There’s a scene in Sex and the City where Samantha is searching for wigs with Carrie. (She has cancer and her hair has started falling out.) Now Samantha is my hero: confident, self-assured, beautiful – what’s not to envy? But this is one of the scenes that sticks in my memory because it’s one of the rare moments where she lets her guard down.
“What if [the cancer] comes back?” she says. “I could die, Carrie.”
And then, when Carrie says that won’t happen, she quietly asks: “Carrie, please, let me talk about what I’m afraid of. Please.”
That scene’s been in my mind a lot recently as I’ve talked to more women about the menopause.
I’ve got a lot out of talking about my symptoms. I’ve found strength through sharing experiences and knowing I’m not alone and other women have told me the same thing.
But inevitably, in the middle of a Facebook discussion or a Twitter thread, someone says: “This is why I’m dreading menopause,” or: “I just get on with it – I don’t want people to think of women as being weak,” and the chat turns. Instead of discussing symptoms, the women start dismissing them – me among them.
You start seeing things like: “It’s not always so bad,” or: “Some days are great,” or: “Not everyone gets this.”
All of this is true. Some days are good and then I feel invincible. If this is what post-menopause feels like, I can’t wait.
Some days, however, are truly awful. Dark grey days with dementors flying overhead sucking out the happiness of life. And it’s important that women know this can happen.
Yet even as I wrote that last sentence, I want to put a comforting proviso of: “Even if it may not happen to them.” Because that’s what women do: we comfort and support and we try to make life better for those around us, even at the expense of our own happiness.
There’s a bit in Denise Robertson’s The Land of Lost Content – one of my favourite books – where Fran the protagonist takes the slightly burnt piece of her meal so her boyfriend’s meal is perfect. It’s a small detail, but one I think every woman can identify with: the desire to make life better for others – our “sisters” among them.
We are, after all, made of sugar and spice and all things nice.
And that’s why, despite the support we get from discussing our symptoms, we play down the worst of menopause to protect those who are afraid.
Why is menopause the big bad?
But why are they afraid? Why does menopause scare so many women? If you look back on puberty – hormones raging, skin changes, horrendous mood swings, sweating, vaginal discharges, fatigue – it isn’t that different in many ways. Yet we celebrate it. “You’re growing up,” we say, “becoming a woman.”
It is not the same with menopause. Instead of being a celebration of “becoming a woman”, menopause is seen as the end, as if our lives and worth suddenly stop because we are no longer able to have children.
This is why there is pressure on women to stay looking as young as possible. To buy anti-ageing products (even while we’re told to grow old gracefully), wear make-up in a way that makes us look younger, to stop saying how old we are – and to not discuss the menopause, that physical reminder that our perceived “usefulness” to society is over.
Except, of course, we still have so much more to give. Women can live 40 years or more after the menopause, with all the strength and confidence that this time of life gives us. By not acknowledging that we are menopausal or post-menopausal, we merely encourage the cult of youth – and there are so many reminders around us of how incredible women become with age. You only have to look at women like Joan Bakewell, Madonna, Mariella Frostrup, Michelle Obama, the Queen, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Oprah Winfrey, Anna Wintour, Grace Jones, Ellen DeGeneres, Kim Cattrall…
Which nicely brings me back to Samantha and being allowed to talk about what we’re afraid of.
Discussing her cancer and her fears doesn’t stop Samantha being brave and ballsy. More importantly, talking about her fears doesn’t change her cancer journey – or the cancer journey of other sufferers. It is only by being honest about her breast cancer that she inspires her fellow sufferers and finds relief herself.
Wanting to protect others, for whatever reason, makes things worse for both the menopausal woman, who cannot get the support she needs, and for those who need to know what they may go through.
Because the important word there is when it comes to discussing menopause is: “May.”
Different, but the same
What may happen to me may not happen to you. I have never suffered night sweats (they sound horrendous and my sympathies if you do) while my hot flushes were over quite quickly and never too bad. Or perhaps they were bad but my body could cope with them better than other women’s bodies? Who knows?
That’s the thing: every one of us is different and every one of us will experience menopause in a different way.
That’s why it’s important to talk about what we’re going through. Grinning and bearing it does nothing to help those around us – and certainly not the women suffering in silence because they don’t want to let the sisterhood down.
Society has taken great strides in breaking down the taboos around mental health. We know that talking about our feelings and sharing we’re going through are among the biggest steps we can take in getting well.
We have to do the same with menopause.
So next time you see a post from someone saying they fear the menopause or that talking about it is letting down the sisterhood or that you should just be braver, don’t pull back on what you were saying. Don’t go down the rabbit warren of menopause porn, where women compete as to who has it worse, but continue to talk about your symptoms and what you’re going through so you give that knowledge to others. Share what has helped and what hasn’t.
Because women aren’t weak little girlies that need protecting from what can happen. We’re strong and getting stronger – and the more of us who talk about menopause, the weaker the stereotypes and taboos become until eventually, no woman will have cause to fear.
What are your thoughts? Is it better to talk or are we scaring other women? Let me know in the comments below.
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