Writer-performer Sandra Tsing Loh wrote the newly published “The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones.” She is also a contributing editor to the Atlantic, host of the syndicated radio show “The Loh Down on Science” and the author of five previous books. We talked to the reliably interesting provocateur at her home in Pasadena.
Why were you inspired to write a book about this particular period in your life?
I resisted writing about it for a few years in my 40s because I thought, “How can I relate to this?” Even though I myself was melting down, having these panic attacks in the middle of my day, feeling like my world was imploding, telling myself “I just can’t take another minute of this” and checking my United Air miles, I still resisted writing about it because I didn’t call it menopause.
And I think that’s what happens to a lot women — they tell themselves, “If I had multi-tasked in a smarter way, this would not have happened. It’s my fault.”
You mention that you found a lack of honest, true-to-life literature on the experiences of menopause.
Yes, I found a lot of books that say: Just eat more kale, drink lots of water, do your yoga. There was a lot of “calm down. And cut out the sugar.” One theory I might proffer to explain the lack of literature is: As women, we want to say, “we never go nuts. It’s never that time of the month.” We’re afraid that we’re going to set back the advancements we’ve made if we admit certain things.
In politics, one used to say, “Oh, a woman in politics? That’s not going to be good. Her estrogen. She has that time of the month. She’ll be too concerned with her children.”
But I think in politics, testosterone is the thing that gets you in trouble. With Bill Clinton, John Edwards and Gary Hart, they really had a testosterone problem, and in the most ridiculous way.
What were you most surprised to discover about menopause?
Your normal coping mechanisms of “I’m going to make a ‘to do’ list, and once I finish my ‘to do’ list I will feel better” are just not going to work anymore.
I mention in the book how therapy does and doesn’t work. Therapists have to give you pretty reasonable advice. But some of midlife advice you need to hear is: I guess you need to divorce your husband, or have an affair, or date a younger man, or go on a cruise, or move to Africa. You might actually need to do something extreme to change your life and a therapist really can’t give you advice that’s not healthy or sensible.
Oftentimes, the experiences you recount are challenging ones, including your divorce. How do you find a sense of humor in these more challenging experiences?
I think that was really the most challenging period in my life because up until the age of 46 I had a voice of this comedic mom-next-door, who’s just like you. I have such an instinct to be a humorist, to be likable and to make a couple jokes. And when this occurred at 46, it was the most humiliating crisis.
One experience that I allude to in the book is: I have an affair with a married man for four months, we make a run for it, then he decides that this is actually too much and that he’s breaking up with me and moving back home — which is about the worst thing. I do not recommend it.
I was experiencing such depression. When I would wake up in the morning, I would take a yellow legal pad, write down every hour in the day and shade each hour out as it went by, until I could go to bed again — I called it my very own shades of gray.
There was just nothing funny about this time. But I would tell myself, “You’ll laugh about this in a year. Just give yourself a year, and it will be better.”
Soon after your divorce in 2009, you wrote an article in the Atlantic in which you argued against marriage. Do you still maintain the same stance?
I think there are some people for whom long-term marriages really work; it’s a wonderful thing to see. But biologically speaking, probably one in every four couples can do that with some level of comfort.
There are other cases where a long-term marriage may not be the best choice for two people.
Partly now another thing is that some women are earning ever more and that can be really destabilizing. Men are actually more prone to be unfaithful if the woman makes more money.
I feel like I married the right person, I made the right choice then, had a 20-year relationship and I’m so grateful for the time that we had together, the children that we made and how we continue to take care of those children.
With two young daughters, what is the conversation when you talk about marriage or looking for a partner?
I’ve never actually really thought about it until this moment. Of course, as a mother, you want the wedding — everyone wants the wedding. But I’m actually really ambivalent of saying “get a nice guy to marry” because I think saying that can be as much of a trap as a plus.
In the end, for a family core to rely on the notion of a man and a woman feeling romantically in love with each other for 10, 20 or 30 years — it’s the most unstable thing to rely on. Biologically, romantic feelings wane after four years, then you have to work at it.
Do you feel like you are perceived as a cynical writer?
Totally. But I think I’m really optimistic and, I think the really positive thing right now in the year 2014 is that we can love people on many more levels. Barriers are breaking down for gay marriage and tolerance toward people of other races and sexes.
I don’t feel cynical at all. There’s a lot more important stuff going on than who cares if people are sleeping together. Who cares? Just show up for the kids, feed them, pick them up from school, be kind to your neighbor, send money to a Third World country so they can get fresh water. I mean, who cares?