10/5/2021 0 Comments
In a recent post in an online community I follow, it seems like most women feel like they’ve been left in the lurch. Decades of living, learned wisdom and experiential growth hadn’t prepared them for what they’re facing now. Years of finishing degrees, raising children, buying homes, brokering business deals, serving on community committees and leading successful lives hadn’t prepared them for a very important transition.
A member asked what, if anything, their mothers, aunts or other relatives shared would happen during “the change,” or lead-up to menopause. Almost 300 women responded, and most said: “Absolutely nothing.”
“Absolutely nothing” – only for many of these women to be sidelined by first-time anxiety or depression, night sweats, hot flashes, migraine headaches, relentless weight gain, strange menstrual cycles and much more between the ages of 40-55.
Sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s, I clearly remember my mother sitting down with my brother and me, telling us about the age-old “birds and the bees.” She sat us on the couch and asked us if we had any questions about how our bodies were changing. Of course, we were mute.
Crickets. Silence. Peak awkwardness.
My brother, two and a half years my senior, giggled. I did, too. We knew what this was about, but sadly we probably already knew too much at our tender ages, for all the wrong reasons, including a happenstance discovery of my parents’ adult film stash.
My mother went on to explain how babies are made, how boys’ and girls’ bodies change, and what we may expect, encounter or feel in the future. There were several of these unscheduled-and-always-weird conversations during our childhood, sometimes with just our mother and other times with my father as well.
I was well-prepared when my period arrived when I was 10 in the fourth grade; it happened at school. I had gone to the bathroom, noticed a brick-red streak in my panties, put on a maxi pad that I already had on my person just in case, and wrapped my jean jacket around my waist. I had read Judy Blume’s “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret” multiple times, and I knew who Dr. Ruth was. When my mother came home from work, I told her I started my period. She asked to see it, so I showed her, and she confirmed it was so.
I checked out various books on human development and anatomy from the public library as a child. These books had photos of people, naked with black bars over their eyes, chronicling the course of things like breast development and the sprouting of pubic hair. Our older brother also thought he was hiding issues of Playboy and Penthouse magazines in his room that my brother and I always somehow found during our nosy expeditions around the house.
With my parents’ attempts to prep us for inevitable puberty and its potential byproducts – and the access to other materials (authorized and not) – that illustrated possibilities in greater detail, the attention paid to helping us become well-informed and educated was like a bull’s eye on a dartboard. It was centered, obvious and defined. The main thing, I think, was that our parents didn’t want me getting pregnant or either of us getting any sexually transmitted diseases.
So, I wondered, when it came to my calamitous entrée to perimenopause, why wasn’t I similarly prepared? And when I told my momma what I was experiencing before I knew what it was, why couldn’t she even clue me in?
The answers are way more complex than this post can thoroughly address. But what I do know is that there are legions of women like me – hitting our 40s (and, in some cases, mid-late 30s) with an unblemished health record starting to have all sorts of weird, seemingly unrelated symptoms.
We may start out having a night or two of broken sleep, or we notice we feel warm while everyone else is fine with the temperature. Then symptoms mount, the sleeplessness is accompanied by night sweats, then connected to feeling anxious for no apparent reason. Menstrual cycles change, vanishing for a month and then flooding for weeks on end. Or women start feeling all sorts of aches and pains, a sense of foreign panic, with migraine headaches and some variety of the dozens and dozens of menopausal and perimenopausal symptoms.
We confide in friends, who are often just as silent as the medical establishment is clueless. We seek insights from other woman elders – our mothers, aunts, older friends and community matriarchs, only to be met with further dismissiveness, quiet and denials that make us feel even crazier. Crazier than we already might from the sudden betrayal of our bodies.
So why is it that women who’ve gone down this path before us don’t guide us? Are they lying, or are they just not telling the truth – and is there a difference, really?
The average age of official menopause in the United States is 51. That cuts across and aggregates all racial groups. But studies show that Black women and Hispanic women reach menopause a few years sooner, on average, and typically have a harder course toward it, with more debilitating and quality-of-life impacting symptoms. So this means that women should have clear guides and personal ambassadors in their 20s-40s, with women who are in their mid-40s and beyond as authorities and testifiers based on personal experience and biology (no matter how young they may feel and how youthful they may look for their age).
My mother never told me a thing about her menopause or menopause in general until I asked her about it at my age of 43. I’ve never heard a thing about my grandmothers going through it, let alone speaking about it. Likewise, nary an older cousin, aunt or other elder female in my life at all has said a thing. Even in recent times when I’ve shared my experience as a perimenopausal woman, all I get in return ranges from silence to euphemisms that indicate a desire to quickly change the subject or that suggest all this couldn’t really be “that bad.”
Even if these women never told us specifically about perimenopause or menopause, they never shared stories of having an odd adjustment period in their 40s or 50s. They don’t talk about feeling less like themselves, getting ultra-concerned about minor things or needing new medications at a time in their lives when they’ve never needed any before.
I cannot imagine not sharing what I’ve been through with my daughters, just like I won’t spare them the details of pregnancy, childbirth of childrearing. To do so rise to some level of negligence in my role as a mother. Even if I didn’t tell them what I personally have endured, I could create distance by framing this change of life as a medical and scientific fact, a biological reality they may need to prepare for. A test they can study up on for years so they won’t ever need to cram or pull an all-nighter. A store whose catalog is familiar to them, with knowledge of the mechanisms, medicines and modes of lifestyle changes available to them for free – and for a price.
Why older women aren’t talking about and haven’t talked about their menopause is alien to me. I imagine there must be an element of shame, a very real and no longer implied indictment of their age, their mortality. I can also see that they may feel inept themselves, lacking the vocabulary to put it all together, having little knowledge of what to do and being the living examples who have also fallen victim to the silence themselves.
The Real Peri Meno is devoted to all things perimenopause - the science, treatments, care, understanding, personal experiences, relationships, culture and more. The brain child of Keisha D. Edwards, The Real Peri Meno developed out of her own shock-and-awe experience with perimenopause and navigating the disjointed U.S. medical system in search of answers, support and relief.
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