I was 50 when I woke in my dark attic bedroom in Brooklyn, my heart speeding and my body incandescent with heat. I did not feel simply hot, no, I was being smothered by an internal fire that seemed to pool inside my body like lava. At first I thought it was a heart attack. After more flashes, over my morning bowl of oatmeal, as I rode the subway under the East River and while I taught, I realized it was not a heart attack. It was a hot flash. I had entered menopause, that fraught transition in every woman’s life, known in an earlier time as The Dangerous Age.
The heat was uncomfortable, but the aura of anxiety just before each flash was worse. I felt as if a shard of a different reality had been thrust into my current one. I also had insomnia: I had trouble both getting to sleep and staying asleep. There were sexual changes as well. Positions I once enjoyed were no longer comfortable. And I thought about sex less. The daily tug toward intimacy had vanished.
Earlier life stages, going through puberty and giving birth, had opened up new worlds, the excitement of sexuality and motherhood. But menopause arrived without absorbing directives. Instead of new obsessions and responsibilities, I felt a nothingness. It’s a void created in part by our oversexed patriarchal culture, a world that has little respect for older women. Valued most for our sexuality and role as mothers many women feel, once that phase is over, as I did. Marginalized. The message, never stated directly but manifesting in myriad ways, is an overwhelmingly nihilistic one: your usefulness is over. Please step to the sidelines.
As my estrogen lessened, I also felt my femininity fraying. I was called “sir” twice. Once by a parking lot attendant and another time by the boy who bagged my groceries. I don’t posses the strong female signifiers I once did. My hair is no longer long and shiny, my skin no longer smooth. I wear more androgynous clothing and rarely put on makeup. I’ve lost interest in “doing” my female gender, in propping it up. At times I feel another body slipping out from my original one. Once, when coming up from the subway, I saw a reflection of an older man in the bodega window. I stared for a few seconds before I realized it was me.
I searched for books that might help me understand what was happening to me. I read Suzanne Sommers’ The Sexy Years and Gail Sheedy’s Silent Passages. Both are fear-based. Both authors are frantic to keep the veneer of a fertile femininity intact. Both books treat menopause like a disease, something to be cured, not a transition to be celebrated. Neither offers a sympathetic understanding of what women are going through physically, emotionally or spiritually. Sommers and Sheehy are so concerned with propping up their femininity with hormones, that they miss the profounder subtleties of the menopausal tradition. I found trans memoirs, by men and women who were transitioning, better at helping me understand my own hormonal transformation. In his book The Testosterone Files, Max Wolf Valerio writes about his move from female to male, calling it “a unique intensive fire.” As he moves out from under the veil of estrogen he feels “a bright clarity.” To Valerio hormonal changes are an “adventure.” He even goes so far as to compare his transition from female to male to menopause. “A woman I know going through menopause reports that she too feels this clarity and that sometimes she feels like a wise old owl, who can see for a very long distance.”
Valerio helped me see hormonal changes as a gain rather than a loss. But it was an animal, a sea creature, who taught me the most about post-menopausal leadership. Female killer whales, as well as narwhals and short-finned pilot and beluga whales, are the only other animals who go through menopause. Older killer female whales have a sharp menopause and then go on to live another 30 or 40 years. One whale, J2, also known as Granny, lived to be 104. The post-reproductive females lead their pods—complex, cohesive family groups—particularly in times when salmon, their main food source, is scarce. “Elder females,” an article in the journal Nature read, ”hold ecological knowledge and all whales, even younger males, prefer to follow the older females.”
J2 and the other post-reproductive pod leaders taught me that it’s not menopause itself that is the problem but menopause as it’s experienced under patriarchy. On television and in films, hot flashes are a comedic skit akin to a man slipping on a banana peel. In Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin Williams’ fake breasts catch on fire and, using two pan lids, he eventually puts the fire out. He stands disheveled, his chest smoking. “My first day as a woman,” he says, “and I’m already having hot flashes.” Women too make fun of menopause. On Etsy you can buy buttons that read “Beware of Temper Tantrums” and “Out of Estrogen: Approach at Your Own Risk.” Online jokes abound. “Q: What is ten times worse than a woman in menopause? A: Two women in menopause.”
Only recently have female celebrities begun to speak with candor about the change. Gwyneth Paltrow feels that there are not enough menopausal role models, “Menopause gets a bad rap and needs a bit of rebranding.” Whoopi Goldberg felt forced to examine the negative people in her life and cut them out. Cynthia Nixon found the change freeing. “There has been no sadness for me, because once you hit 50, you’re done.” Still men negate and diminish our passage. In 2013 comedian Jeff Allen told jokes about lying next to his menopausal wife in bed and “dreaming about the good old days of PMS.” More recently French author Yann Moix said that 50-year-old women were invisible to him, that they were “too old” to love: “The body of a 50-year-old is not extraordinary at all.”
Menopause is not a punch line. All women will go through this change, and it’s important as a culture that we learn to understand and honor menopause, not make fun of it. It’s an isolating period, and lame humor makes it worse. A recent study by Myra Hunter, emeritus professor of clinical health psychology at Kings College London published in the journal Menopause, found that women in the workplace are worried about being made fun of. “There’s embarrassment and anxiety,” she said, “about being joked about and a big concept is hiding symptoms in fear of being ridiculed.” Why should women, in the workplace or at home, who are going through a normal female life stage be teased or demeaned?
Beyond this everyday attitude toward menopause that it is funny or gross, there is also the idea pushed by some drug companies that menopause is not mandatory. Preying on vulnerable women who may feel disoriented by what is happening to their bodies, they argue that the right way to go through the change is not to change at all. They define menopause, a female life cycle no different than puberty or birth, as a disease, a dangerous condition that can only be cured by hormone treatment. There is a difference, though, between female health and what will keep us chemically configured as if still fertile.
I knew very little as I started menopause. When I was a teenager, I saw my mother in her late ‘40s experience it when she stalked our un-air-conditioned Virginia ranch house wearing only a house dress, her face pink and sweat covered. When asked what was wrong, she’d say nothing. Shame made it impossible for my mother to even say the word menopause, and while now we may be more open about the female body and its transitions, many women still feel silenced and degraded by a culture that sees our changing bodies as useless.
Menopause does not negate, but dilates what it means to be a woman. No longer defined as a sex object, I am now so much more. Menopause is as much a spiritual transition as a physical one — with every flash I am reminded that my life in this body will not go on forever. This has been valuable. I want to be more expansive in the decades I have left. Out from under the haze of female hormones, I am a new creature, one closer to my former fierce little girl self. I feel a return to that essential me I had to leave behind once the huge disruptive force of puberty kicked in. I see now that my breeding years were an aberration rather than the norm. I can no longer reproduce but my body is far from over.