In response to my last blog entry about Helena Bonham Carter, Paula Derry commented that we treat menopause as a “junk category,” tossing in any symptom we can’t explain or don’t want to attribute to anything else. So true. In fact, Anne Fausto-Sterling said this long ago about menopause – that tons of symptoms were attributed to menopause when in fact only hot flashes really had a link to this life stage. BUT, we keep on attributing anything and everything to menopause.
- Gaining weight at midlife? Must be menopause.
- Sad or angry at midlife? Must be menopause.
- Hairy at midlife? Must be menopause.
- Dry at midlife? Must be menopause.
- Blurry eyes at midlife? Must be menopause.
- Headaches at midlife? Must be menopause.
- Big boobs at midlife? Must be menopause.
- Constipated at midlife? Must be menopause.
- Have a symptom you can’t explain at midlife? Must be menopause.
- Turned 50? Must be menopause. (Yes, see, it’s ridiculous.)
And the list goes on. And on. And on.
Okay, so, yes, menopause is a junk category because symptoms (junk) are just thrown in and declared “menopausal” (“perimenopausal”) at every turn. Just like when women go to the doctor and are given pregnancy tests no matter what their symptoms (“must be pregnant”). Ah, the fun of the reproductive life course.
BUT, I would say that there is another kind of “junk” that I see at menopause. I’ve interviewed menopausal women for 12 years now, and one of the hardest things is separating out menopause from all the other things (junk) going on in women’s lives as they make this transition. It is so hard to figure out what menopause really is and what it really means for women because it is surrounded by so much other “junk” at midlife. When you ask women about how they feel about menopause, they tell you but they also contextualize how they feel by telling you about:
- their kids (the kids that live with them and the ones that have left)
- their partners (current ones, ex-partners, and ones they wish they had)
- their jobs (the ones they hate and the ones they care about)
- their friends (the ones who support them and the ones who don’t)
- their aging parents (and how hard it is to take care of them)
- their worries about future aging
- their doctors (good and bad)
- their youth
- their aches and pains
- their bodies (the parts they like and don’t like)
- their history of menstruation and other reproductive experiences…
You get the picture.
You have to wade through all of this to understand menopause. Sometimes it feels like junk clogging up their lives and clogging up the path to figuring out what menopause is really like. At the end of the day menopause is such a narrow part of most middle-aged women’s lives, but it is tied in with so much other midlife stuff that it’s hard to separate out. When you ask women about menopause, it’s sort of like asking someone, “How are you?”, on one of their busiest days. The answer you get back is surrounded and dictated by the junk in their lives and, unless you understand that going in, it might seem like menopause itself is a junk-filled process. But maybe it’s not. Despite all the news articles that predict new symptoms and conditions at menopause, and despite all of the midlife contexts that surround menopause, maybe menopause itself is very simple if we can weed out everything that’s not really menopause… What do YOU think?