by Martina Clark
I'm a week late. Not on my rent — for my period. I'm never late. Ten years ago – or five, heck, even one or two – I would have panicked and immediately gone to pee on a stick. But now, just months shy of my 50th birthday, I'm totally confused. Am I pregnant? (We use protection but nothing is 100 percent sure.) Am I starting menopause? (Did I mention that I'm almost 50?) Or am I just a week late and it is what it is and I should shut up and have another piece of chocolate?
The only thing I know for certain is that this has never happened before — at least not in the 20 years since I stopped using the pill – and I'm not quite sure how to proceed. My sisters – seven and eight years older, respectively – both experienced pre-menopausal symptoms starting in their early 40s, and after hearing their stories I feel like I've been waiting every month for a summons from hell.
"Ma'am, please step away from the happy times and come with us. I'm afraid you have been sentenced to a decade of evil mood swings, drenching night sweats, and flame-inducing hot flashes. Any resistance will just cause you more misery and unsightly sweat stains. Welcome to the prison that is menopause."
And, although I hadn't really experienced anything to be concerned about, I do remember discussing this with my doctor a year or two back when I asked what kind of signs to expect with pre-menopause. She laughed.
"Martina, at this point, if you have signs, they're not pre anything. They're just menopause."
And yet, now that it's maybe starting, I feel nothing. Except for the emotions, of course, and those are all over the place. Maybe it is menopause – probably – but maybe it's a baby: as in one of those little tiny humans that cry look cute and stuff. Yikes.
For the first time in my life, I am in a healthy relationship with an extraordinary man who I know is a good father. I know this because I've spent time with his clever, well-adjusted, and self-reliant daughter and his grandson. I know this because I've seen him interact with his many nieces and nephews and I've seen how the babies are drawn to him – and him to them – and how the older ones confide in him with complete trust. I know this because I watched him with the neighbor we used to babysit twice a week. Whenever I picked the little boy up from school, his first question was "Where is Neal?" He didn't ask for me when the roles were reversed.
I also know that, four years my junior, he'd like nothing more than to have another child. Part of me would love that, especially the part of me that loves him, but I truly believe I am too old. I'm too selfish and I like to sleep late in the morning. My life is fantastic just as it is and yet – what if? Could I just have the baby and let him raise our son or daughter? Could I have the baby just for him? I suspect he'd be the better parent, anyway.
And then my emotions take another twist down complicated lane. Although I'd always wanted to have a family, I've never had a biological child of my own. Is this my chance? I was once a foster parent and 15 years on still have a remarkable relationship with the girl — now a full-grown woman — whom I claim as my own. Thanks to my time with her, I know what it means to be a mother and what unconditional love feels like. Through her, I've even earned the title of "mamouche" as she considers me the alternate grandmother for her own children.
And then, of course, there is that other thing — no, not the thing about having a baby over 40 and the increased risks of complications and birth defects, which is, of course, a thing. A very big thing. But, no, not that. I'm thinking of the thing about being HIV-positive. On the upside, I know that in these 20-teens, when said imaginary baby might be delivered, there is virtually zero risk of the child being born with HIV. Science has sorted that out effectively and intervention is readily available with little cost, financially or physically.
But what toll would a pregnancy take on me? I've had this virus for over 20 years and although I've been on treatment for the last five, and my health overall is excellent, I don't know if the stress of a pregnancy would further damage my immune system. What I do know is that I would be advised against breast-feeding and would probably have to have a C-section, and that I'd be monitored, poked and prodded for nine months like a rat in a lab. No chill-out earth-mama pregnancy for me. Would it be worth it?
Many a night I cried and grieved while accepting that I'd never experience a pregnancy since I'd tested positive for HIV long before we had viable treatment. In those early days, the stigma surrounding HIV in this country was even worse than it is today (and it is still pretty bad) and I was repeatedly told that having a child would be tantamount to pre-meditated murder.
"What kind of a life would that baby have?" a caseworker asked.
"Children with AIDS suffer so much more than adults. They die more painful deaths," I'd heard in a documentary.
"And, even if that poor little innocent child escaped contracting HIV, how would you dare give birth to a baby who was certain to lose its mother? How could you even consider it? That's so selfish," a loved-one once said.
So I struck the notion from my mind and tried to fill that aching void in other ways — work, art, being a hands-on aunt. And I cried. A lot.
By the time we realized that women with HIV could safely have children, I never seemed to be in a solid relationship. And then, eventually, somewhere in my mid-40s, I just sort of locked those thoughts away into a category of "things that would never happen" and threw away the key. My cycles were always regular and I'd never had anything to indicate that I couldn't have a child; I just figured it was too late.
And yet here I am, all these years later, wondering: is it really? I have been very tired these past few weeks, but I'm also juggling five part-time jobs: editor, writer, landlord, innkeeper, and consultant for the UN. I've definitely been craving sweets, pickles and pizza, but, well, that's really nothing new. Probably it is menopause starting in, but my breasts are tender and I've been having cramps and my body aches. I questioned my doctor about this during a routine visit last week.
"Is there a point at which I should become alarmed?" I asked.
"Yes. If you still haven't had your period in another two weeks, come back and see me. And you're sure there hasn't been any unprotected sex?”
"I'm sure. We always use condoms." We smile at each other, both knowing that condoms sometimes break.
"OK, well, I'll keep you posted," I tell her as I pull my shirt back over my shoulder and rub the sore spot from where she gave me the flu shot. Maybe it was the painful jab, maybe it was the seriousness of the doctor's tone, but I left feeling numb. The city air and the remaining items on my long to-do list snapped me back into reality the minute the evening air hit my face.
Although dreading the night sweats and hot flashes and awfulness that I'm anticipating may (or may not) eventually make my life miserable, another part of me hopes that this is just the start of menopause. The repercussions of that eventuality really only just involve me, at least physically, and that makes things much more simple. And, honestly, having a period every month is a pain in the, well, let's just say very lower back and I look forward to having that behind me. Pun intended.
And so, for now, I wait and I wonder. Either scenario will present more questions and a series of new choices and life changes. But I know that the best course of action at this very moment is to stop worrying, listen to my middle-aged body, and have another piece of chocolate.