The night before our very first Claws in Your Pause retreat, August of 2018, Laura and I barely slept. I was having trouble talking through our last-minute plans because my body had shut down saliva production as a threat response. What the hell were we thinking, bringing a group of strangers together for a weekend menopause ritual, a hair-brained idea that neither of us had ever heard of before?! There was a lot of sweat and swearing.
As participants began to arrive that Friday afternoon, we gathered around tables outside to put handmade journals together and prepare the first piece of our ritual. We had asked Pausers to bring a photo of themselves from before puberty so that we could construct an alter to our true selves: the people we were before our brains began wild monthly cycling in response to reproductive hormone surges, and the selves with whom we might now reconnect as those waves subside. While several of us framed our photos of our young girl selves, one of the women came out of her room in a slight panic. The friend who was accompanying her on the retreat, we’ll call her Angel, had forgotten her photo of herself, and was refusing to come out of her room. We later understood that because of numerous recent life changes, Angel had withdrawn from a lot of social interaction and this retreat was a big stretch beyond her comfort zone. And she was already doing it “wrong”. And so were we! We were already doing this crazy retreat wrong! What the f&%$ do we do now?!
In a characteristic moment of brilliance, Laura said, “Tell her I forgot my photo too, and Kate’s going to draw our photos for us!” I think Laura might have been able to go in and coax Angel out with this promise of solidarity, but within a few minutes Angel hesitantly joined the group, to a warm welcome from all these strangers, and Laura said, “Poux, you’re drawing Angel.” So, I asked her to describe the photo she had intended to bring, and she vividly told me about a girl with glasses and Tony Tennille hair, wearing a peace sign on her t-shirt and standing alongside a river. We laughed as I did my best, she agreed to the final product and we put her in a frame.
Throughout the weekend, we would all smile as we looked at the altar. Her “photo” was the favorite, a literal connection between her 10-year old self and herself now. It was like a message back to her young self that things are going to get crazy, and you’re going to get lost in it sometimes, but you will find community to help you laugh and remember who you are. It represented a moment of belonging for all of us, a reminder of how vulnerable we all are at this time of life, and how intentional community protects our bodies and brains, and can help us “reframe” our perceived failures and negative ruminations. We feel safe and seen and cared for.
There is a lot of research coming out right now about the importance of belonging and the negative physical and mental health effects of loneliness. In The Upgrade, Louann Brizendine details what’s happening in our brains when we experience belonging:
The experience of reciprocity that happens when we are a part of a circle of others feels good to the brain and nervous system. Mirror neurons and oxytocin play a huge role in how we regulate one another. In a harmonious group, mirror neurons ping signals of happiness and belonging among the members. The bond is reinforced and rewarded by oxytocin sent from the hypothalamus to the nucleus accumbens bringing one of the brain’s calming and pain relieving systems online with a cocktail of serotonin, dopamine, and other endorphins that are like a balm of instant well-being to the brain and body’s nerves.
This really is the signature cocktail of Put Some Claws in Your Pause, the endorphins and well-being that we cultivate just by coming together and being our true selves with other women at this same transformational time of life. We belong.
Last week, we hosted a book club to discuss The Upgrade. Many of us did not know each other before that discussion, and yet after 90 minutes we had shared stories and wisdom and pinged each other's mirror neurons in such an affirming way. At the end of the gathering, one of the wise women remembered getting together with parents of young children when she had young children, how it felt like they had everything in common. “That’s how this feels now, like we have everything in common!” This has become the magic of Put Some Claws in Your Pause for Laura and me, gathering women who might be strangers to each other and cultivating this shared experience of belonging just by being together with honesty and purpose. Our vulnerabilities and insecurities only enhance the experience, build richer memories and neural pathways of well-being. Where I initially felt terror and dread about this Menopause experiment, I now feel excitement about the unknown: What will it be like this year?
To all the brave and beautiful people who have joined us in past years, thank you for making so much magic in me and Laura’s lives! And to anyone who is curious, we still have 2 spots left for November 3-5! It’s Endorphin Happy Hour all day long, and we’re even throwing in an extra hour of sleep on Sunday!