Menopause, at its most basic, simply refers to the time in a woman's life when she stops menstruating. And yet it’s so much more than that. It’s a dividing line between us and them, between what was and what’s to come, between all that we were raised to be, and what no one prepares us for.
Until recently, we’ve lived in a world that doesn’t like to talk out loud about the uncomfortable physical aspects of women’s health, and particularly not about older women’s health. But that is changing. October is World Menopause Month and October 18 is World Menopause Day, both designated as opportunities to raise awareness, to help women learn about and understand the likely health issues surrounding aging, and perhaps more urgently to spread the word about the support and treatment options available to us, options that aren’t often (scandalously) even mentioned in routine healthcare visits.
In the seven years since I was personally moved by the confusing onset of perimenopausal insomnia to create a community for women in midlife (originally a Facebook group called What Would Virginia Woolf Do?, which became The Woolfer, which then merged with Revel), I have witnessed the rise of a veritable, and genuinely exciting, menopause movement in the United States. Whereas ten years ago almost no one would ever dare bring up menopause at a dinner party, we now see celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Watts hawking products to combat menopausal dryness (we’re not just talking facial dryness here!), and Stacy London proselytizing on what she describes as the “fresh hell” of feeling like you’re going crazy and not getting any answers. We’ve seen the post-COVID emergence of telemedicine tackle menopause, with VC funded operations like Alloy taking on the task of helping women everywhere get access to prescription hormone treatment (no longer falsely debunked as cancer-causing and now having a long overdue renaissance as the treatment of choice) while other companies like Kindra are coming to the fore offering hormone-free options to ease our pain. Experts like Dr. Sharon Malone (Michelle Obama’s gynecologist!), Dr. Suzanne Gilbert-Lenz, and Dr. Jennifer Gunther are writing books, sending out newsletters, creating podcasts, and hitting the talk shows to tell us that what we’re going through is normal, that it can be treated, that we aren’t crazy, and most important of all: that women, all women of all ages, deserve better health care, and we are demanding we get it.
This is all excellent, welcome, needed, and appreciated. I look at my daughters’ generation and know that they and their daughters will be better off for the work women my age are doing now to educate, to eradicate shame, and push for better information and treatment.
And yet, I still want more from the conversation.
Aging is not just about physical symptoms, and menopause is not a disease. Do we lose something by reducing this transition to yet another opportunity or excuse to buy (or to sell) beauty products? How do we get to the meat of what’s actually transpiring as we say good-bye to past versions of ourselves, and look toward death? Of the skin elasticity lost and the wisdom gained? How do we genuinely support and celebrate and help women as we age? I personally don’t want to be told that 50 is the new 30. I want to embrace 50, and 60, and 70, and 80, and I want to glory in all that those decades have to offer. More than that, actually: I want to become more as I age, to be more myself, and to find new ways of talking to and about the world.
In her wonderful book, The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, writer, academic, and admired feminist Carolyn Heilbrun, wrote
“At fifty… a woman might celebrate a rite of passage, a ritual as regularly marked as a confirmation. Trying to develop a ritual for this crossroads — the point at which a woman has lived thirty years of adult life in one mode and must discover a new mode for the second thirty years likely to be granted her — I wanted to suggest, to (if I am honest) urge women to see this new life as different, as a beginning, as a time requiring the questioning of all previous habits and activities, as, inevitably, a time of profound change.”
The South African writer Deborah Levy, now in her sixties, recently completed a trilogy which I think one can loosely summarize as being about a woman’s transition from one life to another. In her fifties Levy’s marriage ended and her two daughters left home. Liberated from the labors of daily caretaking, and privileged to have the relative freedom to explore, Levy takes on the brutal challenge of how to recreate herself in a new mold. What kind of character does she want to be? Does she need to be likable? Her work thrums with echoes of Virginia Woolf’s plea for a woman to have a room of her own, and also the work of Rachel Cusk, who in my opinion is so frequently, admirably, adamantly unlikeable: demanding, true to herself, pushing always for truth.
I recently enjoyed a moving conversation with British menopause coach Henny Flynn. Henny approaches her work with women in midlife from a place of deep compassion; she simply wants to help women through this transition, into old age, with self-love and resources, and a sense of strength. Like so many women our age, this is a second or third career for Henny, and at one point during our talk (she was actually interviewing me for her podcast, but it sometimes felt like a mutual probing) she confessed that she may have in fact subconsciously started her business as a way to spiritually heal her own dead mother, a woman who had endured a painful menopause transition. We talked about the regret that comes with aging, the shame and guilt that often arises as we reflect on things we may not have done so well when we were younger, mistakes we made. It’s a messy business, this aging, and it’s not just about HRT and hot flashes; it’s really about so many deeper and more complex feelings involving melancholy, nostalgia, and thankfully, opportunity for growth and healing. Now many of us have more time, and also more perspective on what we’ve both lost and gained.
Henny introduced me to a concept I’d never heard before, and she applied it to the possibilities of life beyond menopause: The Thin Place. A term that comes from the mystical world of Celtic spirituality, the thin place historically was viewed as locations or moments when the veil between the physical world and the spiritual world break down, and one can feel those who have come before us. Laid out in more practical terms, the thin place could be any moment where we feel an undeniable connection to the sacred.
We — menopausal women, women over the hump — are at a bridge. A place where we can look back and say “I’ve done that job; it’s finished, and now I’m ready for a new job.” The task before women in this place is to ask what that new job is. There’s room here for sacred possibilities, for true and deep fulfillment, if we welcome it in.
The current menopause trend should focus foremost on issues of access and better health care for all women, less about making sure we all still feel glamorous and relevant, and more again about digging deeper into what we each have to offer, both to ourselves and to the world, now that at least some of the caretakeing is behind us.
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