PMS is Mother Nature’s way of saying, “Don’t touch my junk.” Or so says a doctor friend of mine. It all comes down to that most primal of evolutionary drives: perpetuate the species.
I asked this friend what the evolutionary purpose of PMS could possibly be. Here is her theory: an egg is most likely to be fertilized successfully during ovulation. In order to survive, that egg needs to implant into the uterus. This is most likely to go smoothly if there is no untoward jostling, squeezing or other disturbances in the area. It takes place about 10 days after fertilization – just when PMS kicks in.
PMS is not sexy. Our menfolk, understandably, avoid us during this time. They turn up the TV or go mow the lawn, even though it doesn’t need it.
Here’s how my friend’s theory plays out in my life: once a month, I decide to get divorced. Why? Maybe because he didn’t wipe the kitchen counter. Clearly this means he doesn’t value women, is passive-aggressive, lazy and immature, and that we are terminally incompatible. And obviously, he’s deeply, impossibly irrational – why else would he be mowing the lawn again? Our marriage is over.
I get to keep the casserole dishes and the couch; he can have the wine glasses. And the freakin’ lawnmower. I’ll contact a lawyer tomorrow. So don’t touch my junk, buddy!
And thus my implanting egg doesn’t get poked.
I’m glad to know that PMS has such a lofty purpose. But what about peri-menopause? I’m not talking about menopause – the cessation of menstruation. I’m talking about the often stormy phase which lasts an estimated four to 15 years before that happens.
One website lists 40 possible negative side-effects of peri-menopause, including menstrual flooding, rage, cardiovascular disease, depression, cognitive impairment, and thinning hair. It would be nice to know why we have to go through this.
Theories exist explaining why human females, unique among all species, end their reproductive capacities long before they end their lives. These are all about grandma-power. Wise female elders, finally free of reproductive duties, can use their time and well-honed skills to help their daughters and grandchildren – thus increasing the likelihood that their genes will successfully carry on.
I like that theory and will use it to try to get my Mom to do more childcare for me.
But what about peri-menopause? Why must we turn into blood-stained, furious, wheezing, depressed, bald and cognitively-impaired madwomen before we reach wise-elderhood? Why don’t our periods gently and discreetly coast to a stop?
Evolutionary scientists have noticed that peri-menopause “yields…biologically disadvantageous metabolic alterations.” They point out that the current human body reflects adaptations made gradually over tens of thousands of years and that we have to look back to Paleolithic times to understand evolution.
But I just can’t imagine any of those 40 symptoms favouring survival in Paleolithic times. How could peri-menopausal me be an effective hunter-gatherer when I can’t even find my car in the parking lot? And I’m talking 7-11, never mind the mall.
An article in Experimental Gerontology suggests that change-of-life challenges may be a modern phenomenon caused by the fact that we are not eating, exercising, and reproducing like we did back in Paleolithic times. I find this plausible, but not useful.
I’m about ready to throw my hands up in defeat and accept that there is no purpose to my peri-menopausal ups and downs. But wait – the evolutionary scientists drawing the same conclusion explain it by saying that our culture is evolving too fast for our genes. The realities of 21st Century western life are radically different from 100, let alone 1000 or 10,000, years ago, but evolutionary adaptation needs thousands of years. Genetically, we can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with our culture.
So maybe I should look at cultural evolution, rather than pure survival-of-the-species, to find a purpose for peri-menopause.
My doctor friend has been thinking along these lines already: Peri-menopause, she says, prepares us for what comes next. The post-reproductive years are far less fraught with hormonal symptoms, but have one big problem: older women are not well-respected in our society. They can’t get jobs, even though they are qualified. They complain of feeling invisible. Handling all this is a piece of cake, once you’ve survived peri-menopause.
Many women find peri-menopause to be a self-actualization seminar, a shamanic experience, a personal training program, and an assertiveness course all rolled into one. Mid-life women complain about hot flashes, insomnia, mood swings, etc, but they also talk about learning to speak up for themselves more, quitting unfulfilling jobs, relationships or habits, taking up meditation, improving their diets, and moving into leadership positions in community, family and work.
Hot flashes can be experienced as rising energy, say women with an interest in Eastern body-mind paradigms. Insomnia provides a chance to reflect deeply on life’s big questions during the wee hours of the night. Brain fog invites us to slow down and turn inward. Depression, rage and anxiety bring us face to face with our darkest depths – and we learn to come out the other side as integrated beings. Physical challenges motivate us to make lasting lifestyle changes that will help live healthily through the coming decades.
All this serves cultural evolutionary forces, feeding into a stream of powerful social change that includes feminism and baby boomer-fuelled changes in attitudes towards aging.
Luckily, I’ve never actually called a lawyer while in the midst of PMS, nor even announced our impending divorce to my husband. Inevitably, my hormones change. I love the tidy lawn, and my junk is open for business.
I’ve successfully brought two children into the world, so if my friend is right, my PMS has served its evolutionary purpose. As I move through peri-menopause, I’m happy to think that all my symptoms – not quite 40 of them, but plenty – are also purposeful. If you notice me wandering around the parking lot looking lost, don’t worry – I’m busy evolving.