Our columnist reveals why courage and compassion is key at this time of your life
Even though we know the menopause is a biological eventuality, somehow, lots of us think it isn’t going to happen to us. It happened to our mothers, of course. But us? No, we’re not old enough for that. Then, suddenly, we are. Our memories go, we struggle with hot flushes, stammering and irritation, and our periods go haywire.
Along with all the physical elements of this, we often forget to recognise the huge emotional transition that we go through when we face up to the fact that our life as a fertile woman is ending. Even if we don’t want any more children, or indeed any children at all, the menopause can leave us feeling like what makes us female is gone. I’ve lost count of the number of women who whisper to me, embarrassed and ashamed, that they feel sexless and lost.
While physical menopausal symptoms are unpleasant, it’s often the emotional symptoms that can have the higher impact. In fact, research shows that one in three women see their doctors to report anxiety, depression and deep sadness at this time in their lives.
I don’t believe it has to be this way, though. In the last few years, we’ve become much better at talking about even the most intimate parts of the menopause. Many public women, like the brilliant Kathy Burke – who recently shared her experience in the documentary All Woman – have opened the door for us to have honest conversations and get help for issues that can ruin our lives. As females, we need to make space in our lives to be who we are, warts and all, rather than constantly protecting the ‘perfect’ illusion that we feel we have to maintain.
But there’s more to it than that. In our society, just being a woman who dares to get old can be an act of bravery, but other cultures have different attitudes. Fascinatingly, in a setting like Japan, where ageing is revered and families wouldn’t dream of hiding their relatives away, women report such few symptoms of the menopause that some say it doesn’t really exist. The Japanese respect older people and see ageing as part of life’s rich tapestry to be embraced and, as a result, women don’t agonise over the loss of fertility in the same way and perhaps experience fewer issues as a result.
We also need to mention the compassion they show themselves. Self-compassion isn’t something British women are known for, and one study showed that we experience the menopause the worst. That’s not to suggest that we’re weaker, or imagining our struggles – far from it. What it suggests is that, as many of us have experienced, emotional pain often increases physical struggling. When women are given the room to be kind to themselves, and celebrate their transition into their third acts, the process is easier, and the body relaxes into itself.
So how can we replicate that here? I think in many ways we already are, we just need to keep it up.
The worst day of my menopause was when I fell apart on national TV. That day, a journalist saw my struggle but, instead of judgement, or a public slaughtering, she gave me a hug. She shared her doctor’s details with me and made me realise I wasn’t alone, and I’ve since made it my life’s work to do the same for the women I meet.
Don’t be afraid to follow in my footsteps. If you need some time off, have it. If you need help or support, reach out for it, and if you see someone else who needs it, offer it. All women feel the impact of the menopause in one way or another, so let’s embrace it, and see it as it is – just another part of our journey, to be endured, celebrated and managed any way we need it to be.
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