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I thought I would have a second kid. Then I went through menopause at age 36

With my diagnosis came one for my son as well: He would likely be an only child.
The writer with her son, Felix, and husband, Tom.
The writer with her son, Felix, and husband, Tom.Courtesy of Liz McCaffery

As I waited for the telemedicine appointment to begin, I started sweating. It was a hot August day, and I had just sprinted home, leaving my 2-year-old son, Felix, and husband, Tom, to finish our daily afternoon walk without me. However, this was not post-sprint sweat. I was flushed with prickly piercings that emerged like tiny bursts from my pores. At 36 years old, I’d been having hot flashes like this — up to 7 times a day — for six months. 

It started in March 2020 when the world — and my period — ground to a halt without warning. But when a doctor’s visit confirmed a negative pregnancy test and normal blood work, I chalked it up to stress.

My periods were always regular, and I had gotten pregnant the second month after we pulled the goalie. Minutes after delivering Felix, who had been face up, and the labor long and intense, I was exasperated and chummy, joking with the nurse: “Never again!”

We were a bit of a mess when Felix was born. My water broke three weeks before my due date on the volleyball court where we played in a beer league. I — who always had a toothbrush in the car just in case an adventure struck — didn’t even have a bag packed because I was so superstitious. 

On the first night home from the hospital, Tom said to me, “I’m not sure I can be alone with him,” as I was escaping to sleep. Then, irrationally terrified of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), I insisted on clipping a baby breathing monitor onto Felix’s diaper, which stopped our hearts several times with false alarms. And somewhere in there, Tom got shingles.

As an only child herself, writer Liz McCaffery always thought she would have a second child so that her son could have a sibling.
As an only child herself, writer Liz McCaffery always thought she would have a second child so that her son could have a sibling.Courtesy of Liz McCaffery

But Felix brought Tom and me closer than ever. Navigating those early days of the pandemic together as a family of three made us think seriously about having another baby, which had been our plan from the beginning, especially since I’m an only child.  

For as long as I can remember, I would obnoxiously tell my friends: “If you commit to one, you commit to two,” when they discussed their baby-making plans. As if it was my personal crusade — or any of my business — to decrease the number of lonely only children like me roaming the planet.

“You’ve been fasting and running too much,” my mom suggested when my hot flashes started. “Ease off and see what happens.”

But the sweat kept coming, all day and then at night, too.

“I think I might be going through menopause,” I joked with my friends during our weekly Zoom date, back when that was still novel.

“Oh my god, Liz,” they said, and sighed as they always did when I thought a sinus headache was a sign of a brain tumor. “Your body is probably still re-regulating from nursing.” 

But in late May 2020, after about three months without a period or positive pregnancy test, desperate to find an answer, I took another look at my initial blood work results. Just above the nurse’s sign-off, my FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) level read 32.3 mIU/mL. Though the report was missing the average range, a quick Google search told me this was way higher than it should have been. And another round of tests soon after proved I was right.

It was now August, almost six months after my symptoms started, and I braced myself for what the fertility doctor might say. She had been referred to me by my gynecologist for an official diagnosis. I took a quick drink of water as the doctor’s video clicked on, and I wafted my shirt to dry the sweat, my pen and notebook in hand. We moved past pleasantries quickly, and then in almost one breath she said, “You have primary ovarian insufficiency. You’re in early menopause.”

Just as I was trying to remember how to write words on a page, the doorbell rang.

A moment later, a text from Tom: “We’re locked out.” In my haste, I had locked the door, and Felix’s potty — we were in the throes of potty-training — and Tom’s work laptop were in the house with me. 

While my stranded family sat outside praying that no potty emergencies would happen, I nodded and scribbled the details of my diagnosis down as the doctor spoke, most notably the “5% chance of pregnancy.” Suddenly I realized Felix was simultaneously getting a lifelong label, too: He would mostly likely be an only child. I wanted to add helplessness to my list of side effects. 

Tom was keyless, I was eggless, and Felix would likely be siblingless.

Raised by a single mother, as a kid I ached for the partnership of a sibling to get through complicated family dynamics and weird holidays like the Fourth of July when everyone but me had someone to hang out with by default — someone who was in it with you, a forever friend.

Tom was keyless, I was eggless, and Felix would likely be siblingless.

Oh, how I wanted to give that to Felix. Or at least the chance of that — someone for him to commiserate with about curfews or screen time limits. To play with while dinner is being made. To make forts and go on road trips with. To love, cheer for, and spend Christmas with long after Tom and I are gone.  

And if I’m honest, I wanted to give myself a chance, too. A chance to be a more present pregnant being. A less neurotic postpartum mother. A witness to the dynamics of siblings, even if not my own. To give my son the one thing I so desperately desired my whole life.

After the call, I raced outside to find Tom and Felix playing happily in the backyard. No potty emergency. Not even a twinge of crankiness in Tom’s voice. 

“I’m so sorry I bothered you,” he said, hugging me tight even before I could tell him. “I panicked. But I shouldn’t have. It was special, unexpected time outside on this beautiful day.”

My and Felix’s silver linings would come, too. My diagnosis suddenly made life feel short, and my days with a little one felt all the more fleeting. It forced me to figure out what I wanted and how to get it. With more clarity and a sense of presence, I started to say yes to every request for one more snuggle and after-dinner dance party. I got a new job, prioritized friends that make me feel good, and we’re making plans to move closer to the ocean soon.

McCaffery struggled with her diagnosis and what it meant for both her and her son but has since found peace with "incredible family of three."
McCaffery struggled with her diagnosis and what it meant for both her and her son but has since found peace with "incredible family of three."Courtesy of Liz McCaffery

I now take progesterone and wear an irritating estrogen patch — protection for my heart and bones I’ll need to continue until I am in my fifties, which is when women typically experience menopause. Early menopause, occurring in women under age 45, happens to about 5% of women. Premature menopause, which is what I went through, is even rarer, affecting only 1% of women under age 40, according to the Cleveland Clinic. I feel a mix of joy and sadness pop up when I’m confronted with expectant friends or those who simply don’t know what to say about my new reality. Most days, I also deal with the debilitating fear that my body will fail me again — that another system will malfunction. Though I’m at peace with not birthing another baby, I now have an irrational fear that  I’ll suddenly die and leave Felix not only siblingless, but motherless too.

But, there’s always what could have been and what might be. These complex feelings exist, menopause or not. Now I try to exist fully in what is: Lego guys, stuffed animal mountains, "Paw Patrol" rescues and the endless sound of “I love you bestest in the whole world, Mommy” — my amazing, sweet, silly, thoughtful, sensitive, brave son, and my incredible family of three.