As many of my readers know, I often write about a topic in a series of posts, especially when there’s a lot to cover. This is the first post in a series about menopause.
Talking about menopause
I was invited to speak about menopause on an upcoming podcast. Naturally, it got me thinking, what to say about menopause? With public speaking, I want to know what my audience wants to learn. So, I asked the host. It turns out; this audience wants to know how to get rid of symptoms like hot flashes and fluctuating energy.
Of course! None of us want to feel uncomfortable, annoying, or debilitating symptoms. And the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause can be significant for some. They include the infamous hot flashes and night sweats, sleep disruption, and moods like depression, anxiety, or irritability. In addition, you may experience brain fog, poor memory, and cognitive impairment. You might have trouble multitasking. Or, you may simply feel “not yourself,” or “off.”
During perimenopause, the time prior to menopause when your hormones are changing, you’ll probably have menstrual cycle changes. It’s common to have shorter cycle lengths. For example, you could bleed every 21 days instead of 28 days. Other changes include irregular periods, as well as fluctuations in blood quantity, color, and viscosity or thickness. You might get periods that are heavier, accompanied by more moodiness or exhaustion.
I’d love to get on that podcast and give a magic herb or supplement that will erase every woman’s perimenopause or menopause symptoms. However, I’m not going to do this (Shhh…). This is because:
- There’s no magic one-size-fits-all fix for this collection of symptoms.
- Every woman is unique, with individual needs requiring an individual approach.
I do care about suffering, and I will do my best to help with symptoms! But 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
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.
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 between my mother and I about periods. I didn’t learn about menstruation from her, nor menopause. We never discussed these topics, common for her generation.
So I asked my mom about her own menopause. Between her and my older sister who was present, the floodgates broke. They were so 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 and if that’s what I could expect.
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. An opportunity to let go of the bullshit in life, and be comfortable being the no-nonsense, wise, beautiful, strong, 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.
Why does menopause exist?
There are three vertebrae species (outside of captivity) who go through menopause, meaning the females live for decades after they stop reproducing. This includes humans, killer whales, and short-finned pilot whales.
Why do we human and whale females live one-third of our lives beyond reproductive years? Our commonality is family and community structures. Whale mamas stay with their offspring after they grow up and have their own babies – so there are grandma whales.
From an evolutionary perspective, post-menopausal women have valuable roles in the community. Free from childbearing and breastfeeding, post-menopausal “grandma” women were free to help care for children, and gather food. In hunter-gatherer societies, post-menopausal women and children were probably the primary food gatherers.
Menopause changes across cultures
Across cultures, the view of menopause affects women’s experience. This includes “symptoms.” If we view menopause in a negative light, we 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. In 1900, childbirth and menopause were not medical events in Western culture. 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 report far fewer symptoms of menopause! So your experience of menopause is not just about hormones changing, it goes far beyond.
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 greater freedom and is positively anticipated by pre-menopausal women.
→ A literature review of Canadian Aboriginal women’s experiences of menopause showed that for this ethnic group 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.
Christiane Northrup, divine feminist perspective
Christiane Northrup, well-known OB/GYN, and author, cared for perimenopausal/menopausal women for twenty years before writing The Wisdom of Menopause. She felt that she couldn’t write about menopause until she experienced it herself. I relate to this, for it’s impossible to describe menstruation, childbirth, parenting, or perimenopause/menopause without felt experience.
I recommend The Wisdom of Menopause as a must-read for any woman in perimenopause. Dr. Northrup describes how women undergo similar brain stimulation around age 50, even if they have undergone surgical menopause 20 years prior!
Our brains actually begin to change at perimenopause. Like the rising heat in our bodies, our brains also become fired up! Sparked by the hormonal changes that are typical during the menopausal transition, a switch goes on that signals changes in our temporal lobes, the brain region associated with enhanced intuition. How this ultimately affects us depends to a large degree on how willing we are to make the changes in our lives that our hormones are urging us to make over the ten years or so of perimenopause.
Though we tend to blame perimenopausal symptoms on hormonal shifts in the body, their origins are far more complex. Several women in my practice, for example, have experienced symptoms such as hot flushes and mood swings in their later forties – despite having been on full hormone replacement for over twenty years as result of having undergone a hysterectomy while still in their twenties. Clearly, changes in reproductive hormones alone do not account for these symptoms. They are signals from our mind and body that we have reached a new developmental stage –an opportunity for healing and growth.
As a woman enters menopause, she steps out of the primarily childbearing, care taking role that was hormonally scripted for her. This is not to say that the postmenopausal woman is no longer an effective nurturer. Rather, she becomes freer to choose where she will direct her creative energies, freer to ‘color outside the lines’.
It may be no accident that the word menopause invites the association ‘pause from men’. In truth, you are being urged, biologically, to pause from everyone, – from mankind in general – in order to do important work on yourself. Perhaps as a result of this, one of the most common threads running through women’s descriptions of how they feel during the menopausal transition is the longing for time alone, for a refuge that provides peace, quiet, and freedom from distractions and demands.
Menopause as rebirth, a change in 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, dealing with 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?
From my perspective, it’s a great time to get to know yourself as who you really are, beyond taking care of other people, being a parent or a partner. Some 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 new career or current career at this time.
- Sexual freedom and increased libido.
- Rebirthing your younger self, before menstruation.
- Taking time for self-care, self-reflection, nature, friends, fun.
A famous Native American saying:
On your first bleed – you MET your power
During your bleeding years – you are PRACTICING your power
At menopause – you BECOME your POWER!
Please share your thoughts and experiences below. This series will continue with preparing for menopause (perimenopause), optimal postmenopausal health, AND dealing with symptoms.