When we think of growing older, there are a few expected scenarios such as wrinkles, grey hair, and drooping overweight body parts that inevitably cross every single person’s mind. Even when we don’t have a natural inclination to care about these types of changes, or there’s an initial ambivalence and health is a priority, we’re definitely reminded of negative imagery associated with a woman’s appearance by the flood of ads on television or magazines that bombard us daily. In the waiting area at the dermatologist’s office, it’s hard to stay focused on a book or even a phone when a plethora of youth-enhancing remedies lure you to take that extra glance, look up and inspect the possibility of looking wrinkle-free and gravity-free and absolutely flawless for at least the next six months, without invasive procedures.
However, despite the inevitable change in one’s appearance, menopause is another inescapable stage of life, but it’s one of those far-removed thoughts that we seldom attach to ourselves when we’re younger, at least that was the case for me. It’s comparable to the chapter about C-sections that I purposely skipped in that all-too-familiar book for expectant mothers, and then I ended up with not one, but two C-Section births. Similarly, menopause is not something I ever thought about, or read about and perimenopause, yikes, was a totally new term but, boy, what a can of worms, and how displeasing to usher in this stage of life that comes with an assortment of symptoms for most of us. When I was thrust with night sweats, nighttime sleep was more like a fading memory and akin to a nightly swim fest.
Menopause is a dramatic drop in estrogen, a hormone that affects emotions. As a result of this decline in ovarian function, many women suffer irritability, or sadness, or anxiety and perhaps fatigue or hot flushes/flashes, and night sweats. When these symptoms take center stage, I can assure you that any other superficial age-related issues are suddenly not as urgent, not that much of an eyesore either. I think that a good quality of life trumps any other concern at the end of the day. Whether you’re into the organic approach to aging and beauty or a fan of modern medicine and erasing all notions of aging–at this juncture, trust me when I say that your mind becomes concerned with hormone therapy or new supplements instead.
So Damn Sweaty
When I say “night sweats,” medically termed as “sleep hyperhidrosis,” I mean the kind of sweating that leaves no other option but to wrap one’s body in a towel, place another one on the sheets while your partner opts to wear a bathing suit because, let’s face it, your king-size mattress is more like a pool than a bed these days. It also means so much more laundry!
Once the night sweats happened to me and I figured it was perimenopause, I had time to think about this stage–this word. It’s not one of those beautiful- sounding words and although this isn’t a lesson is phonesthetics (from the Greek word meaning voice-sound and aesthetics), I’m sure you can agree that it doesn’t sound particularly pleasing. It’s not poetic or exotic like other words such as “serendipity” or “epiphany”—words that I deem beautiful—but instead, menopause and her younger sister perimenopause connote old, undesirable, prone to disease, and unsexy. In ancient times a woman’s value was placed on her reproductive abilities, so once she was infertile she was deemed useless. I think that somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds this thought does come back to haunt us; it’s the reason that in some cultures women still prefer to ignore it rather than discuss it, or they don’t even have a specific word to define it, or any of the symptoms.
The word is also misleading; does it mean that our cycle merely pauses—that it’s a temporary change then? In 1821, de Gardanne was a French physician who coined this phrase when he published his book “De la menopause, ou de l’arge critique des femmes.” He adopted it from the medical Latin word “menopausis.” The etymology of this word is “men” which is month or moon otherwise known as “mene,” and “pauein” means to “cease” or “stop.” So in no time did anyone think it was ever coming back. It was always final.
But Whales Can Breed Until Age 80!
That’s a thought, and elephants breed until well into their 60s. I’m also aware that the ocean quahog is a type of clam that lives to be 500 years old and even older, so it would be interesting to know a little more about its reproductive cycle. However, generally, most animals continue to reproduce until they die and the only exceptions we find are in humans and some whale species. In evolutionary terms, we should not even be alive once our ovaries shut down for business. When apes stop breeding in their mid-30s they usually die, yet humans and whales live many years past the end of their reproductive lifespan. A number of evolutionary biologists believe in the “grandmother hypothesis”–that longevity promotes the survival of our offspring and the continuation of our genes. We thrive when our mothers stick around apparently, and it’s the same for whales. Elephants on the other hand continue to reproduce until they die, because their offspring tend to leave the herd so the mother’s nurturing abilities do not extend beyond that time as is the case with whales who remain in the same pod and thus can benefit from the older whale’s experience of the wild–the females become repositories of ecological knowledge and their influence also means the successful passage of their genes.
It’s A Matter Of Perception
How interesting that the menopause experience differs from country to country, for this reason it’s viewed in a biocultural paradigm. There are a variety of factors that shape women’s ideas and attitudes towards menopause. It’s important to consider biological, psychological, social, and cultural approaches to this change. There’s either a positive or negative approach to menopause and in some instances it’s a non-issue altogether. You see that some view it as the “end of youth” while others feel a great relief–more sexual freedom when contraception becomes obsolete. In Asian countries, for instance, there are lower numbers of reported incidents of symptoms relating to menopause, they don’t even have an equivalent word for hot flushes/flashes. Lucky. This has something to do with genetics, although once Asian women move to the West these statistics change, which means that cultural and environmental factors should always be taken into consideration. In the Native American culture, a post-menopausal woman is considered a woman of wisdom—she ranks higher in society, so it’s a positive experience. In places where women spend the majority of their lives pregnant, there are lower incidents of reporting menopausal symptoms because they’ve spent most of their lives with lower levels of estrogen. Therefore, in this instance loss of fertility is not a major life-changing event. In societies where women are valued according to their reproductive abilities, if they have not produced the right amount of children menopause is a negative experience. In Arab countries the word for menopause is “desperate age,” so for those women it’s also a negative experience. In the West we tend to put less emphasis on a woman’s reproductive abilities, we tend to focus on things like wrinkles and small boobs more than we do on procreation so menopause does not carry with it the same weight.
In Greek society, apparently menopause is not a positive experience because it’s also seen as a demotion of sorts. However, the silver lining for these women is their ability to also fully engross themselves in church activities that are forbidden from women before this stage of their lives.
And Then There’s My Experience
Perhaps I should feel relief that in my family I’m already respected, even known to be the “wise one” (on some topics), and my husband and I share our responsibilities equally. For this reason I don’t see a change in status as I near the end of my reproductive abilities. From a personal perspective, however, I think that moving past the sweats will be the life-changing event that I will happily embrace. I have a feeling that my nightly sweats have kept my weight down, so once those stop I suppose I will need to watch my diet more carefully and exercise more vigorously, but that’s a trade I’m willing to make. I am also looking forward to the day when swimming means a visit to the beach rather than my bedroom.
In the meantime, I wish to find a credible physician who will actually help alleviate these symptoms, because seven years into night sweats I have already heard so many theories and my bloodworks are normal, but no one has been able to stop the sweats. At a recent visit to an OBGYN, this is what she said: “Well, night sweats can come as a result of many different things: it could be cancer, and another possibility is perimenopause–you are after all in the right age bracket . . . “ After she uttered the word “cancer,” I automatically shut her out. Like anything else in life, there are good teachers and bad teachers, good writers and terrible writers, good doctors and those who shouldn’t be doctors at all. I need to find a good doctor, soon.
Perimenopause is temporary and menopause is final, I can live with that notion and not feel an ounce of sadness despite its negative implications in some parts of the world. I think that post-menopause will be an interesting stage of life, and even though there’s a list of risks involved such as osteoporosis or cardiovascular disease, with the right care I’m actually quite all right with the change. Perhaps at that stage my forehead wrinkles will begin to bother me again, who knows. Maybe I’ll even have the energy to create a new line of nightware: Sweaty Wife Pajamas. How does that sound?
In the meantime, I think I may order a new bathing suit for Greg, I like a variety of looks in the bedroom.
The years you remember only through photos.
Most of us don’t remember our very first birthdays, and even though our family may have marked those events with a significant birthday bash and the photos are a testament to the wonderful time we had catching bubbles, blowing candles, eating birthday cake, and opening gifts, we rely on photos to remind us just how much fun it was. After that, most birthdays tend to blend in with each other, unless you’re Jewish and then you have a Bat or Bar Mitzvah to mark a birthday, which in the Jewish tradition is considered a rite of passage. After that, we tend to remember the significant birthdays that symbolize a milestone in our lives such as our 20th birthday, 30th, 40th and so forth. Notice that I purposefully ignored the Sweet 16 and 18th Birthdays and the reason is that I never had a Sweet 16, because growing up in Israel it was not a custom that we followed. Although birthday number 18 is definitely a milestone, again, when you’re about to start your two-year obligatory military service, freedom and emancipation have to take a back seat for a while and this gives the celebration a whole new meaning.
Somber beginning to my 30s.
When I turned 30, it was a somber time in my life and a very cheerless birthday. I was served with divorce papers only a few days earlier—what timing. This was the end of my innocence, a harsh lesson in human nature and I felt disillusioned by life in general. But during my 30s I also began to heal from my divorce, and symbolically speaking it was almost as though I was trying to shed off old skin because I wanted to have nothing to do with the old Ilana and that included ditching my legal career. It was a bold decision and one that changed the course of my life forever. But I don’t think it would have happened had I not received a formal letter from NBC’s sensor who read a spec script that I wrote for one of the top shows at the time: Seinfeld. In the letter (I still have it), I was told to pack my bags and move to LA .
Once I moved, the show was cancelled and nobody bothered to answer my calls any longer. However, that was not enough of a wake-up call and it took me another twenty years to realize how things really work in Hollywood as well as in the literary world. One has to be recommended by someone in the industry in order for a literary agent to even consider reading their work . . . the rest is history, albeit I continued to work hard and create a body of work, which included The Original Insult Company featuring 210 insult and passion cards, and I was known as the Queen of Insults or the Queen of Passion—I would actually get phone calls asking to speak with the Queen of Passion. I worked together with my sister Sharon and those years represented a stimulating and harmonious time in my life. This project garnered me regular radio appearances across the country and even an appearance on the Howard Stern Show. I also created The Venetians—a beach talk show that I wrote and hosted; Playfilm.org was a collection of different shows that I wrote and directed, and it even included The Dr. Leon Show about advances in medicine. All this was much before YouTube, and I was definitely ahead of my time.
Just Maya and me.
So I managed a few moments of success, even a face-to-face with executives at Paramount in order to discuss my show Youthtruth, and in a very mysterious manner they decided to shelf the idea, but then it came out in the same format as a whole new show altogether and I was not included. The thing is that it would have been totally different had someone actually represented me during those years, and my experiences would have probably been more positive than negative. However, these experiences kept me focused on the prize even though I remained on the periphery of the entertainment world. I thought that since I had a law degree, someone would see the value in hiring me and giving me a chance. Uh-uh, no way, even though I was pursued by a few people who would have helped me with my career, but sleeping with them did not appeal to me so much. I don’t have room to begin mentioning all the screenplays and stories and school plays that I wrote and directed during my 30s but phew—I had accomplished so much.
Meeting Greg for the first time in England.
The highlight of my 30s was meeting Greg.
A highlight from my 30s was meeting Greg on JDate, and when realizing the random nature of our finding each other, it makes it all the more spectacular. He has been the one and only man to love me just the way I am. He supports me in every way and loves my writing and always helps with all the complicated technical issues that arise from being an independent writer. And boy, I admit that I do test his limits with my endless requests! He even cooks breakfast every Sunday and serves it to me in bed. Okay, it’s only egg on toast and he’s never tried anything new, but the way that yolk oozes on my slice of toast is absolutely perfect–and with his expert sprinkling of salt and pepper, and toasting the bread to my liking, this egg dish is quite delectable.
Celebrating my 40th birthday.
When I turned 40, I don’t think that I spent too much time thinking about it; however, I remember the day quiet vividly because I was one month shy of giving birth to Jack. I could barely move with a belly that looked like I was hiding an especially large watermelon that was sure to win first prize at the local County Fair! Look at me. However, the way I chose to celebrate my day says a lot about my mind frame at the time; I asked to go to the Wynn Buffet, where my sister Sharon joined us and we sat and ate for three whole hours. Three hours! We stuck to our well-tested buffet eating etiquette, which meant only placing one or two items on our plates and actually chewing our food instead of swallowing then dashing towards the next enticing item on the menu so that in the end everything is one mishmash and you can’t even remember your favorite dish of all.
Indeed, there was no hurry and we experimented with foods that were either smoky, spicy, sweet, tangy or tart–no rules for that because at the buffet you’re allowed to indulge in a little bit of guilt-free, temporary gluttony. We had so much fun talking and eating, and eating and talking that it was one of the nicer birthdays I’ve had.
My 40s were also very productive years, albeit I suffered from chronic fatigue for the most part because Jack was not the easiest baby, the poor little thing had colic and bundles of energy. Phew, is it a wonder that there are years that have been erased from memory . . . It was also the first time that I realized that I had aged. I remember how I felt when I woke up one morning to the sight of bags under my eyes—I was horrified. I also realized that no amount of makeup can make you look as good as before, and that no matter how you dress and how you do your hair, you just don’t look as fresh and young as in your 30s, and at this juncture many of us begin to wage war against Mother Nature!
So tired during the early years of Jack.
It was definitely a transition. I used this time to continue to create; I wrote and directed a play that appeared at The Arts Factory and I self-published all of my books. I decided that I had absolutely no patience for rejection, and there was no reason to ever have to deal with naysayers or people who ignore me.
I also began to take better care of myself; I made sure to wear a hat in the sun, apply sunscreen on a regular basis, and eat more healthily, but my workout regimen had stated to teeter. I had grown terribly sick of gyms and lessons, and lifting my legs up, down, round and round, and pressing weights and flexing my toes and stretching my arms, so instead I took up road cycling. Ahh, what fun memories I have of cycling together with my husband and father across winding paths along Red Rock Canyon or Lake Mead, or along the country roads and corn fields in Western NY, and even partaking in the Can-Am cycle while observing the incredible sights along our path. Niagara Falls never looked as beautiful as it did on that particular day on my bike. I soon discovered that I also needed to incorporate some of the other workouts too, the ones I grew tired of doing–so just like brushing teeth, which I know I can’t do without, I added a few more exercises here and there.
I also realized that I did not want to become one of those obsessed individuals who constantly worried about her looks and fretted over every new marking on my face or body, in the same way one does when purchasing a new car. How exhausting is that?–there had to be a balance for that too. There’s nothing wrong with caring about one’s looks, it’s normal, natural for every one of us, but obsessing and never liking what you see in the mirror, uh-uh, not for me. I also started writing about aging, which some would argue is a form of obsession, but I disagree, and one of my biggest pleasures is knowing that I’ve managed to help other women at a critical time of their lives that some may consider scary and unfair.
Nevertheless, as the time neared my 50th birthday I became very introspective and very unsure of how I felt about life in general. It’s a huge milestone—you’ve lived for half a century after all. You suddenly realize that you’re much closer to death than to your birth, and I couldn’t shake out of my head the idea that when Jack celebrates his 50th I will be 90. In my mind it was an unwelcomed number, so mostly it was going to be a negative transition. And all this, even though I had spent ten years researching and writing about age and beauty and feeling a measure of contentment, knowing that I was doing good work and helping people along the way.
To be fair, my negative thoughts had nothing to do with my physical appearance and more to do with what I had managed to accomplish in 50 years. Or rather, what I had not accomplished at all. I didn’t reach the goals I had set for myself, and those included getting some sort of recognition from industry professionals. I wanted to be represented by an agent and see one of my screenplays on the Golden Screen. I wanted to walk into a theater in order to experience the reaction of an audience to something that I had written. I wanted to be picked up by a traditional publisher so that my work would reach a larger audience—none of which happened.
I felt mentally worn out, and I was consumed with regret. I began to second-guess everything that I had done. I was afraid that I had wasted my time and I panicked. I also tried to imagine my life as an attorney, after all I did have a law degree but what had I done with it? All those what-ifs bombarded me day and night. There was very little sleep during these last few months.
College move-in day with my eldest, Maya.
Enjoying a visit to the Getty with Jack.
When I shared my thoughts with Greg, he looked at me as though I had turned mad. He reminded me of my commitment to my children and everything that I had instilled in them in order to make them happy, clever, confident, and talented individuals. And so many times women, especially, tend to overlook the important role they’ve played in their children’s lives. He reminded me of all of the holiday dinners, parties, and get-togethers with family and friends–my wacky, themed, over-the-top buffet decorations to boot! All of those surprised faces, tears, and smacking of lips when tasting my culinary creations. But I didn’t care to hear about that. I needed to know about my professional life: was I a failure or a success? And how does one measure success anyhow? I asked. Is it all about income or recognition, what the hell determines success? “Well,” explained Greg, “success is measured by the value that one creates in other people’s lives.” Hmm. Really? Was he not just saying this in order to somehow placate my troubled soul? I needed a little bit of time to process this idea but I think that for the first time this was an answer that eventually resonated with me. I felt a sense of relief actually.
Also during this time, I received a beautiful letter from my uncle Ami whereby he explained the significance of every age according to the Jewish tradition. Apparently, once reaching 50, you usher in the age of wisdom and as such you can now rest a little and enjoy your new role of advisor. At this stage one has already experienced it all: there is more understanding, knowledge, emotional maturity, family and a deeper understanding of man’s soul.
This makes a whole lot of sense doesn’t it? I think that my 50th birthday will be a reason to celebrate, and it’s also a reason for my parents to celebrate. It’s definitely solidified a few thoughts; it has forced me to take a long breath and take stock of it all. I know what’s important and I have a better sense of who I am and what I want to do with the rest of my life, but most importantly I know how I want to live the rest of my life. I cherish my family and my friendships, some of which have carried on since my childhood years in Israel and England and have overcome such great distances. I realize that success is not measured by one’s career only but rather by the quality of life that you have led, and this further translates into so many different things.
And it’s all because of these two.
When the clock strikes 12:00 a.m., I realize that there will be no significant change, I will still look the same, but I believe that something magical will happen as I have spent a lot of time pondering questions surrounding my life. I think that when I wake up tomorrow morning I will want to celebrate and make more memories with the people who matter to me the most, and I will continue to create because it’s part of my identity. I believe that as long as I feel good about myself, getting older won’t matter as much especially because most of the angst is in our own head anyway. Turning 50 is not the end of the world. I promise.