I turned 50 earlier this year which was a cause for celebration amongst my family and friends. However, when I officially became ‘post-menopausal’ the year before, nobody wanted to know.
In our youth (read: fertility) obsessed culture, becoming post-menopausal means the end of bearing a biological child and, it seems, the official beginning of your pointlessness and invisibility as an older woman. But, it seems, just as in other stages of my ‘failure’ to become a mother, I don’t fully buy into this cultural narrative of my worthlessness. And maybe even the ‘invisibility’ might work to my advantage too, as it gives me the space to focus on what’s important to me, freed from the need to ‘fit in’.
For me, my menopause came ‘early’ (by my reckoning, although statistically it was just 2 years earlier than the ‘average’ of 51) although in my general ignorance about all aspects of my fertility, it had been going on for years before I realised. The first big shock for me was that ‘the menopause’ isn’t really the difficult bit at all – it’s the eight to ten years that precede it that are the hardest! When I missed that first period at 39, I put it down to stress and I continued to miss one period a year for the next four years and put those down to stress, hormone problems (I thought it was my thyroid), jet-lag and a fantasy pregnancy. I knew that my fertility was winding down once I passed 40, but I didn’t really understand any more than that. I didn’t realise that the ship had probably sailed a long time earlier.
In March 2014 I curated a panel discussion called Fertility Myths at the Women of the World Festival (WOW2014) on London’s Southbank. It brought together four women chaired by Kate Brian: myself, Jessica Hepburn, IVF survivor of 11 rounds and still hopeful (read her book, it’s amazing!), Zita West (an ex-midwife and one of the most well-known names in the baby-making business) and Dr Susan Bewley, Professor of Complex Obstetrics at Kings College London. Dr Bewley gave a short presentation on some well-known ‘fertility myths’ complete with charts and diagrams, showing how the declining quality of a woman’s eggs and the likely increase of miscarriage meet at around 41. She also explained that if women were to know how old their mothers were when they ‘completed’ their menopause (one year after last period) and then took 10 years off that age, that was probably the age of their last viable egg.
The room went silent as about 150 women in their late thirties and forties did some mental arithmetic. Me too: it meant that by the time I’d missed that first period at 39, it was already, most likely, game over for me. I was in the peri-menopause and, bang on Dr Bewley’s ‘ten years’, I had my last period at 48 and so was considered ‘post-menopausal’ at 49. It saddened me to think how differently I would have behaved in those first few years post-divorce at 38 when I was on a mission to meet someone and ‘do IVF’ had I known more about the menopause. I imagine that I would have made a lot of different decisions about finances, career and relationships. Better decisions. I would have bought a home immediately after my divorce, instead of waiting for ‘my next husband’ to buy it with and wouldn’t have ended up priced out of the UK housing market. I would have focused on writing not dating. I would have demanded more and put up with less. Ah, hindsight eh?!
When I was diagnosed with ‘advanced peri-menopause’ at 46, my GP thought it was a ‘brainwave’ that I’d asked to be tested – I’d been seeing her for 6-months looking for help with high-anxiety, depression, hot flushes, sleep problems and mood disturbances but it was only after a holiday with some older women that I found out that my symptoms suggested peri-menopause. My doctor was a woman in her late 30s yet she seemed to know practically nothing of the symptoms I was experiencing… When I later asked her, she admitted that she’d had very little training at medical school about the menopause apart from the associated risks of breast cancer with HRT. Can you imagine a GP getting no training on puberty for example? The menopause is something that happens to every woman and is as complex as puberty and doctors receive practically no training! I can’t help feeling that if all men experienced the menopause too there’d be more time devoted to understanding it… (And yes, there is a form of male menopause called Andropause but as yet, either not all men experience it or admit to it so there’s little understanding of that too).
As I started to explore the available laypersons’ literature around menopause in an effort to educate myself and help other Gateway Women understand what they were going through I came across a real problem – so much of it is written by women who are mothers and includes a great deal on dealing with your children as they enter puberty and you are entering menopause, or maintaining sexual activity with your husband and dealing with retirement and grandchildren. Even though I’m through my grief over my childlessness these books were often either triggering or just plain annoying! Not all of us going through the menopause are mothers! Not all of us are heterosexual! Not all of us have partners! Not all of us can afford to retire!
So I’ve decided that we need to create our own guide – one that also includes a section on the deep existential rite-of-passage passage that is coming to terms the end of our genetic line.
I call the childless menopause a ‘death you survive’ as it’s the end of our biological line as well as the end of our dream of motherhood. It can be a real dark night of the soul. And the transformations of passing through this ‘gateway’ can be profound and rather wonderful.
This article is the first in a series that I intend to write over the next 12 months about the childless menopause and I’d like to ask for your input.
What are the issues that you’d like to see covered? Here are a few ideas:
- What stories about your peri-menopause or menopause would you like to share?
- What do you wished you’d known earlier?
- What facts about the menopause have come as a surprise?
- How did/do you get your information about menopause?
- Do you feel able to talk about your experience of menopause with others?
- Did your mother ever talk to you about the menopause?
- How is menopause affecting your sexuality and does it feel possible to talk about that?
- What resources have you found that have been helpful (and unhelpful)?
- How are you dealing with some of the physical changes of menopause?
- How are you coping with the existential issues around never being a mother?
- How supported have you been with early or surgical menopause by the medical profession?
- How do you feel about yourself as a woman embarking on menopause?
- HRT, bio-identicals or herbs – what’s right for you and do you know enough?
- What plans are you making about ageing without children or are you paralysed by fear on this issue?
- What do you think of the cultural silencing and shaming of women (particularly childless women) as Elders in our society?
- And of course, what ROCKS about menopause?!
For me, the thing I love most about being post-menopausal is that I’ve got a clarity of thinking and emotional steadiness that I don’t remember having since before puberty. I feel bold and adventurous again, although now I’m more interested in social change than tree climbing (although I don’t rule out taking up rock-climbing!) Although I still enjoy the company of men, having an intimate relationship with a man is no longer the focus of my life.
I feel like I gave 30 years of my life (15-45) to mankind, and now I’d like to give the rest of my life to womankind! I have been celibate, more or less for five years now (there she goes breaking yet another taboo!) and they’ve been the five most creative, productive and peaceful of my adult life… I don’t rule out another relationship in the future, but it’ll be on very different terms to any I’ve had before. The doormat has left the building!
Please share your stories, fears, joys, questions and whatever you like in the comments below. I’m going to be putting together a structure for the articles going forward and I’d love to know what you’d like to read and what you’d like to say. Thank you.
Jody Day is the Founder of Gateway Women and the author of #1 Amazon best-seller ‘Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life Without Children’. She set up the Gateway Women friendship and support network in 2011 to support, inspire and empower childless-not-by-choice women as they develop meaningful and fulfilling lives without children. She runs private sessions, workshops and retreats for women coming to terms with the fact that motherhood didn’t happen for them as well as private meetup groups in the UK & Ireland, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, NZ and South Africa as well as thriving private online community. She speaks regularly in public, in the media and online about issues and prejudices facing childless women in our society today and is becoming known as ‘the voice of the childless generation’.