Two summers ago, when I was enormously pregnant with my younger son and suffering in the heat and humidity, I got the fright of my life.
I’d developed a passion for browsing “cooling” clothes online – scarves and insoles with freezable gel packs concealed cleverly within. With my due date just weeks away, I couldn’t justify buying any, so instead I lived vicariously through the effusive product reviews.
One particular review, by a woman experiencing menopausal hot flushes, tickled me no end. The reviewer, who said her cooling scarf made her feel “like Elsa from Frozen, but less emo”, was now planning to buy multiple scarves to sew together into a “giant man-repelling full-body refrigeration-kaftan”.
I was snort-laughing for two whole minutes before I noticed the woman had specified her age – and that it was the same as mine: 41. Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusions that 41 places me in the first bloom of youth (I am, very conservatively, in youth’s fourth bloom). But the top of my head started fizzing with the realisations that I:
a) was within spitting distance of actual menopause age, now
b) being a late bloomer and, you know, currently pregnant – didn’t feel at all ready; especially as I
c) didn’t have the first clue about what menopause actually was.
Certainly, we were never taught about it at school – although in fairness we didn’t get any sex education, either ( (I really am in my 40s, guys). The only time I remember my family discussing anything menopausal was a gossipy conversation between my grandmother and a friend, about someone’s – and here they kept mouthing the word “hys-ter-ect-omy”.
And, although my mother prepped me comprehensively in the advent of my first period (which she insisted on calling “the menarche”, as though it was a villain out of Mordor), years later, when I asked about her experience of menopause, she just sort of shrugged and said she hadn’t noticed it happening.
Obviously, as an adult human woman with access to Google, I’m perfectly capable of finding out about the mechanics of the menopause. I’m just surprised at how little I know already.
I’m in my early forties, and my menopause knowledge is shamefully patchy, and limited to wondering “Are these hot flushes? Or did I just walk up a steep hill?” Until recently I hadn’t even heard of perimenopause. Or maybe I had, and just assumed people were mispronouncing “peri mayonnaise”. Either way, it’s all very confusing, and now I can no longer eat at Nando’s.
Part of the problem is that menopause and perimenopause, even when you get into them, are shifting, woolly topics with no hard edges.
Yes, menopause is where your uterus stops releasing eggs. Yes, perimenopause is the bit before that. But the entire thing can begin anytime between your thirties and fifties, with loads of symptoms like lower libido, tender breasts, hot flushes, or NOTHING AT ALL. Hormone replacement therapy might work for you. It might not. You might experience pain. You might not. You might, like my mother, “not really notice it happening” (shrug).
And no one bloody talks about it.
So much about sex and fertility we pick up from society without even realising. Long before “my menarche”, adverts for sanitary products had driven home the message that during your period the act of rollerskating in white cycling shorts was enshrined in law. And despite my lack of curricular sex education, by eavesdropping on the conversations of more adventurous classmates, I’d developed a solid theoretical knowledge of sex by the age of 13 (also an encyclopaedic but deeply unrealistic library of sexual positions. Thanks, women’s magazines!).
“Menopause isn’t 'interesting' to people in the same way what goes on in a knackers’ yard probably doesn't interest men who are really into My Little Ponies.”
Despite having health and wellbeing impacts for half the sodding population, menopause isn’t really mentioned anywhere, except in whispered references to “the change” (see: my gran), or the occasional first-person piece hidden in a Sunday supplement, about some older woman “bravely living life on her terms” (read: dyes her hair purple, doesn’t own cats, is a keen kayaker).
Even in 2019 “older” women are still pretty much invisible, and the unspoken assumption is that the end of a woman’s fertility – which is shorthand for a woman’s desirability and relevance, regardless of whether she has children – marks the end of her worth as a person.
By extension, the process by which that happens – menopause – isn’t “interesting” to people, in the same way what goes on in a knackers’ yard probably doesn’t interest men who are really into My Little Ponies. Once your eggs have dried up, you’re on your own, old lady. Which is pretty depressing. Although it’s probably a relief to the peri-mayonnaise branding team.
Thank goodness, then, for publications like The Midult, which refuses to have anything but fresh, funny takes on female middle age. Hooray for Make Menopause Matter, the campaign to make menopause education compulsory for health professionals, employers and in all secondary schools.
And yes yes yes to brilliant, funny, inclusive and eye-opening books on female sexuality, like Flo Perry’s How to Have Feminist Sex, and the Hotbed Collective’s More Orgasms Please, which cover ovulation sex, old-age sex and everything in between.
If initiatives like these have their way, by the time my young sons are of an age to understand the menopause they won’t be totally unaware of it, or see it is a red flag for a woman’s decline into irrelevance. Instead, I hope they will know it’s just a process of the body, like puberty or pregnancy or that bit where your balls drop. And, as with all biological processes, it doesn’t change who you are – or how important you are – as a human person walking around the world.
Although it might mean that someone starts rocking a series of stylish cooling scarves, and the occasional “giant man-repelling full-body refrigeration-kaftan”. Obviously, they’ll have picked that one up from their mother’s experience of menopause, which is likely to hit sometime between now and – *checks notes* – 103 years from now.