What I learnt from holding a Menopause Cafe

Photo: Chris Davey

Photo: Chris Davey

Running a Menopause Café has been on my list of things to do ever since a reader informed me about them in a comment on 5 Things We Learnt About The Truth About Menopause (I love comments, by the way, so please pop down below – oo-er missus! – and say hi).

A Menopause Cafe is a group-directed discussion. There are no speakers, no set agenda and the events do not promote any particular product, service or outcome. It involves men and women, young and old, gathering together in a relaxed, respectful environment to discuss menopause over a cup of tea or coffee and a slice of cake (or two!)
— Menopause Café: Breaking Down Taboos over Coffee and Cake

Ironically, the thing that stopped me for so long was the menopause itself! I’ve been so up and down this year that it felt a daunting prospect. While I really, really wanted to hold one, the idea of coordinating an event, publicising it and then actually doing it – talking to people??? Are you mad!!!! – was overwhelming.

For ages I kept saying I was going to do one in March, until I realised it was April so I had to stop saying it. And suddenly it was May and I still hadn’t done anything.

By then, however, I’d appeared on the BBC’s Health: Truth or Scare and although my hormones were still doing the hula-hula on me, the second bout of HRT was kicking in and I felt prepared. I got in touch with Lily’s Bistro, a local community café, we set a date and we were off…

Or rather, we were terrified. Now it was down in the diary, all those Imposter Syndromes feelings started kicking in. I mean, what did I have to offer women? I’ve researched the menopause a lot, but I’m not an expert. What if they expected me to have all the answers?

Worse, what if no one came and everyone was angry?

Worse again, what if too many came and there was no room and everyone was angry?

And the icing-on-the-cake of worse, this introvert might have to talk to lots of strangers.

panic.jpg

Thankfully, the lovely Helen at Menopause Café was there to talk me down off the ceiling and give me courage. In fact, I came away from our phone call so inspired I sent off press releases to all the local media outlets.

Next thing I know, I’m happily chatting to Marijke Hall from the Kent Messenger, who gave the café a fantastic page lead story, and then appearing on BBC Radio Kent to talk about it!

I finally held my Menopause Café yesterday and it was wonderful. We laughed, cried, talked about farting and much more. At the end of it, I felt invincible. What can’t women do when they support each other?

Was it worth all the panic? Oh yes…

Here are the five lessons I learnt from my Menopause Café.

Everyone has their own menopause

We were quite a diverse group of women of all with very different backgrounds. But as we talked, one thing became clear: we all had shared experiences, but no two of us had the same menopause.

Some symptoms were common – insomnia and hot flushes were big ones – but there wasn’t one of us who had exactly the same symptoms as another woman in the group.

It sounds simple, but this was an important reminder for me. It’s easy to talk about menopausal women as one homogenous group. But we’re not. Each of us has our own set of symptoms and ways of reacting to them.

Take hot flushes. I was lucky and didn’t suffer much beyond suddenly feeling hot and then suddenly not. They didn’t last long and apart from one time, didn’t really effect me. Other people, however, find them incredibly debilitating and are wiped out by them.

Similarly I know many women who haven’t suffered any psychological problems with the menopause while this has been the hardest part for me.

So remember, just because one part of menopause is easy for you doesn’t mean it’s easy for every woman. Similarly, because one treatment worked for you doesn’t mean it works for everyone.

We have to remember that we’re all individuals and so is our menopause.

Women can be our own worst enemies…

This is sort of related to the above, but several women felt other women could be more dismissive of their menopause symptoms.

Hand on heart, I agree. Too often I’ve heard women say others should “just get on with it” or “pull themselves together”. Looking “below the line” at the comments on the Kent Messenger story (a thing I tell fellow journalists not to do), some of the nastiest remarks were from women. Sisterhood sometimes seem hard to find.

But I don’t think it’s a lack of empathy or, indeed, sisterhood; rather, it’s a lack of understanding about the menopause.

Because there is such little information out there (unless you go dredging your way through the millions of pages about menopause on Google), women don’t understand what a menopausal woman could be going through.

If you’ve only suffered hot flushes, then it can be difficult to understand why your friend has become too anxious to go out.

There’s also, to get all feminist about it, so much societal pressure on women to be superwoman in the workplace that showing a perceived feminine weakness (ie. being a woman going through the menopause) can be seen as letting the side down.

It comes back to my age-old refrain: we need to talk about menopause. Only by talking and understanding can we get past this.

So go to more Menopause Cafés!!!!

… but women supporting women can change the world

One of the most touching moments at the Menopause Café was when one of the women got upset and another told her: “But now you’ve got us to talk to.”

I may have had a lump in my throat.

To see a group of strangers come together to support and help each other was incredibly moving.

And it also gave me hope for the next generation. Several of the mums said they didn’t want their daughters going through this so they were talking to them about menopause already, so they could be prepared and fully informed.

Then there were the women who came to share their experiences on “the other side”, to give hope and encouragement to the women going through the rough times.

You’re amazing. All of you.

Empowered women empower women

We have to talk about vaginal dryness

Sorry, Mumsnet, but your forum members are wrong and they ABU about talking about vaginal dryness

Hearing a couple of women at the café talk about the pain and suffering they’d gone through made me even more convinced that we should be discussing it in the workplace and beyond.

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. At one point, one of the women told her mother: “Oh Mum, I never knew you’d suffered so much with it.” It was a real eye-opener into how bad vaginal dryness can be and how women feel they can’t talk about it, even to their loved ones.

And we’re wrong to say it’s “too sensitive” a subject or Sleazy Bert in accounts may make a dirty joke about it. Because it should be the Sleazy Berts of the world who have to watch what they say, not the women suffering.

And for sake of these women and all the others, I’m not going to keep quiet about it.

Holding a Menopause Café is an incredibly humbling experience

Before Saturday, it’s fair to say my thoughts about the café were all based on me, me, me. I was so worried about how it would go – and how that would reflect on me – that I woke up at 4.30am and then dozed fretfully until giving up at 6am and getting up to worry some more.

It took, oooooh, about 15 minutes of the café beginning to realise it had nothing to do with me at all. The Menopause Café is all about the women who go and what they get out of it. I was merely a means for them to come together.

And I got loads out of it, most of all a new understanding about menopause and how many women are desperate to talk.

Also, that that amazingly cool-looking woman sitting opposite you can no longer drive because of her menopausal anxiety, and that the chic woman is only wearing that floaty dress because she feels bloated, and that seemingly shy woman in the corner? She is incredible. Listen to her. It was another reminder that you never know what someone is going through under the surface.

But most of all, I learnt that holding a Menopause Café is an amazingly humbling experience. As the women thanked me at the end, I felt a fraud. I did nothing but put up a few posters; they were the ones who made it incredible.

I have no words to thank them sufficiently. It was an honour to meet you and hear your menopause stories.

Here’s to the next one.

Have you attended a Menopause Café? Would you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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