Menopause. Oh, the clichés abound. Hot flashes. Sudden showers of sweat on a chilly day, or waking up twisted in damp sheets. Sleeping with the windows open in the dead of winter, your husband lying in bed rattling with hypothermia next to you. Loss of libido. No libido. Brain fog. Forgetting, when you leave the house, whether you've turned off the burner on the stove, or whether you've told that hilariously funny story to the exact same person before. A thickening of the waist, no matter how much sugar deprivation or sprinting, until you're more a withered apple than a curvy, juicy pear.
Conversely, perimenopause -- the decade or so before menopause -- isn't much discussed. We could even say it's one of the last taboos. Less talked about than menopause itself, certainly, and less politicised and celebrated than menstruation. So I decided to ask 12 friends, ranging from 43 to 50 years of age, what they thought about this murky, surging undertow as we forge ahead into the next part of our lives.
Most of them are already experiencing changes in their menstrual cycle; nothing radical, just a subtle alteration in flow, or duration. Some of them notice temperature fluctuations, nothing too scary. So far, I'm ovulating twice some cycles -- those pesky eggs want every chance they can get as the baby-making machine gets ready to slow down.
Many of us, including me, don't know when our mothers went through menopause, so we have no idea whether we will experience it in our forties or fifties. The average age of menopause (cessation of menstruation for at least 12 months) is 51, and is genetically linked to the age of your mother's onset of menopause. Girls are experiencing puberty earlier, a worldwide phenomenon which is often linked to body fat percentage, endocrine disruptors in food and plastics, and environmental toxic load. I wonder whether women could be experiencing menopause earlier as well? It may be only the subsequent generation that can give us answers.
Most of us have confessed that our libido is less potent than in our twenties and thirties, though this may not be purely age-related or hormonal. Women are having babies later, and thus the combination of parenting, sleepless nights, juggling work and motherhood, all contribute to loss of sex drive. Many women are caring for young children, going straight from the hormones of pregnancy to the rollercoaster of perimenopause. And when do we have the time for quality sex, let alone the long, delicious build-up of unstructured time together with our partner, meandering conversation, affection, foreplay?
Body image issues play a part; as the ageing body that lactates, fluctuates and aches replaces the youthful physique that can withstand late nights, relentless activity and riotous living. The expectation that sex should be "the way it used to be" also plagues many women, as well as health issues ranging from weight gain to vaginal dryness, and long-term relationships that have morphed into deep mutual respect and familiarity, yet consequently grown less exciting as the years go by. One bright note: maybe we want sex less frequently, but when we do, the fiery intensity of our desire and orgasm can often make up for its infrequency.
Am I looking forward to becoming the mythical 'wise-woman', or the harder-to-live-with title of 'crone'? Do I see menopause as a diminishment of my youth, the sexuality and possibility I've defined myself by for much of my adult life? Or am I able to embrace both views? Many of my friends seemed puzzled by these questions. Maybe it's just too soon to ask. After all, we're right on the cusp of this journey, and who knows how and in what measure we will change and grow.
But for now, I see perimenopause as the beginning of a gentle transition into embracing a truer, more stable, more authentic self. A self that can go beyond the limits of gender in many ways, and in so doing, access what is intrinsic to both. A self that is not as concerned with the doings of the world, but more aligned with inner processes of integration, understanding and renewal.
Still relating to the world with joy and vigour, but not as invested in doing, achieving, succeeding. Or in conforming. Not so interested in pleasing, or being polite. Or in being pleasing to the eye. What a relief. My belief these days is that our transcendence lies in our messiness, in our uncertainty and our imperfection. Thus begins this natural process of winding down, of going slow. Of pausing, yes, pausing in meno-pause, a breathing space that can be deeply rewarding, if we can start by being mindful now.