Puberty, Perimenopause, and a Pandemic, Oh My!

It almost seems that occasionally giving up self-consciousness is necessary for building a strong self-concept. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Disclaimer: This is a more personal and vulnerable essay than I’m accustomed to sharing. I do so with the hope that getting this real will inspire and guide others to do the same, and perhaps alleviate some perceived taboos.

What contributes to forming and assessing one’s self-concept?

Is this an ongoing process or does it have phases? Is it a passive or active process? And what’s necessary to make the process not only tolerable, but enjoyable if possible? These, and so many more questions, have occupied my mind more frequently than I care to admit in recent years, because they’re front and center in my life. And to some extent due to the pandemic, yours.

14 years old in a few days, my son has recently emerged from the throes of puberty with all its not-so-subtle challenges. And I, nearly 50, am going through the throes of perimenopause, which for me, has proven excessively challenging. To say our household swings wildly through a breadth of emotions regularly would be an egregious understatement. But top that off with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, and it feels like we’ve been living in a near-constant pressure cooker of hormones and potential drama.

My son and I learned early on into all these experiences, that it’s best to take a pause in solitude when it takes a turn for the reactionary. Bless my amazing kiddo for being a conscious child and willingly engaging in conversations about human development! I shudder to think of the alternative, as we’ve both needed honesty, compassion, support, and humor while we move through these life phases.

Puberty, no sweat, I was once a teenager!

I greeted the onset of my son’s puberty with all the confidence in the world. Not only did I study child development in graduate school, but I was a fairly conscious teenager who went through puberty once upon a time. I figured there likely couldn’t be surprises, despite all the warnings of my friends . . .

What I discovered was not surprises about my son per se, but how much my knowledge and humility played into the ease of my son’s transition. I did a refresher on the neuroscience of the teenaged brain, to remind myself that the brain at this stage is not only still expanding as rapidly as it was in early childhood, but that it’s also going through a rewiring process. Forming new synapses is a teenager’s way of making sense of the world and one’s place in it, the subsequent consequence however, is absentmindedness and irreverence.

The key to maintaining joy in my son’s life and my sanity has been to bear witness to his experiences without any expectations. I’ve allowed him enough spaciousness to forget to put dishes in the dishwasher without comment, but have reinforced the idea of mindfulness when he goes so far as to leave a personal item somewhere that subsequently needs replacing. We’re in a stage of our parent/child dynamic where I may sound like a broken record occasionally, but I work hard to consciously avoid nagging.

I’ve never felt more like a clueless parent (or person of advancing years) than I do now.

I’m mostly out of touch with popular culture (something that doesn’t trouble me in the least), which causes my son to actively shy away from engaging with me about many of the things he enjoys. I’ve played more video games during the pandemic, to soften his isolation, than I ever did in my own childhood. But what I’ve witnessed in the effort, is that this phase of my son’s life is all about the creation of his self-concept within a cultural framework; he wants access and novelty.

My son has been deepening and broadening his relationship with the world he inhabits to know himself and how he navigates as an independent, mature human. This process has in some ways been postponed or thwarted because of the isolation of the pandemic. We understand ourselves through relationship, as the world mirrors to us who and what we are and can become. What happens when these very essential experiences are hindered at this tender age?

I can’t answer this question because I think it’s wholly subjective. My sense is the answer for my son in particular fits into a larger spiritual and more independent conception than what might have occurred for him otherwise, given that he’s been in isolation with me for most of the last 2 years and I can’t help but have esoteric, philosophical conversations. The irony of course, is that my own self-concept has radically broken down at the same time he’s trying to build his. Together, we’ve inhabited a certain kind of formlessness. This spaciousness has given both of us permission to play somewhat with radical potential.

It shouldn’t be an act of feminism to know how your body works. – Jen Gunter

I never talked about perimenopause (I didn’t even know this expression until it started happening to me!) or menopause with my mother. It seems, as I’ve now discussed this at length with my friends and doctors, no one else I know every discussed it with their mothers either. I remember my mother’s hot flashes, but they were largely dismissed quickly by shedding layers of clothing. The rest, which was significant apparently, was kept in the dark.

Historically, women just suffered in silence; accepting that perhaps their glory days were behind them and it’s best to quietly make peace with their changing circumstances. But there is a significant identity shift that takes place during this life transition for many women, especially the ones who see dramatic changes in their figures, romance, or even their values. Perhaps you are, or will be, one of the lucky ones that transitions without much ado. Unfortunately, I’m not. I’ve been suspended in the physical chaos of multiple self-perceptions that have me questioning who I am and what I value daily. And it’s been a lot, sometimes even too much .  .  .

Just as I think I’m making peace with the changes and what my appearance may look like when this process is over, I’m hit with a magazine cover of Jennifer Lopez, two years my senior, wearing a bathing suit and looking like a 30-year-old, while I offload my groceries at the check-out. Suddenly, I want to gorge all the chocolates in the last-temptation-section to temporarily feel better. Okay, so I have neither the resources nor the time to make J-Lo effort around my body now . . . and more importantly, there comes a point where it’s not a question of what you want or even what’s possible, but rather what’s subjectively realistic. Somewhere in between striving and thriving is a sweet spot that will likely not physically manifest as we might expect.

For years, I took for granted that I ate well, exercised daily, and prioritized sleep, so I basically had a dependable amount of vitality and a healthy, strong body.

But then I started having night sweats: waking up at all hours – repeatedly some nights – my body slick with sweat and my bed a puddle of wet sheets, so all dependability was off. Hours of deprived sleep left me feeling like I was running on empty all the time. It also became abundantly clear that my diet and exercise routine was no longer sufficient to maintain my healthy weight and my body started to thicken in unwelcome ways. I began intermittent fasting, cleanses, increased exercise, and a myriad of other options to get my weight gain under control with no success, only stress and mental exhaustion.

My doctor told me weight loss may not happen until after menopause . . . fuck! As time progressed without improvement, my confidence started to feel more and more strained. And as the pandemic wore on, elastic waistbands seemed to replace the tailored clothes I favor. Science it seems, couldn’t help me, because science didn’t really know there was a problem, which I discovered after hours of online research. The scientific community hasn’t advocated for knowledge around the perimenopause/menopause process, so what occurs in a woman’s body – shy of awareness of hormonal fluctuations – remains largely a mystery to this day.

It seemed help would not be forthcoming, and I could no longer depend on a measure of consistency. There was nothing left to do but laugh . . . laugh at how absurd it was that this was all happening at once; laugh at the injustice that my son and I are sharing blemish remedies at the same time I’m also getting wrinkles and gray hair; laugh that the joys of community, that might have provided emotional support and reprieve, are a temporary thing of the past.

Don’t lock us down when we want to scream and run!

I couldn’t have imagined a more inopportune (or opportune, as there are larger forces at play) time for my son and I to both be moving through such significant life changes. The emotional turmoil of the pandemic only compounded and exacerbated what has felt like a fragile transition. It became even more emotionally crippling, when I also experienced the loss of my parents in 2021: my father passed away and my mother slipped increasingly into the advanced recesses of Alzheimer’s Disease. The toll of it all has felt like moving through life with a little rain cloud above my head constantly.

All of this forced me into levels of self-awareness bordering on obsessive: heightened sensitivity to whatever emotional fluctuations informed my son’s and my mood daily, my own wild swings in energy, and a near-constant desire to run away, anywhere, as fast as I could. But there’s nowhere to run and so, like so many in the global community, we’ve been forced to face ourselves with brutal honesty . . . and a self-care routine that, at any other time, would have seemed excessive and indulgent.

This unprecedented self-scrutiny finally forced me to throw up my hands and surrender all self-consciousness. After about three years of struggle, I let go. Stop trying to make it anything other than what it is. Be. Here. Now. Feel all of it with grace, not matter how difficult or confusing, because in the grace is the release. It’s precisely the self-care, often a stroll with the sun on my face or a bubble bath with some favorite music for example, that has kept me joyful and maintained my wholeheartedness even while feeling the weight moving through my heart.

Self-conception is just an act of creation to celebrate having a unique human experience. 

My self-concept is no longer based on anything externally dependable (Is there anything truly externally dependable?). In fact, given the isolation of the pandemic, I finally experienced it at every level of my being for what it is: completely contrived and therefore, nonexistent. I am. Energy. Being. Here in this moment only. The only me to materialize from this point onwards is entirely of my own making: every moment is an inspired act of self-creation. And I can only take my cues from spirit – my higher Self – because nothing else will ever be entirely consistent or in my absolute best interest.

If the last couple of years illuminated anything about the creation of one’s self-concept, it’s this: an enduring sense of self is bullshit, because anything that doesn’t originate from spirit is subject to review and transformation . . . and that’s pretty much everything. We’re here to reveal the larger forces at play so we can grow, that’s the point! Dropping our self-consciousness long enough to feel into the infinite reminds us that we’re the infinite experiencing a temporary act of creation: a human life. It’s entirely subjectively unique, it needs to be constantly flexible, and it thrives with compassion and support.

Teenagers going through puberty need their peers and the input of cultural sources, so they can avoid the embarrassment of having to confide in a parent. This input is twofold: it helps them find and create distinctions in their style and it illuminates their passions. Middle aged women need science to catch up with what’s happening physically, so they can retain a sense of vitality and confidence. But ultimately, self-conception is both an active and passive process based on what we need and value when we need and value it. At certain times in our life, self-conception is a tool for manifesting maturity or a coping mechanism in the face of challenges. At other times, it’s a wild and exciting rollercoaster of unpredictability and creativity. But it’s always within our power, because it’s ultimately a journey to reveal our innate wholeness.