I was invited to speak about menopause recently. I asked the audience what they wanted to learn about menopause. It turns out these women wanted to know how to get rid of symptoms like hot flashes and fluctuating energy.
Of course! None of us want to feel annoying or even debilitating symptoms, which can be significant for some women in the menopause transition. And I have lots of solutions to those symptoms, in this series.
However, I got to thinking about how we tend to view menopause. In the overarching journey through perimenopause and beyond, there are broader, life-encompassing things to address. Things that will, without a doubt, change both your symptoms and your perception of them.
Menopause is not a disease
Like other normal female reproductive hormonal changes, we stigmatize menopause as a disease. This is deeply embedded in our engrained misogynist culture that values youth and discards the elderly.
My women patients in their 40s often dread menopause, as an unknown and probably negative experience. This spans so many of our cultural beliefs:
Youth is desirable and aging is deplorable.
Women look bad with gray hair; whereas men look distinguished.
Menopause “disease” symptoms of hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, and general craziness are inevitable, and we are all doomed.
We should hide our symptoms around others, heaven forbid our colleagues see us sweating or our friends know we leak pee!
Like menstruation, and details of childbirth, it’s not acceptable to talk openly about these normal events, especially in “mixed” company.
News flash! Menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause are not pathologies. They are not inherent medical events.
Talking OPENLY about menopause
When I turned 50, I decided to bust the silence in my family and I asked my mother and my older sisters about their menopause experiences. And the floodgates broke. They were willing and eager to share their experiences, and I got to hear all the fascinating details. I heard about the final big bang period that each had, and wondered if this was a genetic trait….
I absolutely loved the matter-of-fact openness. It was surprisingly easy to bust through shame and silence, and truth be told, it gets easier with age, wisdom, and experience.
And that is part of what menopause IS. It’s not only a natural and gradual shift in hormone levels, it’s also an opportunity – to let go of the bullshit in life, and be comfortable being the no-nonsense, wise, beautiful, strong, fun and sexy women we are! If you have lived to this age, you are all of these things. Even if you don’t feel these ways all the time.
What do whales and humans have in common?
Humans, killer whales, and short-finned pilot whales are the only species who go through menopause – that is, live for decades beyond reproductive years. What is the point of living 1/3 of our lives this way?
It turns out that whale mamas stay with their offspring after they grow up and have their own babies – so there are grandma whales! We share this family, and older women have a valuable place in our communities.
From an evolutionary perspective, hunter-gatherer post-menopausal women were free from childbearing and breastfeeding, and could help care for children and gather food. Paleo grandmas and young children were probably the primary food gatherers.
Menopause doesn’t suck in every culture
Across cultures, the view of menopause affects women’s experience. This includes symptoms. If you view menopause in a negative light, you also view symptoms negatively, and they tend to be worse.
It’s only been since around 1930 that menopause was considered a medical condition in the United States. By 1969, 99% of births happened in hospitals, and menopause was viewed as a medical disorder, specifically an estrogen-deficiency disease state.
Meanwhile, in many other cultures, menopause is viewed differently. Interestingly, in matriarchal cultures, studies show that women have far fewer symptoms of menopause! Here are examples:
- This cultural study of Chinese women compared Mosuo women (a minority group with a matriarchal structure), and Han women (the majority ethnic group in China, with a patriarchal structure). Mosuo women reported fewer symptoms, greater self-esteem, and stronger community support during menopause.
- In a study of Mayan Indian women from Mexico, no participants reported any menopausal symptoms other than the cessation of menstruation. In addition, Mayan women also face very strict restrictions while menstruating, with activity and food taboos. Therefore, menopause allows for greater freedom and is positively anticipated by pre-menopausal women. They look forward to it!
- A literature review of Canadian Aboriginal women’s experiences of menopause showed that the transition was perceived as a positive experience as it had little effect on their lives except to increase social freedom. Aboriginal Canadian women had lower reporting of vasomotor symptoms when compared to non-Aboriginal Canadian women.
Beyond freedom, matriarchal cultures view menopause as a time for women to stop being wrapped up in mothering and caretaking, and to unleash their own creative pursuits.
A divine feminist perspective
The Wisdom of Menopause as a must-read for any woman in perimenopause. Dr. Christina Northrup describes how women undergo similar brain stimulation around age 50, even if they have undergone surgical menopause 20 years prior! This means that the menopausal transition goes far beyond hormonal changes.
She also writes that menopause is indeed a “pause,” a biological urge to work on yourself. You may feel more longings for time alone, and freedom from distractions and demands.
Change your perspective
Instead of caving into our Western culture’s view of menopause as a decline, you could think of it as a time of self-rebirth. You enter the next era of your life free from hormone cycling, menstruation and birth control. This means sexual freedom. Many women have the best sex of their lives after menopause. Dr. Northrup in a recent interview said that the best sex for women happens in our 60s and 70s. Who knew?
Examples of what you may experience during perimenopause and menopause include:
- Multitasking may be more difficult, so you may shed the unimportant stuff.
- It’s easier to feel the strength and self-worth to set boundaries with other people who leech your energy or treat you poorly.
- You could birth, or rebirth, your creativity – you might take a painting class, or become a writer.
- Many of us blossom in a career turn at this time.
- Sexual freedom and increased libido.
- Rebirthing your younger self, before menstruation.
- Taking time for self-care, self-reflection, nature, friends, fun.
Check out this post 12 Steps to Take Charge of Perimenopause!
Please share your thoughts and experiences below.