The lightbulb went off somewhere during a conversation I was having with a sleep expert while researching a story about insomnia. It was a tiny, flickering lightbulb, because I hadn’t been sleeping and my brain felt like a bit of old cheese dropped into a deep well.
The sleep researcher was telling me that menopause had made her sleep more patchy, and suggested that perhaps the same was true for me. At first I thought: How does she know? Do I now have the trembly voice of the old lady who’s always hitting Sylvester the Cat with an umbrella? And then I thought: How did I not know that menopause can affect sleep?
I’m embarrassed to admit how little I knew about the symptoms of menopause, because most of my knowledge had come from sitcoms like Absolutely Fabulous, where Patsy and Eddie wreak havoc at a meeting of Menopause Anonymous. Also, as you may have noticed, there was a pandemic going on and a few other things to worry about. (If you’ve gone through any part of your menopause journey during the pandemic, I would like to give you a medal, and a lifetime supply of free chocolate.)
There I was, googling “why is my skin so goddamn itchy” and finally understanding the great and weird range of symptoms that menopause brings. Why had no one told me? Why had my mother never prepared me for this? When I got my period, she drew a little female reproductive system on the back of her package of Sweet Caporal cigarettes, but about the messy exit from reproduction’s embrace she said nothing.
Even among my friends the subject is raised rarely and discussed only briefly, mainly accompanied by expletives. We trade advice and articles about hormone replacement therapy, but we’re still labouring under the societal myths that say menopause is the end: the end of youth, desirability, productivity, creativity.
“Menopause is like being sent on a canoe trip with no guide book and only a vague idea where you are headed – although the vague expectation is that it’s awful,” writes Jen Gunter in her valuable book The Menopause Manifesto: Own Your Health with Facts and Feminism. “Oh, and don’t write. No one wants to know about your journey or what it was like when you arrive.”
Ouch. The truth, she hurts. When framed that way, talking about your “menopause continuum,” as Dr. Gunter puts it, becomes a radical act, a feminist reframing. Your body isn’t shutting down, it’s just transitioning. It’s having a little Marie Kondo moment: Goodbye, eggs. Thank you for your service!
Fortunately, there are models for this maverick thinking and many of them are over in Britain shouting at the tops of their lungs. (Menopause doesn’t affect your voice, apart from the fact that men seem to have more difficulty hearing it.) We’re starting to witness a whole meno-movement.
The Labour MP Carolyn Harris is leading the charge to have menopause taken seriously, and recently introduced a bill to have hormone replacement therapy paid for by the National Health Service, which is already the case in Scotland and Wales. (Hormone therapy, which Dr. Gunter discusses extensively in her book, has been reappraised as a useful treatment for some women.)
“Despite affecting more than half of the world’s population, menopause remains one of the last great taboos, badly funded and rarely discussed in public,” Ms. Harris said when introducing her bill. “It is also poorly understood: in the workplace, in society at large and far too often, even in the doctor’s surgery.” She called for a “menopause revolution,” and the venerable walls of the British Parliament did not crumble at the blasphemy. I couldn’t help but contrast this with the few times the M word has been spoken in our Parliament. At least things have improved since 1972, when B.C. MP Douglas Aird Hogarth made the interesting argument that menopause turns women into shoplifters.
Now the British government has established a cross-party task force to understand how menopause is integrated into education and health care, and how it affects women in the workplace. One report commissioned by the British government showed that almost a quarter of women consider leaving the workplace because their symptoms are so intense, so poorly understood and treated.
Secondary schools in Britain are also now required to incorporate information about menopause into their curriculum, and workplaces are beginning to take it seriously, as a matter of retaining experienced talent. Scotland’s Burness Paull has become the first accredited “menopause friendly” law firm in the U.K., thanks to its investment in training and resources – as well as appointing Menopause Champions in the office.
As politicians inside the U.K. Parliament agreed to subsidize the cost of hormone replacement therapy, female campaigners outside were raising their voices in jubilation. They were a fizzy bunch, some wrapped in fun furs and some wearing t-shirts that said “menopause matters.” Not one of them looked like they’d reached their sell-by date.
It was inspiring to see – and, especially, to hear. Why continue to pussyfoot around a topic that’s going to affect so many of us? Why whisper about it as if we’re walking toward a funeral home? I met a new doctor recently, and he asked me, very delicately, as if he were a bomb-disposal expert approaching a device bristling with wires: “So, are you still able to have children?”
The words came hurtling from my mouth: “No, thank God.” Then we both burst out laughing. It felt good to laugh, and shatter the silence.
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