“Being mistaken as a grandmother is a daily occurrence,” says 48-year-old Kelly Culbert of Kirkland of her time out and about with her 5-year-old daughter. “But I’m pretty young-looking and have developed a sense of humor [about it].”
Culbert is anything but alone. King, Pierce and Snohomish counties have the highest rates for advanced maternal age in the state. While these counties are also some of the state’s most populous, they reflect a trend in older motherhood; the percent of Washington mothers of newborns between the ages of 35 and 45 and older increased from 10 to more than 18 percent between 1990 and 2015.
According to the Pew Research Center, advancing maternal age isn’t just a Washington state phenomena. From 1990 to 2008, the proportion of new mothers aged 35 or older rose from 9 to 14 percent.
While the rise of older mothers isn’t exactly breaking news, there’s one little discussed impact: the growing number of women who go through menopause while actively raising a child or teen.
It can be an astonishingly out-of-body yet intensely intimate time, say mothers who’ve been there. For Culbert, she’s noticed striking similarities between her daughter’s changing body and her own. “[I watched] her toddler baby fat melt into a lean, curvaceous child while also noting [the] loss of subcutaneous fat in my face, arms and legs,” she says. Other mothers cite the clash of hormones and moods — especially when you’re parenting kids at a more fraught age (toddlers and teens, say).
Additional resources from women who've been there
The Wisdom of Menopause by Dr. Christiane Northrup
- The Menopause Book by Pat Wingert and Barbara Kantrowitz
So how can a mom figure out the best way forward when hormones are all around her? First, let’s establish what menopause is.
“The definition of menopause is one year without periods, taking place within a certain age group,” says Dr. Ann Bridges, an obstetrician and gynecologist with The Polyclinic in Seattle. “If you’re 51 and haven’t had a period in a long time, you’re probably going through menopause.”
Menopause is technically the winding down of a woman’s ovaries. “A woman has a set number of eggs that are released over her lifetime, and once they’re gone, that’s menopause,” Bridges says.
Physically, it can happen in any order: a woman’s periods become more irregular; she gets night sweats, hot flashes and/or experiences irregular sleep patterns; her metabolism slows down. “The symptoms can be on and off,” says Bridges. “Things change gradually, and then there is a peak where things tend to be the worst.”
Menopause can be as short as one year or as long as (or longer than) a decade. Alison Krupnick, a Seattle mother of two daughters, ages 16 and 18, began experiencing perimenopause in her early 40s. Fifteen years later, she’s still going through the process.
“I went six months last year [without a period] and then got my period, at which point doctors say the clock resumes ticking,” says Krupnick, who is midway through a year without periods. “This time, I think I’m experiencing the real deal.”
Meanwhile, she’s adjusting to life raising young women, rather than little girls, and is preparing for an empty nest. “My family is very supportive and humor is a big part of things,” she says of the many changes in her household.
Of course, menopause isn’t just about the physical changes brought on by changing hormones.
“There are two categories of menopause,” says Bridges. “There’s the physical stuff — the not sleeping well, the hot flashes — and there’s the emotional side — irritability, unpredictable mood swings, biting at kids and spouse.” Hormonal fluctuations aren’t new to women, of course, but while with a regular period, a woman can anticipate the hormonal fluctuations behind such symptoms; during menopause, she can’t.
Managing her own changing body and that of her child’s, a mother going through menopause has added challenges that younger mothers don’t face, such as age-related loneliness.
“It’s difficult not having friends who are the same age with children who are also the same age as my daughter,” says Culbert. “My friends all have older kids, so there’s limited shared experience to talk about. Those friendships tend to turn into good acquaintances.”
Older parents may also be a part of the sandwich generation, a.k.a. they’re also caring for their own aging parents. Add to that raising children or teenagers, and you have multiple sets of family members going through puberty — one active and one in reverse — during a potentially very fraught time of life.
How to survive the trip
Every household is different, but holding down some basic coping framework can go a long way toward managing the specifics of harrowing hormones:
- Be open: “Talk about it as a family!” says Bridges. “You might say, ‘This is what is happening to Mom. She might be irritable for no reason, but it’s not anyone’s fault and it will pass.’” Chances are, your kids are going through such highs and lows themselves. In Krupnick’s family, the M.O. is openness. “We’re very comfortable discussing our hormonal changes,” she says.
- Enlist an adult ally: No matter the makeup of your household, your spouse, partner or other adult family member can be a significant ally in coping as a family. “Support in understanding what you are going through and communicating that to the kids on your behalf can really help,” Bridges says.
- Laugh through it: Humor plays a huge role in Krupnick’s household. “My husband is very patient and has learned a lot. He seems to be the primary tampon purchaser these days,” she says. Humor can also loosen up even the more hesitant of family members. “My husband places his hands over his ears and hums when I try to discuss anything related to menses,” says Culbert. But they chuckle about her night sweats: “He remarks about the sheer magnitude of heat I produce during a hot flash at night and how suddenly they come on. We laugh [at that] as for most of our 17 years together I have been perpetually cold.”
- Talk to your physician and friends: Bridges, who practices at the Polyclinic, addresses menopause directly with her patients, discussing physical and emotional changes and what can be done to minimize any discomfort. She’s been there. The mother of three, Bridges says, “my youngest is 18, and we’ve had some fun during those years.” She suggests everything from prioritizing sleep and reducing outside commitments to increasing exercise and seeking hormone replacement, depending on the severity of symptoms. “If your quality of life is really impacted, it’s appropriate to try something different for a few years,” Bridges says. “But simply understanding what it is can be helpful.”
- Practice self-care: Culbert, Krupnick and Bridges each acknowledge the changes in their bodies. “Weight gain has been tough. Is it menopause? My thyroid? My pancreas? My love of chocolate? Probably some combination of all of the above,” says Culbert. Thankfully, the pathos in the process includes humor. “My daughter recently noted a SonoBello TV ad and suggested I consider it. Not the values I want to teach, but it was good for a laugh.”
For Krupnick, exercise has been her source for deliverance. She increased her already vigorous workout routine and reduced sugar in her diet. You’re only as old as you feel, she says. “I also don’t dress or act old — my daughters sometimes borrow my clothes! — so there’s been no capitulation to aging on my part,” she adds. Like Culbert, Bridges embraces humor. “Going shopping with my teenage daughter and everything looks good on her?” she says, laughing. “It’s not gonna happen for me.” And, she says, she’s just fine with that.