Monday, 11 February 2019

A teaching moment

I was really pleased to see that my No Kidding menopause series - or for search engine purposes, my Childless menopause series - sparked a discussion around the internet. It wasn't my first foray into the subject, but it was my wordiest! Just to remind, here are my posts.

12 Things I wish I'd been told about the Big M (posted back in 2014)
A No Kidding Menopause: The Bloody Version
A No Kidding Menopause: The Emotional Issues (Part 1)
A No Kidding Menopause: The Emotional Issues (Part 2)
A No Kidding Menopause: The Emotional Issues (Part 3) 
A No Kidding Menopause: Some Final Thoughts

Having written so many pieces on this issue, I've taken a break from thinking about other childless things. But there's always something, or someone, who reminds me. I was at a function over the weekend, filled with in-law relatives. I got chatting to a woman who was the wife of a cousin-in-law. I've heard about her for years and years - her many children, her personality, her relationship - via her mother-in-law and my mother-in-law - so although we didn't know each other, we knew about each other. Or so I thought. No, in a conversation about all the elderly relatives and getting them organised when they could no longer do so, and the general difficulty of decluttering their houses, she asked me if I had children. (An aside: given that I knew that she had six, I had assumed she would have known we had none. But apparently not. It shows that people are only really interested in themselves!)

"Well," she says, "you won't have nearly as much junk at home than if you had had children."

"No," I acknowledged, "that's probably true." And - thinking fast, deciding should I or shouldn't I? - I added, "but all our rooms that were intended for children have still ended up filled with junk too."

I said it without emotion, simply stating a fact. The message got through, I think, because she hesitated. I could see her thinking. I hope so anyway. One of many teaching moments?

Monday, 4 February 2019

A No Kidding menopause: Some final thoughts

My menopause series was not meant to be comprehensive, as far better writers have covered this issue. I know it is prompting others to share their experiences (see Bamberlambs’ post here), and I am thrilled about that. Starting the conversation has been important.

I rambled on with another post or two in draft only, and in the end, I don’t think that they say anything significant. I know there were things I didn’t really touch on, so maybe I’ll just wrap them up here:

Hormones and our emotions

I mentioned the hormonal changes post-hysterectomy that threw my emotions out of kilter, plunging me into full menopausal-symptom mode. The power of these emotions was surprising. Even though there is very obviously a chemical reason for them – given that now I am on HRT I am back on an even keel – this is still a taboo subject. Taboo because it is a mental health issue, taboo because it is a women’s issue surrounding menopause (literally the ending of menstruation, which is doubly taboo), and taboo because it is a women’s issue. It infuriates me.

Like PMS, men don’t understand it. I fully expect a study come out denying the existence of emotional fluctuations due to hormones around menopause, as there was around PMS. My husband, who was incredibly supportive during my pregnancy losses and the time of grief that followed the end of our family-building efforts, did not understand this. (Though his patience was, once again, exemplary. Most of the time.) I think many men have always struggled to differentiate between what might be a genuine reaction and what they can dismiss as “hormonal” reactions (ie, those that they think can be ignored). I knew when my hormones were distorting my emotions. And I knew when they weren't. He didn't. So once I had begun taking HRT and it was doing what it was supposed to do, if we were having an argument, or if I was upset at something, he would ask if I had taken my pills, implying that I was being over-emotional and irrational. (Sound familiar? Ever hear men suggest that women who are angry are suffering from PMS?) That infuriated me more than whatever we were arguing about in the first place. Don’t worry, he pretty soon learnt not to do that!

This dismissal of women’s views happens in the wider societal contexts too. The idea that our ideas, comments, complaints etc are irrelevant and trivial because they are hormonal and therefore “unstable” has been around for centuries, probably millennia. Likewise, women’s medical issues and pain have been and are still devalued and treated differently. All I can say is that in a one-on-one basis, I find it exasperating, and on a societal basis, even more enraging. And yes, I took my HRT this morning!

The Crone Age

I have real discomfort with this terminology, and have always disliked of the implication I am now in the “crone” age. I know that it really just refers to a third stage in the life of a woman, but I find it hard to reconcile with its many other, derogatory connotations. However, in just one search from writing those two sentences, I have learned new things. I’ve learned that the word “crone” actually comes from the word “crown” and refers instead to the crowning wisdom we reach in our post-menopausal years. Okay, I like that. I particularly like the definitions along the lines of a “woman with valuable experience, sound judgement, and wisdom.” This is more reflective of how I actually feel about myself now. (No, I’m not modest!)

But I have to say that I don’t feel that this has come on post-menopause. No, it is a result of my No Kidding life, of battling infertility, of accepting my No Kidding childless life, of working with many women during this time, and of learning from others. Most importantly, it is from learning more about who I am, what I value, and who I want to be.

Still, please, couldn’t we find a better term than “crone?”

Monday, 28 January 2019

A No Kidding menopause: The emotional issues (Part 3)

There can be so many emotions involved around menopause. We are all different. For many women, the end of menopause is a time to grieve. It’s the loss of something that may have defined them – their biology, their ability (perhaps theoretical) to give birth, their lives as “productive” women in society. Women who identified themselves as mothers may feel bereft, because they don’t know who they are in this new phase of life.

As childless women, we have been through this before. For some of us, menopause may bring more grief. A double whammy, whilst we have already had to come to terms with the idea that we would never be mothers, for some, this is the last straw, the definitive end to the possibility that might have, for some, lingered. Jody Day wrote this in her article about The Childless Menopause:

“I call the childless menopause a ‘death you survive’ as it’s the end of our biological line as well as the end of our dream of motherhood. It can be a real dark night of the soul. And the transformations of passing through this ‘gateway’ can be profound and rather wonderful.”

But this isn’t how I have experienced it. I experienced that “death you survive” back when I first knew that I was never going to have children. I grieved then the end of my biological line and my dream of motherhood. It was, as Jody said, a “real dark night of the soul.” I know that many of you have already experienced this too.

I suspect we’re all different, having come to our No Kidding childless lives in different ways. Perhaps having that cut-off on my 41st birthday, when my tubes were blocked and IVF was not working meant that I was able to grieve what I had lost there and then. If I’d been through a different process, maybe I wouldn’t have felt that it was over so definitively.

For me, menopause (once the physical issues were dealt with) did not cause me to grieve. Instead, it brought freedom. It brought the obvious freedom of no periods. As Pamela mentioned here, the absence of periods is simply “BLISS!”

But it brought more than a physical freedom. (Four years on, that is still blissful!) Menopause also brought me a freedom from any obligation to have children. It brought me the freedom of not feeling biologically different from my peers. We are all (mostly) unable to conceive. It has brought me a freedom from hearing pregnancy announcements from my peers. It has (largely) brought me a freedom from hearing “you could always adopt.” Age has definitely made things easier.

Of course, it isn’t all bliss and freedom. The stigma around menopause is not dissimilar to that of infertile women. There is a stigma about menopause, and the stigma teaches that we are old, pointless, no longer relevant. No Kidding childless women can well relate to that feeling. Likewise, women in menopause complain about feeling invisible. The childless amongst us are also well acquainted with that situation.

And so I wonder if, because we have been through similar circumstances, are we better able to cope with the changes of menopause?

For example, many women talk about the sense of losing their attractiveness after menopause. You don’t see many images or hear of the desirability of older women, of women with grey hair, for example. (You can either embrace this change, or fight it, or – probably the answer for us both – do a combination). For women who may feel that their appearance and desirability define their femininity, this can be an unpleasant change. Outwardly, I am sure, we all go through this to an extent, whether we have children or not. The attractiveness of youth is pervasive throughout our cultures.

I think that there is an added dimension for those of us without children. We have (probably) questioned our femininity, our place as women, when we knew we would not have children. I know I did. A lot of women write about feeling that they are “not a real woman.” I also know that one horrible person actually said those words to a friend of mine. So is this another loss for the No Kidding? That our identities as women are being further eroded? Or have we already done the work and defined for ourselves what it means to be a woman? And so does the (perceived) loss of desirability do less to our own sense of self-worth, our sense of what it means to be a woman, that it would to others who haven’t had to deal with this before. Does our history as No Kidding women who could not have children make this aspect of menopause easier?

The invisibility of older (post-menopausal) women is well documented. (Though that may be changing, as posited by this article that Loribeth highlighted on social media.) Even within the menopausal category of women, childless women are frequently invisible. We are not, and never will be, mothers and so we are not, and never will be, grandmothers. I’m lucky that only a few (so far) of my friends and family are grandparents, and they can and do talk about so much more than that. It might change, of course. But I know many people are not so lucky. Bamberlamb has written recently about being surrounded by women talking about their children and grandchildren. Social interactions remain difficult if we are ignored and invisible. Governments, too, assume that ageing men and women have family around them to assist in their care. They even develop policies on this basis, ignoring the situation of people who don’t have younger family members who can help. Invisibility is real. And it is painful.

But I wonder. Do our experiences as childless women make us stronger and more inured to the invisibility and judgement of menopause? Women who are accustomed to being feted for their biological ability to reproduce, who are used to being the centre of the cult of motherhood, deemed essential to society, might find it harder to find themselves on the periphery of society as they age and their children leave home. It will be more of a shock to them perhaps, to find that they no longer hold such a special place in society. Whereas we have already dealt with that. Does it make us doubly invisible? Perhaps. I’m sure we all feel that way at times.

But I would prefer to ask whether it also makes us doubly strong? We have already dismissed society’s expectations, their judgement and norms, and have decided that they do not matter. That we cannot accept the premise of that judgement. We’ve decided that we will forge ahead living our lives the way we want to live them. We have already been through fire, and have come out stronger. And we are Not Kidding.

Friday, 25 January 2019

A No Kidding Menopause: The emotional issues (Part 2)

(Part Two: Emotions around my hysterectomy)

When I finally sought help, and needed to undertake investigations then surgery, I wondered how I was going to feel about still more scans/procedures etc focused on my reproductive system. The first step was another scan for fibroids, ten years after my last, traumatic scans, and as I’ve only ever had bad news from an ultrasound, I was ready for any emotional reaction. But I actually found it a routine procedure. I had much less emotionally invested in this scan than I did for my ectopics. For once I did not hope for good news, and the news I received was, on the scale of bad news, actually fine. These scans are never pleasant experiences, but at least in this case, I wasn’t beset with wild emotions.

The OBGYN’s office with the Wall of Babies, on the other hand, was like a slap in the face. After the most unpleasant and humiliating pelvic examination I have ever had (and I’ve had quite a few in a teaching hospital), I stood up to put my clothes on, and was confronted with the sight of all these babies. The timing of it was awful. My guard was down, because I’d been dealing with this issue in a very matter-of-fact way. As I mentioned in Part One here, I had been deliberately not thinking about it in fertility terms. But then, suddenly, I saw the wall. Not only was I reminded that I had been through great trauma and loss when I’d been trying to have children and had last been through some of these traumatic pelvic examinations, but I was reminded that I was not in the club of grateful mothers sending photos of their babies. After an examination that had made me feel vulnerable, the Wall of Babies made me feel even more so. I immediately felt “less than.” I hadn’t experienced those feelings for a long time. (I wrote about it here, and the comments section has a lot of interesting points. I was particularly appalled at the doctor who not only has a Wall of Babies, but a Ceiling of Babies too!) I wish I’d said something. I still think about sending a note to him, or a copy of my previous post.

Once I recovered from that moment (and it did take a while), the news that I was to lose my uterus was not devastating for me. It was a means to an end, and there was no doubt this was necessary. I’d said good-bye to my once-hoped-for fertility over ten years earlier, and my uterus was just an anachronistic remnant of that. As I said to a nurse, it had never been any good to me, so it may as well go. I didn’t mourn its loss, and perhaps because I’d never blamed my body for my infertility, I didn’t hate it either. It was simply a problem to be solved.

However, that doesn’t mean that emotions weren’t involved. I remember lying in the hospital a few days after my hysterectomy, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, after my husband had visited and gone home, and everything was quiet. I had the window open, heard people in the distance, and thought about all those mothers celebrating Mother’s Day. Feeling alone, feeling the absence of children, is common on this day for many of us. Usually I manage to arrange the day so I can ignore it. But that afternoon in hospital I felt doubly low, briefly resentful that my uterus had neither delivered children, but had also caused me to be lying alone  in hospital.

That feeling didn’t last long, thankfully. And ultimately, I had fewer negative emotions around my hysterectomy than I had perhaps expected. Part of the reason may have been because I knew I was lucky. After all, I had my hysterectomy at an age which was unsurprising. But it was all a reminder that our equilibrium can be lost, even for a short time, because of our past experiences. Fortunately, it was also a reminder that we survive these episodes, that they don’t last long these days, and that equilibrium returns. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

A No Kidding menopause: The emotional issues (Part 1)

After my quest to conceive was over, I had mixed feelings about my period. It was insulting and pointless to have it every month when I couldn’t conceive,. But at the same time, that wasn’t unusual for me, or for all the women my age (and that would be most) who were, for whatever reason, not trying to conceive. I had tried to conceive for several years, but had not tried to conceive for decades. So it actually made me feel normal, for a change. It was, for all of us, a waste of time and money, and was a huge inconvenience. For a while there, I liked just being normal for a change.

Likewise, as perimenopause came along, cycles became erratic and symptoms began to make themselves known, I at least knew that this was normal and to be expected. I could join in on conversations – though to be frank they were few and far between – with women my age and it was irrelevant whether we were mothers or not. Perhaps I was lucky, but I didn’t have to listen to any of my friends rue the loss of their fertility. By our mid-late 40s-early 50s, these issues were in the past for us all. The reasons why were irrelevant.

I remember taking a pregnancy test at about 45, after an unusually long cycle. I knew that, with two blocked tubes, pregnancy was physically virtually impossible. But still. After two ectopics, I did not want to risk ignoring a potential third ectopic. The thought of being pregnant filled me with dread. Because I knew that in the unlikely even that I was, it would a) most probably be another ectopic, b) if it wasn’t ectopic then a pregnancy at that age would bring higher risks of miscarriage and foetal abnormalities, and c) I realised that, at 45, I didn’t want to become a new mother either (and my husband, at several years older than me, felt the same).  It’s a weird feeling realising that what I had wanted so very much only five years ago was something I would not welcome now.

Time helps. Yes, it’s a cliché, but in those four to five years, I was able to recognise and almost even celebrate that what would have been right for me back then was not right for me now. So it wasn’t a contradiction to not want it any more. Still, I can’t hide the fact that the relief I felt at the negative test result was punctuated by some tiny little questions in my head. “Maybe you didn’t ever want it enough?” It can be hard to escape those thoughts. And I still missed the four and five-year-olds I would have had by then had my pregnancies worked out.

Perimenopause inevitably continued. However, as the physical issues became more complicated, I experienced a lot of frustration. None of my friends were experiencing quite the same level of inconvenient symptoms. Was my reproductive system once again letting me down? Was I having these problems because I - or my body - was abnormal, in the way my ectopics and infertility weren’t “normal?”

I tried not to dwell on this, and for the most part I succeeded. Fortunately, infertility and coming to terms with having no kids had taught me how to shut down some of these doubts, self-accusations, these unhelpful negative thoughts. I liked to think that my reproductive status was irrelevant to this situation, and by experiencing these issues I was simply being normal for a woman my age. (Though again, taking that point of view did mean I didn’t seek help early enough.)

Still, I did experience anger and frustration at once again being inconvenienced by my reproductive system/body. It wasn’t a self-hate issue, but just sheer frustration at the injustice of these issues. And yet, because of the experience of childlessness, I’ve learnt that even when I say “its not fair” it’s more a general complaint than a question of “why me?” I know the world is not fair. I accept that.

And if I’m honest, and put things in perspective, for most of my life my cycles had been reasonably well-behaved, with the exception of regular cramps one or two days a month. I know a lot of women haven’t been so lucky. And so I realised that feeling frustrated at the bleeding, at the menopause that wasn’t coming when I was well and truly ready for it, was probably not an unusual emotion for women. After 30-40 years of monthly periods, pretty much every woman on the planet would welcome their cessation, surely! In that, I was part of a much bigger group. Part of the majority. Normal, for once.