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Lately, I’ve been worrying about my next biological milestone. In pre-puberty, I had sex-ed class and a well-worn library copy of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret to prepare me for training bras, first crushes and the onset of menstruation. In adolescence, I survived bad skin, mood swings and the end of virginity, thanks to marathon phone calls with friends and a closet full of teen magazines.
In pregnancy, I relied on other women who were willing to share their wisdom, as well as books, classes and websites galore that explained, in great detail, how my body – and life – would change.
But now, with menopause on the horizon, I’m not sure what to expect.
I’m Wency Leung, a reporter with The Globe and Mail, focusing on brain health. I’m finding that even though menopause, and the preceding phase of perimenopause when periods become irregular, are perfectly natural, discussing the topic is not always so.
Awkwardly (since I failed to find an opportunity to seamlessly slip it into conversation), I asked several forthright and savvy female colleagues to share what they know. Their responses: “Most of my female friends don’t even know perimenopause EXISTS. I only found out relatively recently,” “I’ve … thought of asking a friend in her 50s but it seems SO personal. And no one ever brings it up,” “[D]o you really want to know?”
It’s as though saying the words out loud will make them real.
The biological changes and common signs of perimenopause and menopause do, indeed, seem dreadful. There are hot flashes, night sweats, lack of sleep, a decline in libido, vaginal dryness. Plus, it can mess with your ability to think clearly.
All of this may explain why people are reluctant to open up about their experiences. Whenever anyone does, it’s usually framed as a horror story or a grim punchline. As actress Viola Davis recently informed late night host Jimmy Kimmel, “Menopause is hell.”
There’s no shortage of sources of health information about the changes that occur. But I also want to know how women deal with them, and what they will mean for my relationships, my place in society and my sense of identity. I want some guidance on becoming a woman who’s past her reproductive prime.
For actress Frances McDormand, freedom from fertility has been an upside to menopause. “[W]hat you gain after menopause is the power of invisibility. You become sexually invisible to both men and women. You gain the power of not giving a [expletive],” she told The New York Times magazine.
Hooray for Frances, but surely the end of menstruation does not necessitate an end to sexuality too.
The lack of candid discussion about menopause has real consequences. Without a good understanding of what to expect, it can be a needlessly lonely and scary experience, especially for women who go through it early. Premature menopause affects an estimated 1 per cent of women under the age of 40, some of whom experience it as early as their 20s, due to genetics, illnesses and idiopathic, or unknown, causes. One colleague told me her male doctor dismissed her signs, telling her she was too young to be going through menopause. So she went home and ignored what was going on with her body. Others mentioned they were either too frightened or too preoccupied with juggling other facets of their life to think about it. But just imagine, for a second, facing any other biological milestone in a similar bubble of silence.
Not addressing the issue also comes at a cost to women’s careers and to company productivity. In Britain, absenteeism due to menopause can cost companies an estimated £7.2-million per year, according to the news site Quartz. That’s on top of lost productivity among those who experience disruptive physical and psychological symptoms while on the job.
Thankfully, there are efforts to make everyone less squeamish about menopause. For example, gatherings, known as “Menopause Cafés” are popping up around the world, where women can give each other tips and support. According to the BBC, staff at the University of Leicester are encouraged to say “menopause” three times a day to normalize it. And God help us, Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly wants to “rebrand” menopause. Of course she does.
The point is, it’s time for some real (and preferably unbranded) discussion. I, for one, am all ears.
What else we’re reading:
Speaking of uncomfortable topics, this interview between the Atlantic’s Anna Walters and Megan Stack, author of the new book Women’s Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home, explores the often unspoken racial, financial and power imbalances between domestic workers and the women who hire them. As Stack explains, her own discomfort with hiring domestic help grew as she looked at her nanny, and thought, “She’s a mother too. Who’s taking care of her baby?”
Though Stack doesn’t offer any solutions, she provides plenty to ponder. She argues domestic labour is a model that allows upper-class women to advance, but requires a permanent underclass of impoverished women. At the same time, she makes the case against treating domestic workers as part of the family, since blurring the employee-employer relationship can make employees even more vulnerable to exploitation.
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