How Menopause Made Me Feel Like A Woman
Previously I had felt like a fraud when it came to femininity.
Womanhood has many nuanced facets, but one of my favorites is the connection to other women through shared experiences. It starts when we are little girls, moves into teens giggling whispered chats about boys and our first periods, then transforms into more serious heart-to-hearts about dating, first sexual experiences, first loves, marriage, careers and the biggie for some — conception, pregnancy and motherhood.
Finally, we end up sharing — OK, mostly complaining — about menopause. However, not all of us fit neatly into those discussions. I should know — I’ve felt excluded from talk about reproduction for most of my life, until menopause came along.
“Having a shared experience in a rite of passage is beautiful in the sharing. The collective celebration is the essence of womanhood,” explains Kristen Carpenter, who is director of Women’s Behavioral Health and chief psychologist of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ohio State University (OSU) Wexner Medical Center; director of Ambulatory Services, OSU Harding Behavioral Health; and associate professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, Psychology, Obstetrics and Gynecology at OSU College of Medicine.
My own exile started early. While most of my middle school friends feigned annoyance to cover their pride in carrying purses with period products inside, I didn’t begin my periods until I was 14. Once they started, I felt a small sense of normalcy, but with a caveat: for other girls, periods were a sign of their fertility. A side of caution existed for them to avoid pregnancy until they were emotionally and financially ready. My periods came with a caution as well: I might not be able to conceive because of my medical history. The radiation and chemotherapy I underwent for childhood cancer left my body’s future ability to conceive and produce a child questionable.
Fast-forward to my late 20s and my first marriage, when we tried to conceive for a year after our wedding, with no success. Fertility treatments followed, again with negative results. I was standing barren at the fantasy window of the newly delivered babies in a hospital while I listened to others talk of pregnancy, first kicks, how it changed their bodies, going through labor, nursing, and healing from episiotomies. I was silent. I had nothing to compare, and knew I’d be considered a real downer if I talked about the strains of failed in vitro fertilizations
(IVFs) on my own body, emotions and wallet. I was happy for my friends, yet hungrily craving what they were having; both the experiences of conception, pregnancy and delivery, and the inclusion in the fellowship of sharing those experiences.
Carpenter says women in their 20s and 30s often feel ubiquitous experiences as they decide if they want kids, and then try to have them.
“There’s a sort of myth about how families are built and any deviation from that plan leaves women isolated very quickly,” confirms Carpenter. “Those two decades still have lots of conversations about pregnancy, babies, baby showers, and now gender reveals and smash-cake first birthdays. There is a lot of attention to things out there that sidelines infertile women and makes them feel othered. It can be very isolating and force women to stay quiet about infertility or choosing to not have babies. There’s an awkwardness to being around it all. Motherhood is supposed to be universal and shared, but infertility is never inclusive.”
Seven years and a divorce later, I remarried. My second husband and I underwent three IVFs in one year, still without success. Again, even more of my female peers were having babies and couldn’t relate to my deep emotional pain and isolation in my infertility. I was now in my late 30s and a new layer had appeared in my complex feelings of hurt, anger and shame. I grappled with being a feminist while also judging myself by very anti-feminist viewpoints of being a “failure” at womanhood and femininity, simply because I couldn’t breed. I felt like a fraud on so many levels.
Ultimately, we adopted a child. Through adoption, I found a form of community with women like me who had decided motherhood was the goal, not pregnancy, labor and delivery. Yet I also learned about the casual segregation adoption receives from motherhood by society. The world is full of assumptions that motherhood occurs only via a vaginal birth or cesarean section after nine months of carrying that life inside you. I had a daughter I loved beyond measure, but was still an outsider in some ways, still standing in the clubhouse doorway watching the sisterhood bond over a path to motherhood the universe never led me down.
“Feminists are caught in many ways,” agrees Carpenter. “Their personal experiences and principles are at loggerheads in a double bind. They’d never judge another woman for choosing not to, or not being able to have children, yet still measure themselves that way. Feminists believe we should choose and should not be reduced to what a uterus can do, but as individuals we want to create a family — and feminists encourage us to do this however we can. Yet our bodies don’t always cooperate.”
Carpenter says there’s a natural amount of disappointment, especially when you compare yourself with others who get to have what you don’t, so women often search for explanations and tend to self-blame. Women are socialized that if we do the “right” things (eat healthy, exercise, take care of ourselves) then the good things we desire will happen for us. If isolation and emotional pain from infertility run too deep, women should always talk to a therapist or support group. I did, and I’m glad I did. We are all social creatures on varying levels, so feeling a sense of belonging is integral to our humanity. Sharing is caring, especially if it’s self-care via working through negative feelings about yourself.
For me, my mid-40s brought menopause and a sense of closure to all these turbulent feelings. It was finally my initiation into a rite of passage in womanhood I could fully share. It also gave me the wisdom I needed to realize I needed to stop chastising myself in irrational self-blame. I found balm in a new village — one filled with women like me experiencing the same peri- and postmenopausal symptoms I was.
While menopause was unpleasant on my body, emotions and even my relationships, I grew to feel an acceptance for myself — and by other women — I had never known. We were all in this together, supporting one another, discussing the pros and cons of hormone replacement therapy and how our beloved wine now tortured us with brutal hot flashes. I don’t define my identity anymore with what my uterus can or cannot do, and don’t measure my self-worth on whether I’m “normal” by my ability to add to female discussions.
Carpenter says, “Menopause is the new shared conversation — especially with social media — where women are more open to talking about it than ever before. Misery loves company, so it’s easier to laugh with friends about the symptoms because even negative experiences can be funny if we commiserate together.”