Menopause. What can one say about “the change of life?” Is it a walk in the park on a summer’s day? No. Does it mark the end of a woman’s reproductive years? Yes. Is it the end of us as women? Absolutely not.
The most important thing to say about menopause is that we do not talk about it enough. We hide it inside a musty trunk next to our grandmothers’ photos and a hirsute aunt that never married. We stash the word away for later use, and when it finally arrives, we don’t know what to do with it.
“When I got a little older and went through that ‘M’ thing,“ the American writer Nora Ephron once said, “Nothing that was written about it corresponded to what was going on. It was all these cheerful little books called things like ‘Wisdom of Menopause,’ and life is way more complicated than that.”
It is, especially for women. But I will let you in on a secret — menopause is our moment of liberation, with some hairy, wrinkly baggage, but liberation nonetheless.
Childbearing years are so brief; fertility typically ends in a woman’s mid-40s. As you can see, it occupies less than half of our adult life. And then, if one is lucky, we have 30 to 40 years in which to do something else.
My story. One day I was 35, in the middle of my journalism career, fighting the good fight, and then, suddenly, I became a woman “of a certain age.” My body started demanding things I didn’t appreciate. My partner told me I smelled a bit like vinegar (he came to regret it), and younger women avoided the issue like the plague, fearful of infecting themselves with something that will inevitably visit them also.
You fight it. Oh, you fight it and try to shove it back into that musty trunk, but to no avail. The change lands you an uppercut when you finally break down and throw away all the boxes of Tampax under the bathroom sink. Goodbye to all that.
My menopause’s arrival was quick, like an Agatha Christie murder. One day I was fertile; the next, I was not — no more blood. I didn’t have hot flashes or abnormal hair growth — I am Hispanic, the mustache comes with the packaging — and no night sweats. The bags under my eyes I could live with; it’s the jowls I feared the most. My period had decided to get the hell out of Dodge, and I was left with a body that was fighting its way back to teenagehood. I thought, “well, that wasn’t so bad; I got away easy.”
I soon learned I had not.
Menopause brings gifts you are not going to like, but you have to accept, like your neck. It starts resembling something on a plate on Thanksgiving — and that is why they invented turtlenecks and scarves. Those spots on your hands, they are not freckles. Hair color becomes an issue.
I stopped dying my hair because I just couldn’t be bothered to sit in a beauty parlor. My salt and pepper crown is not a feminist statement; it’s acceptance. It’s fashionable now, so lucky me. My skin reminds me of crepe paper; I noticed it one day in Yoga class when I went into the downward dog and saw my knees — what was gathered there were not bunched up nylons. I never went back to that class again.
The M’s other regalitos: unexplained anger (they call it irritability or mood swings, but trust me, it’s way more than that) and bursts of energy that shot me straight back to when I was 16 years old. Add to that insomnia — I now only sleep about 4 to 5 hours a night. I read more and write chasing daylight.
I don’t feel invisible, like many other women say they feel at this time in their life. I never pinned my existence as a woman on how many catcalls I got from construction workers or how many men looked at me as I rode home on the G Train. I just simply stopped caring; it seems like a monumental waste of time. There are so many other things that I want to think about and do. Time is of the essence. I have books to write, places to go, battles to continue fighting.
As I said in the beginning, we women don’t talk enough and openly about menopause and have let men control the narrative for decades. And look what happens when they do.
The male-dominated medical community of the mid-20th century concluded the following stupidity: “The unpalatable truth must be faced that all postmenopausal women are castrates,” said the gynecologist Robert Wilson, who wrote on this theme in his 1966 bestseller, Feminine Forever. The book had been backed by a pharmaceutical company looking to market hormone-replacement therapy. You don’t say?
So I am a castrate. Wonderful.
Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, also concluded that: “It is a well-known fact … that after women have lost their genital function their character often undergoes a peculiar alteration,” and they become “quarrelsome, vexatious and overbearing.”
I believe that to win a war, all you have to do is have a frontline of menopausal women. The battle will be short, sharp, and effective. Bloody, also. Menopause does not make us weak; it makes us strong, Sigmund, not hysterical, and neurotic. It makes us a force to contend with, but you knew that Siggy, and that is why you spent so many years treating our “hysteria.”
It’s interesting to note that one of the few other mammals that go through a long postmenopausal life are killer whales. In the ocean, non-reproductive females play a crucial role — the wisdom of years makes them perfect guides for their pod to catch the best salmon.
For too long, we have been speaking silently about menopause, among ourselves, out of the earshot of the patriarchy. It is time we started to speak loudly and to make it clear that menopause is an opening rather than a closing, a beginning instead of an end.
Fertility is not a mark of our femininity; it is merely a temporary byproduct. We need to embrace the whole of us, our entire body, in all its aging glory — wrinkles, sags, Emiliano Zapata mustache, and all.