Thursday, July 26, 2012

Let's hear it for menopause!

Birthday roses from my husband on July 24th
On Tuesday I turned 46 years old. Americans try to pretend that 46 is still young, but reproductively, there’s no denying that 46 often falls in the middle of one of the biggest shifts in a woman’s life. Puberty marks the beginning of a girl’s ability to conceive and menopause marks the beginning of a woman’s ability to focus on herself and her community in different ways. While menopause is marked by the cessation of the menstrual cycle, there are years leading up to that event that are referred to as perimenopause. It’s this time period I’m focused on.

Menopause brings respect and power
In cultures outside of the U.S. where elders are respected and age is seen as bringing wisdom and dignity, women approach menopause with anticipation. They welcome the end of their childbearing years. Imagine that: welcoming the end of your childbearing years, especially for women who don’t have access to birth control. This is a good thing.

In cultures where menstrual blood is feared, there are many taboos against women of child-bearing age. These are lifted after a woman achieves menopause and sometimes she’s even seen as more equal to men at this point. Often such elders are respected as healers and spiritual wise women.

Also very significant is that in parts of the world where menopause is a positive transformation, women report few if any negative effects. In Japanese there isn’t even a word for “hot flash” except for one that has been appropriated from English. In Mayan culture as well, women report few if any symptoms that correspond with perimenopause. There’s a clear link between how respected elder women are, how positively menopause is seen and how little discomfort woman experience as they move through it.

How the U.S. sees menopause
Sadly, in the U.S. we tend to think of menopause as a painful time during which a woman loses her sexual appeal, her beauty and her value. In the cruelly youth-focused U.S. there is no end to articles and stories about hot flashes, insomnia, joint pain and emotional upset associated with menopause. We Americans focus on ways to minimize the changes of menopause, to treat it and recover from it if it were a disease.

Consider the similar shift that many American men experience. It’s usually called a “mid-life crisis” or maybe “male menopause.” Sometimes this time of change is just looked at as “retirement.” Men shuffle priorities, decide what really matters and face changes that their bodies are going through. Men get just as disoriented and touchy as women do when they re-align major parts of their lives and struggle with health challenges, but retirement and midlife crises in men just aren’t seen as medical disorders the way menopause is. Maybe since men don’t experience a single physical event like women’s cessation of the menstrual cycle, we Americans fool ourselves into thinking that they don’t have a major time of change in their lives.

Ways we can look at menopause
What are some ways American women can move through perimenopause with a positive attitude and minimal symptoms? Considering that we’ve kind of been set up to see menopause as this uncomfortable thing that will leave us ugly and unwanted, here’s one way to go. I don’t need to tell you that there’s a strong correlation between the mind and the body and that stress can have physical symptoms. According to Dr. Christiane Northrup, who has studied menopause for decades and written several books about it, the women who do the best recognize that their physical symptoms are linked to other issues in their lives and they deal with those issues. For instance, a woman who stops and faces the problems causing her insomnia or headaches usually does better at reducing those symptoms than a woman who refuses to look at issues in her life. Accepting perimenopausal symptoms as gifts pointing us towards necessary changes seems critical to making peace with our lives and our bodies. Don’t ignore what’s really bothering you. Face it and you’ll end up in a better place in your life.

Change is good
Think about puberty: loss of control over our bodies, not sure what would happen next, changes that happened quickly. We probably changed our relationships with parents, siblings and friends. Menopause is simply the mirror of that time of change. Maybe your old friends don’t stay as close and you make new friends. Maybe you change the dynamic between you and your parents or family. Maybe you discover new interests and hobbies and let the previous ones fall away. That’s all perfectly natural and if you’re lucky, your loved ones also accept that it’s natural,

Men, please support the women you know as they reconfigure their lives. They will come out better on the other end of the process, but it goes more smoothly if everyone recognizes that change is often for the best. Our experience of menopause depends hugely on how our male family members, friends and partners respond to the women in their lives.

Freed by middle age!
I find perimenopause a very freeing time. For years I’ve felt the relief of no longer needing to look attractive all the time because I’m hoping someone will notice. I'm not as dependent on the opinion of others. When you’re done trying to look young and fertile, or raising children there’s a lot of energy that’s freed up for what YOU want to do. Creative pursuits? Run for office? Start a community garden? Or just wrap yourself in the quiet activities that make you happiest. These are the kinds of things that wait for us on the other side of menopause.

At the age of 46, my perimenopause has started. For years I’ve been feeling physical and emotional changes that are causing me to look carefully at my relationships and what I want in my life. I say let us take our cues from other cultures that value age and know that there’s a whole lifetime to be lived beyond the child-bearing years. Let us start a new American tradition of celebrating menopause as the beginning of a woman’s wisest and most productive years and her freedom from the parts of her life that she has outgrown.

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