When we think of growing older, there are a few expected scenarios such as wrinkles, grey hair, and drooping overweight body parts that inevitably cross every single person’s mind. Even when we don’t have a natural inclination to care about these types of changes, or there’s an initial ambivalence and health is a priority, we’re definitely reminded of negative imagery associated with a woman’s appearance by the flood of ads on television or magazines that bombard us daily. In the waiting area at the dermatologist’s office, it’s hard to stay focused on a book or even a phone when a plethora of youth-enhancing remedies lure you to take that extra glance, look up and inspect the possibility of looking wrinkle-free and gravity-free and absolutely flawless for at least the next six months, without invasive procedures.
However, despite the inevitable change in one’s appearance, menopause is another inescapable stage of life, but it’s one of those far-removed thoughts that we seldom attach to ourselves when we’re younger, at least that was the case for me. It’s comparable to the chapter about C-sections that I purposely skipped in that all-too-familiar book for expectant mothers, and then I ended up with not one, but two C-Section births. Similarly, menopause is not something I ever thought about, or read about and perimenopause, yikes, was a totally new term but, boy, what a can of worms, and how displeasing to usher in this stage of life that comes with an assortment of symptoms for most of us. When I was thrust with night sweats, nighttime sleep was more like a fading memory and akin to a nightly swim fest.
Menopause is a dramatic drop in estrogen, a hormone that affects emotions. As a result of this decline in ovarian function, many women suffer irritability, or sadness, or anxiety and perhaps fatigue or hot flushes/flashes, and night sweats. When these symptoms take center stage, I can assure you that any other superficial age-related issues are suddenly not as urgent, not that much of an eyesore either. I think that a good quality of life trumps any other concern at the end of the day. Whether you’re into the organic approach to aging and beauty or a fan of modern medicine and erasing all notions of aging–at this juncture, trust me when I say that your mind becomes concerned with hormone therapy or new supplements instead.
When I say “night sweats,” medically termed as “sleep hyperhidrosis,” I mean the kind of sweating that leaves no other option but to wrap one’s body in a towel, place another one on the sheets while your partner opts to wear a bathing suit because, let’s face it, your king-size mattress is more like a pool than a bed these days. It also means so much more laundry!
Once the night sweats happened to me and I figured it was perimenopause, I had time to think about this stage–this word. It’s not one of those beautiful- sounding words and although this isn’t a lesson is phonesthetics (from the Greek word meaning voice-sound and aesthetics), I’m sure you can agree that it doesn’t sound particularly pleasing. It’s not poetic or exotic like other words such as “serendipity” or “epiphany”—words that I deem beautiful—but instead, menopause and her younger sister perimenopause connote old, undesirable, prone to disease, and unsexy. In ancient times a woman’s value was placed on her reproductive abilities, so once she was infertile she was deemed useless. I think that somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds this thought does come back to haunt us; it’s the reason that in some cultures women still prefer to ignore it rather than discuss it, or they don’t even have a specific word to define it, or any of the symptoms.
The word is also misleading; does it mean that our cycle merely pauses—that it’s a temporary change then? In 1821, de Gardanne was a French physician who coined this phrase when he published his book “De la menopause, ou de l’arge critique des femmes.” He adopted it from the medical Latin word “menopausis.” The etymology of this word is “men” which is month or moon otherwise known as “mene,” and “pauein” means to “cease” or “stop.” So in no time did anyone think it was ever coming back. It was always final.
But whales can breed until age 80!
That’s a thought, and elephants breed until well into their 60s. I’m also aware that the ocean quahog is a type of clam that lives to be 500 years old and even older, so it would be interesting to know a little more about its reproductive cycle. However, generally, most animals continue to reproduce until they die and the only exceptions we find are in humans and some whale species. In evolutionary terms, we should not even be alive once our ovaries shut down for business. When apes stop breeding in their mid-30s they usually die, yet humans and whales live many years past the end of their reproductive lifespan. A number of evolutionary biologists believe in the “grandmother hypothesis”–that longevity promotes the survival of our offspring and the continuation of our genes. We thrive when our mothers stick around apparently, and it’s the same for whales. Elephants on the other hand continue to reproduce until they die, because their offspring tend to leave the herd so the mother’s nurturing abilities do not extend beyond that time as is the case with whales who remain in the same pod and thus can benefit from the older whale’s experience of the wild–the females become repositories of ecological knowledge and their influence also means the successful passage of their genes.
How interesting that the menopause experience differs from country to country, for this reason it’s viewed in a biocultural paradigm. There are a variety of factors that shape women’s ideas and attitudes towards menopause. It’s important to consider biological, psychological, social, and cultural approaches to this change. There’s either a positive or negative approach to menopause and in some instances it’s a non-issue altogether. You see that some view it as the “end of youth” while others feel a great relief–more sexual freedom when contraception becomes obsolete. In Asian countries, for instance, there are lower numbers of reported incidents of symptoms relating to menopause, they don’t even have an equivalent word for hot flushes/flashes. Lucky. This has something to do with genetics, although once Asian women move to the West these statistics change, which means that cultural and environmental factors should always be taken into consideration. In the Native American culture, a post-menopausal woman is considered a woman of wisdom—she ranks higher in society, so it’s a positive experience. In places where women spend the majority of their lives pregnant, there are lower incidents of reporting menopausal symptoms because they’ve spent most of their lives with lower levels of estrogen. Therefore, in this instance loss of fertility is not a major life-changing event. In societies where women are valued according to their reproductive abilities, if they have not produced the right amount of children menopause is a negative experience. In Arab countries the word for menopause is “desperate age,” so for those women it’s also a negative experience. In the West we tend to put less emphasis on a woman’s reproductive abilities, we tend to focus on things like wrinkles and small boobs more than we do on procreation so menopause does not carry with it the same weight.
In Greek society, apparently menopause is not a positive experience because it’s also seen as a demotion of sorts. However, the silver lining for these women is their ability to also fully engross themselves in church activities that are forbidden from women before this stage of their lives.
And then there’s my experience.
Perhaps I should feel relief that in my family I’m already respected, even known to be the “wise one” (on some topics), and my husband and I share our responsibilities equally. For this reason I don’t see a change in status as I near the end of my reproductive abilities. From a personal perspective, however, I think that moving past the sweats will be the life-changing event that I will happily embrace. I have a feeling that my nightly sweats have kept my weight down, so once those stop I suppose I will need to watch my diet more carefully and exercise more vigorously, but that’s a trade I’m willing to make. I am also looking forward to the day when swimming means a visit to the beach rather than my bedroom.
In the meantime, I wish to find a credible physician who will actually help alleviate these symptoms, because seven years into night sweats I have already heard so many theories and my bloodworks are normal, but no one has been able to stop the sweats. At a recent visit to an OBGYN, this is what she said: “Well, night sweats can come as a result of many different things: it could be cancer, and another possibility is perimenopause–you are after all in the right age bracket . . . “ After she uttered the word “cancer,” I automatically shut her out. Like anything else in life, there are good teachers and bad teachers, good writers and terrible writers, good doctors and those who shouldn’t be doctors at all. I need to find a good doctor, soon.
Perimenopause is temporary and menopause is final, I can live with that notion and not feel an ounce of sadness despite its negative implications in some parts of the world. I think that post-menopause will be an interesting stage of life, and even though there’s a list of risks involved such as osteoporosis or cardiovascular disease, with the right care I’m actually quite all right with the change. Perhaps at that stage my forehead wrinkles will begin to bother me again, who knows. Maybe I’ll even have the energy to create a new line of nightware: Sweaty Wife Pajamas. How does that sound?
In the meantime, I think I may order a new bathing suit for Greg, I like a variety of looks in the bedroom.