There seem to be only two kinds of books currently talking about menopause: those that end with HRT solving all problems and unleashing a perky, cheerleader-like energy never seen before, and those that insist on toughing it out in a manner akin to wearing a hair shirt, as if doing some kind of penance. I long to read a book that discusses both options openly and equally, that advocates women choosing to do whatever suits them and their lifestyle best, and doesn’t set the two options against each other.
‘In menopause women come up, as never before, against their own mentality’ states Darcey Steinke in her book ‘Flash Count Diary: A New Story About The Menopause’. A dramatic read that is at times totally absorbing and occasionally a little bewildering - I am still baffled by the dodgy massage parlour in Paris - Flash Count Diary is firmly of the toughing it out stance. Even this statement seems to imply that how we tackle menopause comes down to mindset and inner strength, which is all very well until you’re in chronic pain or suffering from symptoms that completely derail you or your life. Why can’t we just let women choose what is best for them and trust that they’ve made the perfect choice, whether it’s the same as ours or not?
Whilst I enjoyed reading Steinke’s well-written observations and personal account of menopause, my problem with books on menopause at the moment is that each one seems to imply that if you don’t choose their way then you are doing it wrong. When will women be allowed to make decisions about their body without judgement? For years women have been shamed over abortion choices, made to feel like bad mothers if they don’t breastfeed, criticised for having caesarean-sections, and critiqued for almost every other choice surrounding their own health and wellbeing. The menopause competition now seems to be officially on between those who choose HRT and those who don’t.
In Steinke’s book she talks openly about her struggles with hot flashes (hot flushes for us Brits), and her changing sense of self, ‘one of the clear gains of menopause has been a resurgence of my fierce little-girl self’ and it can feel deeply empowering, but there is also an undercurrent of disapproval of anyone not opting to wade through the murky menopause waters unaided, which left me feeling a little uncomfortable at times. I want to see us cheering each other on as we make our way through these often testing years, supporting each other wholeheartedly and respecting whatever choices are made – diving into creams and pills or sweating it out, both are empowered choices if they are what YOU want to do.
And that is the only thing that actually matters in the end – that the choice is up to YOU. That you don’t take HRT out of a fear of aging or to keep your husband happy, or try to go it alone because you think taking meds is weakness or that they are bad for you in some way. Do your research, ask questions, keep an open mind, and then make the choice that suits you best.
Linking up her menopause experience with that of killer whales (Orcas), who also move through menopause and afterwards take on the role of matriarch and leader of their pods, Steinke writes ‘While the female whales face nearly insurmountable environmental challenges, each year brings more badassery. They demonstrate to me what no human woman could: that it is not menopause itself that is the problem but menopause as it’s experienced under patriarchy.’
Of all the statements in her book, this is one that should make us all stop and think for a moment. I agree with Steinke that menopause is dealt a rough hand in our society which demands a go-go-go attitude and rarely allows things to unfold in their own time. When everything is skewed towards youth, menopause is the unwelcome guest at a party. Whatever choice we make we need to make it from a place of self-love and care, not from a place of fear of not living up to societal standards or wanting to avoid being a ‘burden’ in some way.
As a woman experiencing symptoms of peri-menopause I am trying to give myself, and my body, time to adjust to these hormonal shifts, much as I had to during puberty and pregnancy. It’s not always easy (thank you increased anxiety and migraines), but it is the choice that currently works for me, even if at times it is frustrating or disruptive to my family. I have no desire to be a martyr though, and if I decide to take HRT in the future, or something similar, then I will. And I don’t want to be judged for either choice. Just because one course of action worked for someone else doesn’t mean it will for me.
I do worry that some discussions around HRT seem to focus on maintaining youth and can feel anti-aging at times, and I have even read some threads that are predominantly about taking HRT just to keep husbands happy, which I confess I struggle with – perhaps wedding vows need to say ‘for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, during menopause and beyond’? But, as long as women take the time to research their options fully and make a choice that really feels right for them (without any outside pressure), then whatever choice they make should be respected 100%.
In the meantime, I’ll keep waiting for a book to come along that supports both options equally and doesn’t leave any reader feeling judged.