The Queen of My Self

By Darcey Steinke

… continued from Part 1, posted on Friday 

If in my mother’s era menopause was rarely spoken of, in my own it’s a comedic premise. Joke websites have sections specifically for change-of-life humor. “If prison guards were all menopausal women, there would be no more crime,” or, “Trusting a menopausal women to control her emotions is like trusting a tornado to mow your lawn.”

Women, too, cast themselves as unstable lunatics. One writer joked that she’d called the police to complain about all the things menopause had stolen from her. Her waist. Her sex drive. Her sanity. Another compared menopause to demonic possession, concluding that she’d be more stable with a demon inside of her. The writer Sandra Tsing Loh called her transition a “wacky hormonal dance.” Her book, The Madwoman in the Volvo, begins with Loh pulling her car over on the freeway because she is crying hysterically over the death of her daughter’s hamster.

Besides lunatic-in-the-midst-of-a-lady breakdown, the only other menopausal icon is the crone. A woman I know encouraged me to perform a “croning” ceremony. We would meet in the forest on the night of a full moon. By candlelight I’d chant, “Come, baby crone, come, butterfly,” then evoke the seven directions before finally kneeling down to kiss the earth.

Call me superficial, but I don’t want to be a crone. If there were a ceremony where I welcomed my new, Bowiesque androgynous self, I might be down, but I don’t want to become a holy hag. Besides, I don’t live in a tribal culture that has a place of honor waiting for older women. I live in the patriarchal, youth-obsessed, porn-drenched USA, where in films 27-year-old women are regularly paired with 50-year-old men, where women inject botulism into their foreheads to look younger, where the message to older women is: You’ve served your purpose, now it’s time to step aside.

Maybe, I reasoned, the problem was that I should be dead. Scientists speculate that the only reason menopause exists is that modern medicine and better diet have pushed women to live beyond their procreative necessity. Newer research has uncovered the “grandmother hypothesis,” in which middle-aged women “give up” their reproductive potential so they can focus on their offspring’s offspring. While raising my daughter I liked this idea, but now that I’m in the older group, caring for grandchildren does not seem enough of a purpose for the next 40 years of life.

I continued casting around, feeling less and less like my old self as the hormones continued to recede. Finally, when I was about to give up hope, I discovered the female killer whale. Beside humans, only two other creatures go through menopause, and one of these is the killer whale. These creatures travel the sea in pods — complex, cohesive family groups. Females procreate from 12 to 40, but they live, like women, 30 to 40 years more.

A recent study in Current Biology found that older females lead their pods, particularly in times when salmon, their main food source, is scarce. The elder females hold crucial ecological knowledge, and all whales, even younger males, prefer to follow the older females. The study goes on to speculate that menopause developed in early human hunter-gatherer societies for the same reasons it did in killer-whale pods: Stopping reproduction gave women the freedom they needed — not to care for grandkids, but so they could lead.

It made so much sense. I felt wild because I was wild — not shaky and insecure, but rattling with a raw and primal energy. I felt an odd kinship to the prepubescent girl I’d been. My breeding years were an aberration of life rather then the norm. I was returning — older, wiser — to my original state. After so many years I was finally slipping out of the haze created by female hormones, a veil that had kept me docile and accommodating. Yes, my breeding period was over, but fertility continued, larger and more mysterious. I was called by God, remade in heat, and about to break into dark and expansive waters. Like the killer whale, I also knew how to find the food.

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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to

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