Shrugging off old ways of thinking has been the key for Suzanne Harrington to enjoy a midlife clear-out of expectations. She discusses how to reappraise life and make positive changes during and after menopause
I’ve been asked to write about the liberating aspects of menopause bang in the middle of a HRT supply crisis, which is a bit like being asked to write about cake during a famine, but if there’s one thing menopausal women can rise to, it’s a challenge.
Adaptation becomes second nature, as our formerly perfectly-tuned bodies go haywire, and take our mental health with it — leaving us so discombobulated that making a cup of tea is a challenge. Having sex is a challenge. Not killing people is a challenge. Especially now, when we can’t easily access the patches and gels which help take the edge off.
Still, at least we’re talking about it, unlike past generations of women who whispered euphemistically about ‘the change’, as though menopause were an uncomfortable garment of shame we had to secretly endure under our clothes, something that didn’t fit properly and made us too hot and a bit cross, rather than acknowledging what it really is – a total headf**k. And a total bodyf**k.
Except you won’t be doing that second one with the same enthusiasm as before, because along with your vaginal walls turning to tissue paper, your libido will have thrown itself off a cliff. What was previously the Nile Delta is now the Gobi Desert.
You can’t even distract yourself from the unending list of menopause symptoms with mindless sex because (a) it will hurt and (b) you can’t be bothered. And yes, shatavari, black cohosh, agnus castus, we are taking them all, and using every kind of lubricant from coconut oil to Castrol GTX.
"Women are getting organised, gathering together, information sharing in pop-up menopause cafés, supporting each other, requesting that their workplaces be better informed and more empathic, advocating for greater recognition of the impact of menopause on all aspects of our lives.”
Sorry, this is meant to be positive. On paper, it’s hard to find that many positive effects of menopause — if you google it, almost nothing comes up, apart from a few stock photos of women laughing at their salad, or the news that menopause shrinks uterine fibroids. Great. Oh, and the chance of middle-aged pregnancy reduces. As does the tampon bill.
But the dominant narrative is a long list of unnerving symptoms from thinning hair to sleepless nights, via achey hips and knees, crazy sweating, forgetfulness, free-floating anxiety and limitless rage. Not to mention cultural invisibility. Except we don’t care about that because we’re too busy trying not to lose our minds in Tesco.
Go behind the mainstream narrative, however, and you’ll find another layer of the story. Women are getting organised, gathering together, information sharing in pop-up menopause cafés, supporting each other, requesting that their workplaces be better informed and more empathic, advocating for greater recognition of the impact of menopause on all aspects of our lives. At last, we are speaking up about it, and making a fuss.
Menopausal women are the last female demographic to out ourselves in terms of unmet needs – menopause has lagged behind periods, pregnancy, parenthood, instead remaining either undiscussed or the butt of jokes.
Thankfully Gen X women are no longer prepared to put up and shut up, which is just as well given how, right now this minute, more than a third of the global female population (35pc of 3.9 billion women) is either going through it, or have been through it.
Yet the most powerful aspect of menopause transformation is internal, coming from the acute sense of being overwhelmed which engulfs so many of us when our hormones go AWOL.
This feeling of overwhelm — like standing in the middle of a room, and not being able to find the door — can go one of two ways; weeping in Tesco, or recalibrating to accommodate our new levels of capacity. Stepping back, rather than rushing in. Moving to new territory — the land of zero f**ks.
In this new land, no longer in possession of the same levels of oestrogen/progesterone that used to make us prioritise the needs of others as a matter of course (quite important when in charge of small children), instead this new sense of overwhelm means we are no longer able — or willing — to do everything for everyone. From an evolutionary perspective, if you’re a parent, by now you’ve done your bit for the survival of the species — your keeping-them-alive work is over.
Even if they still live at home, their futures stunted by housing markets, you will have become increasingly comfortable using the word ‘no’. As in, no sorry I can’t, or no sorry, I’m busy, or no, sorry, I’d rather not. People can make their own lunch, change their own duvet, manage their own lives.
This transformation, while not as obvious as the kind of mid-life crises involving sports cars and hair-transplants, is nonetheless profound, and fierce. It’s healthier too — nobody wants to see a middle-aged woman rage-howling in Tesco.
“Giving birth to yourself will surprise, even shock, the people closest to you,” writes Jill Shaw Ruddock in The Second Half Of Your Life. “The five ‘S’s — supporting, sublimating, safeguarding, sheltering and shielding — will be replaced with altogether different ones; social life, serious exercise, self-confidence, self-discovery and security.”
Basically, it’s ‘S’ for shrugging off. You have shrugged off the mantle of caring and nurturing, regardless of whether you are a parent or not. (The peak divorce age for Irish women is 53, which hardly seems coincidental; it is an age where we tend to trade humans for cats).
And the granny narrative is changing too — post-menopausal women are considerably more likely than their predecessors to be training for marathons, joining wine clubs and booking yoga holidays rather than sitting at home knitting bootees and waiting for another baby to look after.
She died, and has been replaced by someone in lycra with a phone full of apps for Airbnb and Mindbody. This shrugging off aspect of menopause, borne of overwhelm and cleansing as fire, can lead to all kinds of clear-eyed reappraisal.
“Basically, you have a mid-life clear-out, like tackling that cupboard that’s been filled with so much stuff for so long you’ve become blind to it, until one day you go mad and chuck everything that doesn’t spark joy.”
Basically, you have a mid-life clear-out, like tackling that cupboard that’s been filled with so much stuff for so long you’ve become blind to it, until one day you go mad and chuck everything that doesn’t spark joy.
Menopause, for all its brain fog, sharpens your focus on what you really want in your life, and what you don’t. Whether it’s leaving an established but unsatisfactory relationship, or quitting a safe but joyless job, or going through your contacts with a ruthless delete button, the menopause reset makes way for new things, new ideas, new ventures, new people. New you.
Without the spongy, cosy, nurturing pull of oestrogen, we radicalise. We look out beyond ourselves; movements like Extinction Rebellion are full of middle-aged women, because once we look up from making other people’s sandwiches, our vision broadens.
And we find in ourselves a combination of fearlessness and fury, which is exactly what’s needed for wider change. We are wiser, kinder, more tolerant and more life-experienced, but equally, we take no more prisoners. If only we could remember where we put our keys.