Menopause is not optional. Yet, despite every woman experiencing menopause, there is a distinct lack of understanding, a vast amount of misinformation and a disconnected puzzle over which the best of us would stumble.
Many of us don’t understand the physical and psychological complexities of this natural part of ageing because we were never told. It seems impossible to comprehend that women find themselves at this juncture in life with no more than a possible pamphlet, but here we are.
Considering perimenopause, the natural period of transition towards menopause, may continue for up to 10 years with 34 or more symptoms, why is there so much silence?
This gap in understanding makes it almost impossible for us to recognise and navigate when we find ourselves amid symptoms that have no logical explanation and yet are not attributed to menopause by our doctors. Because of this uncertainty and confusion women experience, along with the negative, incapacitating, and destructive comical view of women at midlife, menopause has remained a disturbingly taboo subject.
Breeda Bermingham, a social entrepreneur, founded the Midlife Women Rock Project cafes where women come together in safe spaces to explore their experience of menopause.
She says: “The taboo revolving around the construction and characterisation of menopause undermines the very essence of who we are as women. To date, reaching the end of the reproductive phase of our lives has not generated a global conversation around the role of women in society now. Mute women, shame, and menopause have been synonymous for decades and something that has contributed immensely to the social and cultural devaluation of women at this phase of life.”
In essence, menopause may disrupt our lives in varying ways. But we are not a closed book simply because our oestrogen is dropping and our ability to reproduce is limited. Midlife women have many more chapters to write.
While not every woman will encounter menopause symptoms, three in four will find themselves experiencing many of the 34 indicators – including brain fog, anxiety, fatigue, hot flashes, poor concentration and irregular and heavy bleeding. Given the nature of menopause, no woman will experience it in the same way, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment, and the age at which a woman finds herself in menopause varies significantly. Alongside understanding and navigating this puzzle, women can find the narrative challenging and stigmatising, leading to silence and a detrimental lack of support.
There remain significant barriers to overcome within our medical system, in education and in peer-to-peer support. While these areas and others are all seeing slow progress in closing the information and support gap, women will continue to be shrouded in embarrassment, fear, and shame if the conversation remains closed.
Bermingham, a former nurse who recently published Midlife Women Rock: a menopause story for a new generation, recognises that it is only by breaking the silence and opening the conversation that the old stories can be challenged. “There has been no sanction for the collective denigration of the menopausal woman,” she says. “The language habitually used around this life phase is overwhelmingly negative, something that is impacting how women navigate these years.”
Countering the stigma is a challenge. We are, however, witnessing somewhat of a transformation as more women are talking, friends are listening, and men are heeding the discussion. Igniting this conversation will normalise it and shift our perceptions of this time of life.
Aileen O’Farrell is a counsellor and highlights that to shake the stigma of menopause we need to normalise the experience in conversations, education, GP waiting rooms and for the next generation. She encourages us to “speak about menopause with close friends, family and trusted colleagues. If we’re more comfortable speaking about it first with people who ‘get it’, there are networks such as menopause cafes and online communities, as well as counsellors and coaches for those who prefer to talk one to one. Women have a wide range of experiences, so while we don’t want to trivialise the impact, neither do we want to terrify people.”
Using our influence
She assures us that educating our children about menopause will help shift the narrative as we encourage the next generation to recognise that “everyone goes through stages of development in life, and for women, the menopause is one of these stages”. Furthermore, O’Farrell suggests that using our influence to create a supportive work environment, especially managers, business owners and staff representatives, will encourage more women to share their experience and, by effect, others to get the necessary support. Referencing menopause in popular culture helps challenge the stigma.
“There are a lot more TV shows now featuring women over 40,” says O’Farrell. “So this is a great opportunity. Soap operas, for example, have often led the way in addressing ‘taboos’ and opening up conversations.”
As the stigma negatively narrates the story of menopause, we are oblivious to the significant shift in women’s strength and power that occurs in midlife. Tackling the taboo of menopause means opening the conversation to include, as O’Farrell puts it, “the opportunities, as well as the challenges. Women in perimenopause have a good 40 years on average still to live,” she says. “How do we want to live them? It’s a time when many women take new directions and do more of what they love, whether through study, new businesses, creative pursuits, relationships, or travel. Maybe it’s time we reclaimed ‘the change’.”
The misconception about the realities of menopause are shifting as more and more women embrace this midlife stage of womanhood. Calligrapher Jagdeep Sahans is one of many women who navigated the transition with a distinct positivity as she accepted the transformation.
“When my menstrual cycle started to change, I knew instinctively that I was perimenopausal,” she says. “I embraced this journey and I acknowledged the ebb and flow of the changes that were happening within me. I didn’t hide that I was having a “hot flush” or that I was feeling extra tired or a little off balance, which helped me a whole lot. I think that honesty with myself and others helps me keep a good work-life balance.”
Sahans looked beyond pharmaceutical solutions in managing her symptoms and incorporated wellbeing techniques such as Yoga, and sought out nature for natural solutions in consultation with her doctor. “There is a certain freedom that comes with menopause,” she says. “Either you embrace it, or you fight it. I embraced it.”
The conversation is opening, and the understanding is increasing, meaning more of us can and will positively approach midlife.
“I’m of the mindset,” says Sahans, “that I cannot be held responsible for what other people think. This is part of a woman’s journey through life. There is nothing to be afraid of and no harm will come to you. Once your journey starts, it’s one to be celebrated, not mourned.”