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How We Can Rewrite the Menopause Story

Better stories may help women navigate the challenges of menopause.

Key points

  • People can often better manage pain, embarrassment, and challenge when a story gives the experience reason and promise.
  • Stories about menopause often depict the experience negatively, such as the idea that menopause marks the end of service to the species.
  • Stories that frame menopause as a transition to an important, useful and generative stage of life may help people embrace post-menopausal years.
Pheelings media/Shutterstock
Menopause, a set of miserable symptoms without a good story.
Source: Pheelings media/Shutterstock

Maria is sweating profusely during her lecture on feminism to the freshman political science class. Her blouse is soaked and her forehead is dripping. When she returns from getting a paper towel to blot herself, she apologizes, “I am so sorry, it’s my time.”

Time for what, we wonder.

Ann’s nerves are like a chalkboard with fingernails scraping, scraping, scraping. She screams when the grocery clerk puts her loaf of bread underneath the eggs, “My bread!” Fists clenching, jaw tight, teeth gritting, Ann braces herself and takes a breath. Lowering her head, she offers to the clerk, “Sorry, I’m going through the change.”

Change to what, we ask.

Menopause, a set of miserable symptoms without a good story.

We know that pain, embarrassment, and challenge are all managed better with a story that gives reason and promise. For example:

  • Pregnant women endure labor because the story ends with a baby.
  • The awful teen years are tolerated because we know it’s the only route to adulthood.
  • Hip replacement hurts like hell, but the chance to dance again gets many through.
  • All heroes are the result of journeys that include loss, challenge and suffering.
  • We accept that the creative process usually includes a dark period or two. It’s the hair-pulling, fist-banging torture that precedes the new book, poem or painting.

So the story goes.

If we suffer to evolve, it’s the stories that help us suffer. We need good stories. What then, is the story for menopause? Who and what are we changing into and confronting?

The Menopause Story

In 1944, psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch, in The Psychology of Women, told a story that went like this: “With the cessation of menstruation, a woman ends her service to the species.”

One wonders, how does the narrative that we are no longer of service to our species help us suffer? It doesn’t. It makes us suffer more. It is a story that invites hopelessness, uselessness and invisibility.

Likewise, Feminine Forever, written by Dr. Robert Wilson in 1966, puts menopause in the category of a deficiency to be avoided. Wilson writes: “No woman can be sure of escaping the horror of this living decay. Every woman faces the threat of extreme suffering and incapacity.” He went so far as declaring that all postmenopausal women are “castrates,” insisting that this stage of life must be averted and avoided at all costs.

Interestingly, Wilson considered himself a champion of women. His book was a best seller and the portal to the estrogen deficiency model of menopause and its hormonal cures. While we appreciate the empathy, and recognize the role of hormones in our overall health, is this the story we want to live into?

Further perusal of the literature about women during and after menopause leads us to words such as frigid, spinsterish, psychotic, crazy, ugly, dry, graying, unfeminine, shriveled, and sexless. The story that we morph into a bunch of ugly castrates with dry vaginas and sweaty palms who are now useless to our species has taken hold in our culture and dwells within our subconscious. Even today. We have internalized the stories that tell us we should feel ashamed and apologetic, less than a woman for being post-menopausal. And these stories make the experience of menopause harder to bear.

But wait, who are the storytellers that define our lives? Who are the authors who decide what we go through and why? Who gets to twist this plot? If we step outside these ageist, sexist, ableist confines, can we rewrite our lives?

We have some emerging narratives that give us hope and a place to start.

A Better Way to Think About Menopause

Author Darcey Steinke was reading the science section of the New York Times one day and came upon a story about female killer whales. Female whales, like human females, live for years beyond their fertility. But it seems that whales have a better story than we do. What do post-menopausal whales do? They become leaders, keepers of information, teachers to their pods.

In her 2019 book, Flash Count Diary, Steinke says:

…killer whales go through menopause and then have a long post-reproductive life. The older females not only live thirty to fifty years after menopause but they also lead their pods – complex cohesive family groups — particularly in times when salmon, their main food source, is scarce. Elder females have a plethora of ecological information and all whales, even younger males, choose to follow the post-reproductive females.

Historian Susan Mattern, in The Slow Moon Climbs, archives the experience of menopause historically and culturally. She found that context, or culture, determines how a woman experiences symptoms linked to menopause: “For most of human history, people have seen menopause for what, as I argue, it really is: a developmental transition to an important stage of life; not a problem, but a solution.”

The “grandmother hypothesis” is a story anthropologist Kristin Hawkes of the University of Utah proposes. Hawkes told this story based on her study of a group, part of a foraging population in Tanzania. Hawkes observed that the post-reproductive women in the village had a major role in caring for the younger generation. The grandmother hypothesis suggests that menopause is useful and adaptive to our evolution as a species.

Likewise, two other studies, one from Bishop’s University in Quebec and another from the University of Turku in Finland, looking at data available from the 18th century, suggest that families with grandmothers living with them benefited from an overall increased birth rate and a decrease in childhood mortality.

This is grand. These stories help. But perhaps they could use an update. Are there ways to be grand that don’t include granny?

Menopause as a Stage of Generativity

Psychologist Dan McAdams has spent decades studying stories and how they predict and support our well-being. McAdams discovered that individuals who tell stories about their lives that include themes of redemption score better on scales measuring generativity. Generativity is defined as the propensity and willingness to engage in acts that promote the well-being of younger generations as a way of ensuring the long-term survival of the species.

Perhaps by imagining and telling better stories about our post-menopausal years we could become more generative as older women. Perhaps the story of menopause could be one of redemption. And just maybe, grander stories could change the experience itself.

Jonathan Adler, professor at Olin College of Engineering, notes that our sense of agency improves when individuals craft their own life stories. Interestingly, Adler’s research shows how storytelling precedes the attainment of personal agency. “You tell the story first and then you live your way into it.”

New Stories for Embracing Menopause

Women live beyond fertility for a reason. Nature insists such. But what are the stories we want to live into that help us embrace and make the most of the post-menopausal years?

Here are some possibilities:

Story 1: Women everywhere are thrilled to reach that stage in life where they evolve into their most powerful self. Starting around age 45, the body moves through a massive whale of a change, as it frees itself from the confines of fertility and grows into bigger, more fertile gardens of generative purpose. It’s almost as if everything we have lived thus far is in service to this most important stage of life.

Story 2: Businesses everywhere are now in agreement that having older women on the payroll and in leadership positions is profitable. Statistics from Fortune 500 companies indicate increases in team morale, individual agency, and overall creative input since older women were put in leadership positions.

Story 3: It is universally agreed upon that a woman’s body physically expands during the menopausal transition to accommodate greater learning capacity, deeper emotional understanding, and far-reaching wisdom. Finally, this expanded body image has captured the attention of designers and artists worldwide and is fast becoming the sensual ideal. Young girls and boys everywhere are eager for the day when their bodies take on this wider, esteemed figure and status.

Story 4: Instead of focusing on mating or attracting others, older women report feeling a new kind of ecstasy, a sensation of love bigger than any other. Some refer to this feeling as a “universal love,” and describe it as an orgasmic, energetic surge. Most women say this experience of ecstatic love became possible after menopause.

These stories may help women psychologically prepare and manage the passage of menopause. They may even mitigate the suffering.

Kate McLean, professor and storytelling researcher at Western Washington University, tells us that “the stories we tell about ourselves reveal ourselves, construct ourselves and sustain ourselves through time.”

One thing is sure, our periods may cease but we don’t. In fact, we are living much longer. Let’s imagine and realize the possibilities for living long. Let’s tell ourselves stories that make it all matter.

When Maria says it’s her time, her students smile in recognition and admiration for this revered stage of life. Ann doesn’t have to explain who she is changing into because the clerk has heard the stories and understands that the change coming will be wondrous.

Menopause isn’t an ending but a beginning. It’s a transformation. And we can get through anything for that.

References

Adler, J. M., Skalina L. M. and McAdams D. P. (2008), ‘The narrative reconstruction

of psychotherapy and psychological health’, Psychotherapy Research.

18:6.

Deutsch, H. (1944). The Psychology of Women. New York: Grune&Stratton.

Dingfelder, S. F. (2011), ‘Our stories, ourselves’, American Psychological

Association Monitor, 42:1.

Hawkes, K. (2003), ‘Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity’,

American Journal of Human Biology, 15:3.

Mattern, S. P. (2019), The Slow Moon Climbs, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University

Press.

McAdams, D. P. (2006), The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, New

York: Oxford University Press.

Steinke, D. (2019), Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life: New York: Sarah Crichton Books.

Wilson, R.A. (1966), Forever Feminine. New York: Mayflower.

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