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Excited & Exhausted
Dispatches From Perimenopause
Before the main event, a couple of preliminary notes!
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Content Note: Hello, darling Dames Nation! This week we bring you a single-topic issue focused on perimenopause and middle-aged bodily stuff in general, rooted in our own experiences. Since both Dame Sophie & Dame Karen are white cis women with all of our reproductive organs intact & inside our bodies, our perspectives are by definition narrow. In the Issue Notes section following our conversation, you’ll find links to material by writers with more varied experiences than ours, but this is not comprehensive. If there are links to pieces that have been helpful and interesting that you’d like to suggest for inclusion, hit reply and let us know, or tweet at us about it. We’ll review and add links to the web version of this issue as we go along. Perimenopause, menopause, and bodies in general can be very tender subjects for many, so please take care of you and read this issue only as and when you feel able to engage with it. We’ll be back with a more standard links & commentary issue next week!
Sadly, perimenopause is not nearly as fun as Perry The Platypus/Agent P, but a Phineas & Ferb marathon sure sounds great right about now
Sophie: Hellooooo my darling fellow mid-40s friend! Shall we tell Dames Nation what we’re gathered here to discuss? Explore? Chop up? Put our things down, flip it & reverse it?
Karen: Hi my lurve. Yes indeed, we’re talking menopause--mostly peri-, what we learned about literal menopause, and some musing on what post- might mean. This is something I’ve been wanting to discuss and write about for a while and yet when it came time to do this I got some cold feet!
Sophie: Tell me more about your cold feet. What felt different to you about writing about perimenopause here vs. writing/talking about it in other venues?
Karen: All of the [unsuccessful] pitching I’d done on the topic had been very impersonal; I noticed that there was suddenly a lot more menopause-talk in the news, in writing, and in pop culture in general and I wondered why now and did it have to do with a new generation (ahem, our generation) getting to Pause Time after it, like so many life events regarding aging, had been the realm of Boomer for so long.
Sophie: That makes a lot of sense to me. Being able to write about a personal topic from a remove can be so much easier and lower-stakes. Like you, I have definitely noticed people in our little sub-cohort of GenXers/on the cusp of Millennials talking about it: their symptoms, how they’re navigating the changes in their bodies and minds, and so on. I’m glad they’re doing so publicly because unlike puberty, there’s not enough public scaffolding for discussing perimenopause. AARP has been doing some strong work in this area, but I’d like it to be much more of a commonplace.
Karen: Right; I have a pretty open relationship with my mother in terms of talking about physical things but for whatever reason this isn’t something we’ve discussed a lot and when we have, her response has been that the entire process has been pretty low key for her. That might change as I get older. She was excited to hear we were doing this as a topic and wrote in an email “I keep wondering if menopause has an ending. Or is it just the new normal? I mean, once the symptoms have passed.” Good question.
Sophie: My mom had a similar experience, as did her mother. They both described a slow & steady process of lighter periods and hardly any hot flashes. It sounded pretty smooth overall. The one not-great thing they both experienced, which never improved, is insomnia and general sleep problems. That’s been a problem for me for over a decade, and I would not wish it on anyone. It’s under control now, but even with good sleep hygiene practices and better sleeping through chemistry, it’s terrible.
Karen: Oh, my mom too, and I’ve always been a bad sleeper but it’s certainly gotten worse as I age, as has my extreme sensitivity to being at all too hot or humid. I’ve only had a few hot flashes that I could identify as such but sometimes life feels like one big hot flash?!
Sophie: INTOLERABLE!!! Air conditioning forever.
Karen: All hail holy air conditioning, my problematic fav forever.
Sophie: Forever-ever! One thing you said recently that really stuck with me is that the focus on menopause – in the culture at large, if not congruent with our lived experiences, what a fun locus of disconnection!!! – is almost exclusively on Not Menstruating. Which is weird, because menopause is really more like puberty: it’s not one day, it’s a multi-system, full-body process (not to be confused with The Process™, though future MVP Joel Embiid is a really smart & thoughtful dude, so he may well have something substantive to contribute to the conversation! My call to his representatives went right to voicemail, but I live in hope).
Karen: Right, and while puberty, at least in my experience, was presented as a universal, biological fact that everyone is going to go through, perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, and even occasionally depicted with a hazy, backlit Now You’re A Woman filter, there hasn’t been a similar Welcome To Menopause situation. (And of course, the Now You’re A Woman bit is not even accurate, as it’s not hormones and periods that grant anyone “womanhood.”) In fact, I think I would have been less stressed out about puberty as a tween and young teen if there HADN’T been so much emphasis on period = woman. Unlike a lot of people, I CRAVED all signs that I was growing up--I really didn’t love being a child and always wanted to start what I saw the important business of being Grown Up as soon as possible and like poor Nancy in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret? really became period-obsessed! Perhaps in a watched pot never boils situation, I didn’t even get my period until I was 14 ½ and then it was a literal giant pain every month until I went on The Pill. Now I sometimes see a similar obsession with the end of menstruation equalling the entire menopausal process, and while technically menopause is literally the end of periods, it’s not a one-time event. The season three Sex & The City menopause episode featured Samantha freaking the fuck out about missing a period, so much so that she has sex with someone she considers unattractive just to feel “herself,” during which she gets her period and is cured from the horror of The Change…welp, bad news, 2000 Samantha, you were just experiencing the PROCESS of perimenopause like so many of us so maybe don’t tie your identity to periods, Nancy-style.
Somehow this can be even worse in one’s 40s than in one’s teens! WHY???
Sophie: Yeah, after several years of distressingly heavy, painful, and unpredictably timed periods (whee, laundry vexations and jaw-dropping anemia!), I had the interior of my uterus power-washed (aka an endometrial ablation, as described by the good folks at the Mayo Clinic). Just before wheeling me into the OR, my gynecologist said that I might not ever menstruate again post-procedure, and then immediately clarified that the absence of a period itself is not menopause. As he explained it, menopause is clinically an ovarian issue. Of course, this is only true for people who have their ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus intact and present in their bodies, and even then, it’s not true of all who fall into that category. Many people who you might think of as being “too young” for peri- or menopause are right in the thick of it, for a whole variety of reasons and circumstances.
Karen: Yes, totally. I have been on hormones in the form of birth control pills since I was 16 not only for contraceptive reasons but because I had extremely heavy, painful periods without them. Over the last few years my periods have become a lot more irregular despite The Pill--sometimes I don’t get it at all and have a momentary “I guess it’s POSSIBLE?!?!” pregnancy scare, sometimes it’s stupidly heavy and long, sometimes it’s damn near CAREFREE and I barely think about it. [Important editorial note: Dame Sophie thinks she has identified the person singing in the Australian ad linked just above. Please chime in, dear readers, if you think you have, too!]
Sophie: I do want to get back to the menses-as-womanhood-defining identity issue. I was too mad about getting my period to think about it as an entree to womanhood at the time. I may never menstruate again, but I don’t feel detached from my womanhood at all. Can I be this much of a weird outlier in this regard?
Karen: I doubt it; as much as it’s a sign of aging to not Get It anymore, it’s also a sign of freedom--time to finally live like the terrible tampon commercials tell you too, LOL. Ride a horse on the beach, at least metaphorically.
Sophie: A white horse, no less! Dream big! My white horse & perfectly tousled beachy waves fantasy is mostly about the costs of menstruation, in my body, my mind, and my bank account. Let’s skip Sister Flo and go right to cash flow! I am always thinking about the freedom not to have to buy and constantly track my inventory of tampons and pads of varying flow-retention capabilities, not having to think about if maybe this is the year I test-drive period underwear (it’s not!) or one of those blood-catching cups (it is not and never will be, bless the shining heads of all who find them useful!). I used to maintain supplies at home, in my desk at work, and in all of my various purses, totes, and backpacks. I still keep a small supply when I’m out & about, because folks in public restrooms frequently need them and I have Resting How Can I Help You Face.
Karen: And I of course am a chaos demon who recently ran out mid-period because I haven’t learned after 32 years. Omg, AND I just got a cup thing because Target was out of my One True Tampon and I panicked and thought it might save money in the long run? Like there’s going to be a “long run” here, right? I haven’t used it yet. Always some new, stupid adventure.
Sophie: What is life, anyway, if not daily opportunities to embark on some new, stupid adventure? At least we can go through it together, as pissily and sappily as we want.
Karen: Thank gawd. Cheers to that.
Sophie: Cheers! And on that note, let’s pivot to…
Special Issue Notes, courtesy of Dame Karen
You can just doodle, it’s fine!!
Maybe the first famous pop culture menopause moment was the infamous All In The Family episode from 1972 in which middle-aged Edith Bunker is going through menopause and has to be told what’s happening by her daughter Gloria, who’s in her 20s. Fascinatingly, despite Gloria being depicted throughout the series as a feminist with groovy 70’s sensibilities, she tells her mother to read a magazine article “written by a very important doctor and he knows everything about it.” The episode was directed and written by men, who won an Emmy.
Slightly more recently, there was a throwaway joke about how there’s no media representation regarding menopause on Broad City, which had the more and more common effect of making me realize I am closer in age and perhaps temperament to the woman used to illustrate a joke about being too old to have her reality represented by a sitcom than Abbi Abrams, the woman who sincerely “forgot all about menopause” and in reality doesn’t care right now because they just need a tampon.
The amazing Pamela Adlon brought the topic to her show Better Things and her speech sort of came off like the Before of Kristin Scott Thomas’s infamous joy of menopause speech from Fleabag. Adlon’s character discusses, in front of her three daughters, how betrayed she feels that no one told her what was coming when it came to menopause aka “the grossest thing in the world” and jokes “women should be brothers to each other” and talk about it. The Fleabag speech has some leanings toward biological essentialism that takes some of the hilarity and sheen off the novelty of hearing someone discuss the wildly freeing benefits of menopause; I’ve read this woman’s take on this as posted on Tumblr a few times.
I think Sandra Tsing Loh may have kicked off the menopause-in-popular-culture trend in 2011 with her internet-breaking essay “The Bitch Is Back” that ran in The Atlantic, which later gave rise to a book and a stand-up show? Thanks, Sandra! Another cool-looking and sounding menopause multimedia project is Omisade Burney-Scott’s The Black Girl’s Guide To Surviving Menopause, which includes a podcast, events, merch, and prioritizes intergenerational exchange and mentorship, which, yes. Omisade writes, “Menopause seems to be cloaked. It’s the conversation we all want to have. There is a lack of information around how non-binary, Black women, and femmes are experiencing aging.”
Darcy Steinke wrote an entire book about their menopausal experience, Flash Count Diary, which was excerpted on Buzzfeed. Darcy’s conception of gender changed over time and they wrote “During menopause I slip out from under a claustrophobic femininity. But I also don’t feel fully masculine. I feel in the middle, a third sex. They.”
This is super interesting to me and I wonder if this is a more common experience than anyone may know but there haven’t been mainstream words and concepts regarding nonbinary gender and gender fluidity available to describe it. Furthermore, though there’s been relatively little heard from a variety of cis women regarding their menopausal experiences, there’s of course even less from trans men, intersex, and nonbinary people. Therapist and researcher Tania Glyde is doing all sorts of work on this and has a website, Queer Menopause, that collects and explains their ground-breaking research and offers examples of inclusive terminology and resources. Writer and activist Mona Eltaway, who wrote this wonderful essay on perimenopause that incorporates Nefertiti and Bruce Lee (!), is crowd-funding via Unbound for the anthology Bloody Hell And Other Stories which seeks to “expand the Menopause Moment/ Wave/ "Movement" beyond white and cis women.” Yes, please!
Again, if you have links that are crying out to be shared with the whole class, or a perspective that we didn’t discuss here, please do let us know!
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