by Ellen Kellogg
Two nights ago, I didn’t sleep well. Pretty typical mix of racing thoughts and probable over-caffeination. My 7-year-old son was in bed with us radiating heat like an octopus furnace. I knew he arrived somewhere between the hours of 2AM and 3AM, and I let him crawl over my pretend comatose body rather than adhere to my husband’s new rule ("The kids need to stay in their own beds!") because I quite like looking at his plump little face in the middle of the night.
In these moments, my mind drifts back to studying the same face 7 years prior while willing him to sleep under the spell of a steady sway and Adele’s "Make You Feel My Love." I even travel forward in time, imagining a future self that longs for the clingy dependence of her little boy. "Where did the time go?" I will characteristically wonder— "What happened?"
I’m certain I’m not alone as a 40-something woman, mom, and ‘keeper of the [bleep]’ who is experiencing sleepless nights plagued by stress, increased caffeine sensitivity, possible hormonal shifts, and bouts of emotional surrender. My friend circle consists mainly of middle-aged moms— many at, or nearing, the pinnacle of their careers— and I run a company that develops innovations to address the unmentionables of womanhood. So, in a nutshell, my personal and professional lives revolve around women (myself included) airing our middle-age grievances. Among them:
"I woke-up in a cold, wet sweat last night… I literally had to change my pajamas."
"My PMS feels especially intense this month."
"I’ve been dealing with this pain in my lower back for months."
"I think I might be losing my hair."
"I’m too tired for sex."
"I can’t be touched right now."
"I’ve completely lost it."
"I’m too busy."
I’ve begun to refer to this stage of life for women as "The Lightyears." The time between our psychological childbearing years and perimenopause, in which life seems to be moving at the speed of light. Mentally, physically, and emotionally— as we raise children from infancy to adolescence, progress or pivot in our careers, deal with aging parents, and hold rank as heads of household— we cover enormous ground.
This period in a woman’s life can last a couple years or a decade, but I’m confident that in either case the energy produced and consumed far exceeds what the passage of time would reasonably predict— just like with lightyears.
For me, my Lightyears began at 37. I’m five years in. In that time, I’ve started two businesses, raised two kids, joined two boards, and seen my mom through two major health scares. I’ve started to experience monthly night sweats, my OB-GYN tells me that I have a mild prolapse, and I’m either losing my hair or my part is expanding. Not just life, but life changes are happening at turbo speed.
And yet, I treat my body, health, and wellbeing as if I’m on cruise control. I exercise daily, eat well, go to my regularly scheduled mammograms and check-ups, pop a daily pill to manage low-level anxiety, sleep (sometimes), and just. keep. going. Sure, I’ll change lanes if those around me are slowing down or there are warning signs ahead, but I’m NOT hitting the brakes. It’s as if being in The Lightyears has somehow separated me from my physical self. Until I inevitably crash.
Yesterday, I crashed. Not literally, but a sudden pain in my chest pulled me out of my time warp and self-sacrifice. I was standing at my coffeemaker waiting for my morning cup to brew, took a deep breath, and felt a sudden “zing” in my chest. I brushed it off at first (as I normally do with any ache or pain) but then it lingered a little too long. Next thing I know, I’m canceling all of my morning meetings, getting checked-out at an ER, showing an elevated d-dimer score, and being scheduled for an emergency CT scan— all while covering-up these unusual occurrences from my children. Turned-out to be nothing— or at least nothing detectable by modern medical protocol. Relieved? Yes. Resuming the Lightyears? Not exactly.
It occurred to me through this experience how little genuine care we give ourselves during this time of our lives. We might spend hours plucking stray hairs, getting teeth whitened, or dying our roots— in fact we build these things into our calendars— but when it comes to dealing with the real issues underlying our health and wellbeing, we often take a "wait and see" approach. Why? Because we’re busy. Because we’re embarrassed. Because we fear judgment of being considered "weak," "dramatic," or "incapable of handling it"— all stereotypes that I think many women feel the world is just waiting to validate.
If ever there was a time to not "wait and see" through the Lightyears, it’s now. There are countless articles and statistics pointing to the fact that middle-aged women— particularly moms— have been among the most impacted by the incremental stresses of the pandemic on family life and balancing it with the ever-changing outside world.
And, as well-documented, chronic stress is one of the leading risk factors for the acceleration of heart disease and cancer development in both women and men. OB-GYN and Fertility Specialist Dr. Lucky Sekhon— whom I consulted for this article— also reminded me that “as women’s estrogen levels begin to decline in menopause, they face a growing risk for heart disease and other chronic illnesses.” So, my fellow women in your Lightyears, it looks like we face a real modern-day double whammy!
Dr. Sekhon’s advice: “Get vigilant about your health and vocal about your symptoms.” She went on to explain that the medical community is still learning how the symptoms of certain diseases and disorders present in middle-age women because 1) they’re varied, and 2) they often coincide with the onset of perimenopause and menopause.
“Take irregular periods.” she explains. “These could be associated with a myriad of things— some serious like cancer, an STI, or hormone abnormality— and some rather benign or treatable causes such as lifestyle changes, new medication, or normal entry into perimenopause/menopause. We’ve made huge strides in our research around women’s health, but we still have a long way to go.”
It’s on us to stop waiting, suppressing our symptoms, or suffering through. Sure, we could point fingers at the medical community and say "they’ve ignored us" or "they’ve led us to believe we should be on cruise control during this phase of our lives." But have we done a good job of making our modern 40-something female symptoms and issues known?
Truthfully, I never would have gone to the ER with my chest pain if my sister, a physician, hadn’t said to me, "It’s not crazy, it’s advocating for your health." I understand some may argue that I shouldn’t have incurred the costly and time-consuming consequences of an ER visit. What good did it do? It merely led me and my doctors down an empty rabbit hole of tests and protocols. But, as indicated by Dr. Sekhon, there is still exploration that needs to be done down a great many rabbit holes before we can deem our medical knowledge and systems adequate for women in their Lightyears.