 shouldn't be a surprise when you're 43.

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