science of us

Living in a House Full of Hormones

Photo: Kirn Vintage Stock/Getty Images

One tumultuous evening about a decade ago, my oldest daughter asked me to dry her hair. She was about 11, which would’ve made me 45ish.

It was 11:30 p.m. and I was already in bed. In retrospect, I realize that if I had ever read a parenting guidebook in the course of raising four children, I might have learned the proper way to say “no,” that would have instilled both discipline and confidence in my child — and allowed me to get a decent night’s sleep. Instead, I took the passive-aggressive route. I rolled out of bed and obeyed her commands, but I was not happy and made a point to show her.

She whined something along the lines of: “This is the best you can do?” To which I said something along the lines of: “What the fuck! I’m not a beauty parlor! And if I were, the shop would have been closed hours ago!” That exploded into yelling and hollering and crying (plus one grouchy husband woken by the commotion).

Let me say this: I’m not a crier. Neither is my daughter. She was never a fussy kid; she could be out of bed and out of the door to school in less than ten minutes with few wardrobe changes. I’m a calm-to-lax mother. But what we didn’t know was that on that night, something was percolating deep within each of us. She was about to get her first period, and I was about to stop getting mine. In other words, she was pubescent and I was perimenopausal — a toxic stew.

Hormonal collisions of this magnitude have not always been the norm. In previous generations, women had kids in their early 20s and sent them out into the world before the first hot flashes flashed. We’re not talking colonial times — most of my classmates and I were at least a few hours away from our families and ensconced in college life (and our own hormonally-infused dalliances) when our mothers were hot-flashing at home. Nowadays, of course, many of us are having our kids in our early 30s or later. By the time we think we’ve just about figured out our work-life balance, we’re thrown off-kilter by chemical assaults while our kids are dealing with ones of their own.

And it’s not just a woman thing. We’re all hormonal. My girls and I just happened to express our inner turmoil in a more outward, turbulent sort of way.

On that hair-dryer night, my husband’s testosterone was on the downslide. (All men’s levels slip, beginning around age 35.) My tweener boys were experiencing hormonal changes around the same time as my girls. Rather than a tempest of nastiness, my formerly sweet, clinging boys shut me out. I am convinced (by data based on two male offspring) that the pubescent surge of testosterone destroys brain cells — the ones in the “speaking articulately” region of the brain. My boys grunted, if they vocalized at all. There’s no data about destruction of brain cells to back up my claims, but we do know that the surge of testosterone thickens the larynx, which leads to a lower voice. Maybe they’d rather go silent than hear the sound of their own crackling speech. Either way, I felt shut out, and sometimes that made me sadder than the hurt from my girls’ in-your-face attitudes.

If only we had known what was going on. But while we all recognize the obvious physical changes that occur on either end of the spectrum, few of us recognize the warning signs. A year or two before full-blown puberty, the initial hormonal changes tinker with brain cells in ways we are just beginning to appreciate. Our brains are loaded with receptors for estrogen, progesterone, and androgens that impact levels of serotonin and dopamine (chemicals associated with mood). Yes, our seemingly prepubescent children are in fact under the spell of their fluctuating hormones earlier than we think.

It’s the same for menopause. I’ve interviewed hundreds of menopausal women and found that most of us consider perimenopause something for women ten years older than whatever ages we were when we were in the thick of that initial hormonal drop. We think menopause equals 50-plus years, which it does. But we can experience symptoms years earlier. When we’re suffering from the sort of PMS we haven’t had since we were pubescent; when we’re feeling moodier each month than we had in decades; when our periods are increasingly erratic — those are signs that menopause is a few years away. What we think is just ourselves melting down is often an early signal of plummeting hormones.

We are also now learning about the way the brain changes during menopause. Recent research pinpointed one cell near the hypothalamus (the command center for hormones in the brain) that swells during menopause. And I’ve got to imagine the dip in testosterone impacts the aging male brain as well.

If I had only known that I had a fat brain cell on that hair-dryer night, I might have taken a deep breath, recognized my fragile emotional state, and avoided disaster. You could say the same for my preteen. If, by some miracle, she had recognized her own prepubescent, tenuous state of mind, she might have skipped the entire home-salon request. But there we were — my husband hiding under the covers, my boys silently locked in their rooms, my older daughter and I in the thick of nonsensical tirades — and all of this simply a manifestation of hormones gone wild.

Many hot flashes later, my daughters and I were hormonal again. This time we were talking hormones. They wanted hormones so they could have sex without getting pregnant; I wanted hormones so I could have sex without discomfort. (The hormones for birth control and the hormones we take to treat the symptoms of menopause are the same ones, administered in different doses.)

My girls and I discussed the best approach for them, that would keep them from getting pregnant as well as from experiencing too many side effects from the drugs. I worried about the progesterone that makes some women depressed. We did not talk about my hormone therapy choices. No one wants to hear about her mother’s sex life, or even read a one-sentence reference to mom’s painful sex in a published article. (Sorry, kids.) But at least we are beyond those earlier, wild hormonal-swinging days. My girls are less snarky; my boys no longer communicate like cavemen.

The funny thing is that hairstyling night is seared in my memory as a pivotal moment of my parenthood, but my daughter has no memory of it whatsoever. Neither do my sons or my husband. Recent research suggests that hormones play a role in determining which events are cemented into our brain cells and which ones are flushed away. So I guess my memory of the evening — and my kids’ lack of one — is just a matter our hormones at work, too.

Randi Epstein, M.D., M.P.H., is the author of Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything.

Living in a House Full of Hormones