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.

7 comments:

  1. You bring up so many excellent points in this post. Does grieving the ability to conceive and ultimately parenting biological children prepare you for this milestone all women will face? On the one hand, you are all experienced with facing many of these challenges, with one seeming to argue you would be better prepared. But then again, is this just another painful reminder of what was unfairly lost?

    I hate that society places so much emphasis on youth and reproductivity that woman who aren’t able (or willing) are somehow considered less. It assumes our only role in life is to breed and it’s undercuts what each person brings to the world.

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  2. I'm on board with your last paragraph. Yes, methinks.

    When I got into the IF blogosphere, I was older than many. I remember thinking how much of a relief it was to "age out" of the family-building years. No more baby showers!

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    1. Not that we really have them here, but yes!

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  3. Hmmmm, I really want to go with doubly strong. Menopause really is such a turning point, especially for women defined by their fertility, and I love how you pose it as the great equalizer -- we're all barren now, ladies. :) It is hard to think of the cycle of mommy-stuff going to grandmother-stuff. I have been "lucky" enough to have had my lining-removal surgery two years ago so that I have been period-free already... it IS bliss! What a nuisance it is to have a period whose whole purpose was to signal fertility, and what a liar it was. Useless. So to be rid of that... ahhhh. Amazing.

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  4. I too agree with your last paragraph, 100%. :) As I commented on this subject elsewhere -- aging is not fun, aging while female is especially not fun, and aging as a childless female is probably the least fun of all. But I agree that we've all had a head start over most of the mothers we know in terms of dealing with things like uncooperative bodies and empty nests! :)

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  5. Dear Mali, I totally agree with your two last paragraphs. I think we got used early not to define ourselves by our procreative capacity, and that it might help for menopause.
    It reminds me of a discussion with a colleague, mother of 3 children, who told me it was difficult for her to decide to stop having children, although she was still able to have some (she's below 35). I was speechless when she told me that. But afterwards it made me think that maybe even mothers have one day to "mourn" other children they could have had but decided not to have, for whatever reasons. And that she maybe would have to go through some kind of grieve too.

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  6. Mali, all of your posts about this subject are fabulous - not that what I think you've been through is fabulous, but the fact that you're speaking out about the good, bad and the bloody, all of it... the honesty and dispelling myths about what it's like to reach menopause and our unique perspective of it in this small community of online women blogging about infertility.

    Magnificent posts, all of them and you raise some brilliant points - now we've reached menopause, we're in a level playing field with others who have also reached this milestone, although they are now discovering some of the things we've had to deal with for years...

    I'd like to think it would harness empathy and possibly garner some sensitivity but have found that when I explain about my personal situation it seems to make other leap to show me the grandchildren pictures and on it goes. No changes there then!

    One good thing about aging is me not having as much of a filter to say what I think to anyone who questions my lack of offspring! Yes, we are stronger, having lived the lives and experiences we've had - absolutely!

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