Menopause: advice for coping with ‘change on the deepest level’

It can happen in your 40s, and this huge change can affect your personality, sexual needs and general outlook. But it can also be a positive time, says author Jill Shaw Ruddock

‘Life becomes more about you and the things that are important to you.’ Illustration: Getty Images

‘Life becomes more about you and the things that are important to you.’ Illustration: Getty Images

 

Nobody talks about it: sex during and after menopause. The menopause itself. How long it lasts. When it happens. What the symptoms are. Many medical and psychological experts don’t even bring it up, perhaps for fear of labelling, but menopause is as major an experience as the onset of menstruation earlier in life. In many ways it is a lot more physically difficult and drives you crazier.

It was only in reading The Second Half of Your Life by Jill Shaw Ruddock that I learned that a year after your periods stop you’re post-menopausal. It can happen in your 40s, and this huge hormonal change affects your personality. The post-menopausal fallout can feel like a century of suffering, can cause physical pain and challenge marriages as well as relationships with children.

The withdrawal of the hormones progesterone and oestrogen make you less inclined to be a nurturing peacekeeper attuned to others’ feelings and more inclined, with the testosterone you have left, to want to seek out the new and become more involved in the world outside the home.

“It’s an opportunity to transform,” says Ruddock. “Women transition from their reproductive years to their productive years and see the world in a new way. This is change on the deepest level, an attitudinal change . . . There are women who have been unhappy in their marriages and say, ‘I’m not going to put up with this any more’.

“I’m a big believer in sticking it out in marriage, unless the man treats you with disrespect or is a philanderer.”

She has seen a surge in couples who were married for 30 years getting divorced after the children leave home. She has also noticed a trend for divorcing women in their 50s partnering with other women as testosterone dominates.

In some cases women have formed new relationships with men they’ve known since their 20s.

“I have one friend who got remarried at 58 to the perfect partner, the love of her life. They were meant to be together and their life will be amazing.”

But such happy endings are the exception, she warns. In the main, she thinks that divorcing in reaction to the menopausal transformation is usually a mistake, as loneliness and even poverty can result. So there’s a chapter on rebuilding marriage and another on finances in the second half of life. Both are essential reading.

It’s a disappointing picture, yet Ruddock sees it as a time of opportunity and growth” if women can manage it without losing their marbles.

In Anne Tyler’s novel, Ladder of Years, the long-married and little-appreciated mother of children about to leave the nest, simply leaves home one day without explanation in order to find herself.

A life satisfying other people

Ruddock says it’s a common feeling for women to wake up one day and realise that their lives have been about satisfying other people but it has been dissatisfying for themselves.

“Life becomes more about you and the things that are important to you. It’s not that your life changes overnight and you decide to focus outside the home; hormonal changes mean that you are focusing outside the home. You become less focused on the needs of your kids. It’s not that you need to change. You suddenly have changed.

“I think [that outlook is] a very good role model for one’s children. You hear kids say to the mothers who aren’t doing anything, ‘Get a life’. When you get a life, they really do like it.”

The book is worth reading for the chapter on menopausal sex alone. Hormonal changes can make intercourse so painful for married women “they feel they’re losing their virginity, each and every time”.

Yet many single women of menopausal age don’t experience the lack of lubrication that supposedly goes with hormonal changes. They are as desirous and comfortable with sexual intercourse as they were as young women. .

Ruddock writes: “When I went to gather more information about sex and the older woman from a respected gynaecologist, she started by saying, ‘I suppose you will be writing about how women rediscover their sexuality after the menopause.’ When I expressed my surprise, as this view was so different from what I was hearing from ordinary women, she then asked, ‘Oh, so you are going to write the truth?’ ”

The truth. It’s different for every woman, of course, but the solutions that women discover can marry well with the sorts of solutions needed by their men, who also may be feeling less inclined towards penetrative sex.

“Penetrative sex may not necessarily be the way to go as we grow older. It’s more about intimacy,” says Ruddock. Read the chapter and familiarise yourself with a quality website such as sexsiopa.com.

“It’s very reassuring for people to know ‘I’m not the only person in the world that this is happening to’,” says Ruddock, who has been happily married to philanthropist and arts patron Paul Ruddock for more than 30 years. Both of them grew up poor and pulled themselves up by education, stamina and sheer grit.

She was inspired to investigate the phenomenon of menopause after her mother died in social isolation at 60. “I realised one of the biggest things people should do is to bring people together to share common interests and passions, so that isolation is prevented.”

She has put that passion into the Second Half of Life Foundation, a charity for menopausal women where hundreds of volunteers offer hundreds of hours of self-development courses in London. Ruddock is trying to reproduce the model in other cities in the UK. Profits from the book will go to the foundation.

The Second Half of Your Life by Jill Shaw Ruddock is published by Vermillion

SURVIVAL GUIDE: HOW TO THRIVE DURING AND AFTER MENOPAUSE

  • Exercise, exercise, exercise: six days a week. Nothing else will help to balance your mood, prevent conditions that will cripple you and make you feel fit and beautiful. Hire a personal trainer even for one session if you can afford it.
  • Do your Kegel exercises, also known as pelvic-floor exercises. This will make all the difference. Pilates is a blessing for menopausal women. Join a class.
  • Dream up new projects and adventures. Plan ahead. Never retire. Just reinvent yourself. Read more. Have an opinion. Share your unique outlook.
  • Spend time with other people every day, but also spend time with yourself. Get a blood hormone test, a mammogram annually (in Ireland it’s biennial), look after your skin, your eyes and have your hearing checked. Have a good sleep routine, watch your weight and include phytoestrogens in your diet: soya, wholegrains, beans, nuts, seeds and berries.
  • Look after your heart, as heart disease is the number one cause of death in post-menopausal women.
  • Recognise the symptoms of menopause. They include: hot flushes; sweating; unpredictable periods; floating anxiety; panic attacks; irritability and moodiness; trouble sleeping through the night; forgetfulness; weight gain; itchy, dry, wrinkled skin; dry, thinning, greying hair; headaches and migraines; aching joints and sore tendons, muscles and feet; breast tenderness; diminished sex drive; vaginal dryness.
  • Buy a vibrator. The more toys the better. Every woman of every age can climax if the circumstances are right. Foreplay can be better than sexual intercourse as long as communication is good. Try a vaginal lubricant and other options, which your gynaecologist or women’s health doctor should know about.

We want to read your Menopause stories. Email 350 words to menopause@irishtimes.com telling us about your experience. We will publish a selection of the stories in the Health+Family supplement and on irishtimes.com.

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