Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Raging Hormones

I just came across this piece that I wrote in March, 2001.

As I write this, two hormonally-charged Pileated Woodpeckers are chiseling away at the box elder outside my window. They work in a frenzy, hacking away as woodchips fly like welders' sparks. A few weeks ago, these birds were spending their entire days feeding, far apart, but raging hormones have turned their lives completely upside down.

When I was in high school, some congressman or senator said women would never make suitable presidents because of "raging hormones." We feminists pooh-poohed him, believing firmly that both sexes were equally qualified to be president, little realizing just how much impact raging hormones could have on a presidency, and that perhaps one sex really was at a disadvantage hormonally. How could we have predicted that the last president of the 20th century would be impeached because of "raging hormones"? At the time I didn't have a clue what raging hormones even were. As a teenager, my mood swings were not hormonal--when I was gloomy or angry or euphoric, I knew it was because the situation called for gloom or anger or euphoria. When I was in love, the boy was absolutely perfect and deserving--hormones were certainly not involved. I never appreciated that component of teenage emotions until I became a junior high teacher, and hard evidence of biochemically-induced emotional upheavals was everywhere.

Like my end-of-winter Pileated Woodpeckers, my life was turned completely around in my late 20s when suddenly I needed a baby to make my life complete. The urge was so powerful I could feel my pupils dilate when I gazed at any infant. And I use the word gazed advisedly--I couldn't simply look at a baby. Thanks to those pesky hormones, inarticulate cry babies with poopy diapers who literally didn't know a hawk from a handsaw suddenly held a fascination nothing but short of a Pileated Woodpecker could have distracted me from. Hormones even performed a miracle on my body that not even the most hormonal pileated mother experiences--suddenly this domestically-impaired woman was producing nutritious milk without even a recipe! Even after I stopped doing that, hormones sustained my interest in the babies long enough for them to grow into hormonally-charged teenagers themselves, interesting and nice enough to maintain my affection even as my own hormones ebb.

Pileated Woodpeckers don't share our single, life-long hormonal cycle. Their hormones surge and ebb annually. During winter when hormones are at low tide, a Pileated confronted with a nestling would feel nothing more than detached curiosity. As hormones build during late winter and spring, suddenly it focuses all its attention on mate, nest, eggs, and nestlings. But mere weeks after it was consumed with baby care, the tide goes out and it forgets all about children for another year.

Up until recently, my hormones have done an admirable job of preparing me for the natural stages of my life, but now that I'm in my 40s, those hormones are mutinying. Rather than simply petering out, they're suddenly bursting into hair production. Not into useful hair--say, helping me to grow thick and luscious eyelashes, or giving me a mane like Andie McDowell's. No, the hairs my hormones have decided to cultivate are on my chin. Never more than two or three, and I can't see them without a magnifying mirror, but heavens! At no point in any human's life is there ever a need for chin hairs, and certainly not for a middle-aged woman! This is one matter in which birds are way ahead of us humans. You'll never see an aging pileated or chickadee, or any other bird, staring into a magnifying mirror through bifocals, tweezers in hand, uprooting tiny hairs before they become noticeable. But even in the matter of chin hairs, that senator I so despised in the 60s had it backwards. We women may get hairs growing out of our chins, but men have it even worse. When they reach their forties, their unwanted hairs start sprouting from their noses and ears! Why couldn't humans get the same annual hormonal surges pileateds do, throwing ourselves into woodworking projects for a few weeks, dealing full time with children for a couple of months, and then taking off for parts unknown the rest of the year, never draining our physical and emotional energy on nose or chin hairs? With all these raging hormones floating about sprouting hairs and destroying presidencies, maybe Americans really did make the right choice in the last election when they gave their final vote… to nobody.

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