Forget ‘menopause’ and recognise your prime at mid-life (1)
World Menopause Day takes place on 18th October, and far from menopause being down-the-hill-time, our midlife is our prime-time.
Menopause is a time to embrace our wisdom, share our gifts with confidence and to step forward courageously to make the rest of life, the best of life for ourselves and for those around us.#Menopause is a time to embrace our wisdom, share our gifts with confidence and to step forward courageously to make the rest of life, the best of life. #WorldMenopauseDay Click To Tweet
This pivotal period starts in our mid-30's, when we women embark on a decades-long journey of new discoveries about who we are, how we want to live and the legacy we want to leave behind us. Yes, ladies (and gentlemen) menopause is our time to shine and in this two part-post, I want to re-focus the lens on menopause and consider it from:
- An evolutionary and cultural perspective: Where did ‘menopause’ come from and why? (Part 1)
- A health creation perspective: How can we re-focus our purpose to recalibrate and create a lifestyle that helps our menopause rock? (Part 2)
The ‘medicalisation’ of menopause
The concept of menopause emerged as a dangerous pathological disorder linked to upsetting symptoms that rendered women weak and vulnerable in the Western world around 1700. Today, it’s still seen as a predominantly medical problem… with a whole industry of books, websites, forums and products all offering (often conflicting) advice on how we might medicate and/or tolerate menopause.
But in her book ‘The Slow Moon Climbs’, historian Susan Mattern tells a different story:
“For most of human history, people have seen menopause for what… it really is: a developmental transition to an important stage of life; not a problem, but a solution. For the most part, they have had no word for menopause and have not paid too much attention to the end of menstruation, instead recognizing midlife as a transition to the status of elder, grandmother or mother-in-law.”
While there’s no doubt that many of us do experience menopause as an unpleasant ordeal to be endured (and in the next post, we’ll take a look at the physical aspects of menopause), here I want us to focus on the ‘whys’ of menopause: its role in our evolutionary past and its contribution to the future of human society.
The Grandmother Hypothesis
Dr Lara Briden, a New Zealand-based naturopathic physician tweeted this:
“Menopause may have evolved during the turbulent climate change of the Palaeolithic era.. as a way to increase survival by increasing the ratio of adults to children. Menopause was part of a (possibly) uniquely Homo sapiens reproductive strategy of food sharing, long childhoods, long lives and grand-mothering”
From an evolutionary perspective, Susan Mattern examines theories - particularly the Grandmother hypothesis - that generate insights about menopause and the place of older people in society. These theories put ‘elders’ at the centre of the rearing of future generations, based on the idea that as a woman’s reproductive future declines, the risks to her of continuing childbirth outweigh the benefits of investing these years in the care of the children (and grandchildren) she already has… or indeed of others’ children.
Considered in this light, we women can rightly take pride in the potential that our prime-time contributions offer to the generations that follow. Who wouldn’t be proud to leave this legacy:
“… nature selected for longer lifespans in women because post-reproductive women helped their daughters, daughters-in-law, younger sisters, nieces, and granddaughters to feed and care for their infants and young children. This allowed the younger women to have more babies closer together, which in turn increased the inclusive fitness of the older women. Once weaned children could be supplied with hard-to-acquire foods, it also allowed humans to live in new environments and to colonize the world. Once adult lifespans lengthened, longer childhoods evolved… humans took advantage of [this] to develop higher levels of foraging skill; social skills also developed rapidly as co-operation became more important at all ages.”
Culture, community and planet
In our roles as Queen, Mother, Wise Woman, Lover, women are all things to all people. We hold our partner, our children, our family, our community and the world in the palms of our caring hands. At the Vancouver Peace summit in 2009, the Dalai Lama said something that rocked the globe when he opined:
“The world will be saved by the Western woman.”
Fazle Hasan Abed, whose organization, BRAC (with an annual budget in excess of $1 billion) delivers education, health care and microfinance to millions of people in Asia and Africa. BRAC has given $6 billion in small loans to women. Abed believes that women are the key to solving some of its most pressing challenges.
“Girls and women represent the greatest untapped resources of the developing world. The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all."
- Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, leader of Burma's democracy movement
That's quite some plate to step up to! But indeed, throughout history and in every culture, the role of the women elders or has been respected and revered...
The return of Crone or 'Wise Woman'
There is a belief that in pre-Christian societies certain archetypes of women were honoured as goddesses. These phases of a woman’s life were the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Athena, the daughter of Zeus, represents an archetypal maiden – a virgin goddess who embodied wisdom and learning. Mythologies from all over the world have divine mothers such as Isis, Ceres, or Gaia and these in these ancient cultures there was also a reverence for the third stage of a woman’s life: the Crone.
However, for centuries, societies have marginalized the Crone… turning her from a wise Goddess to a feared witch, conjuring up negative images of a decrepit, wizened old woman.
Thankfully, times are changing, and we are coming to recognise this term to embody women’s postmenopausal wisdom and sharing it with the world. In Feminine Wisdom and Aging: The Positive Role of the Wise Woman and Crone, Kristi Meisenbach Boylan writes:
“It is the time when the wisdom and healing of a woman's menopausal journey quickens in her heart, and her desire to share all that she has learned drives her back to the outer world. And so, just as the maiden years symbolized the time when a woman gave birth to herself, and the childbearing years the time when she gave birth to others, the crone years symbolize the time when a woman gives birth to the planet by sharing all that she has learned.”
And as we look around, we’re seeing an exponentially growing number of women of a ‘certain age’ - at home, in the workplace and boardroom, public and political platforms - reclaiming and expressing their wisdom. Kristi says…
“She becomes not only a storyteller, and bearer of wisdom, but she becomes the story itself.
She has embraced the internal world within and returned to the shores of the outer world, not as child bearer, but with the authority and power of the crone. She has forever become the storyteller and the story. She is, truly, whole and holy. She is feminine wisdom at its peak. She is the culmination of Eve, and Mary, and the Great Goddess within. She is truly all that The Great Divine created her to be.”
Changing the face of menopause
Yes indeed ladies, menopause IS our time to shine and huge credit goes to the growing number of movements like Behind the Woman Midlife Health & Wellbeing (@behindthewoman1) - a brand working hard to inspire, support and empower women throughout midlife, menopause and beyond.
As Twitter campaigns like #changethefaceofmenopause carrying empowering messages and positive images of women at midlife reach many thousands, we can be optimistic that women can and do rock menopause!
Next time: Re-focusing and recalibrating a 'menopause rocks' purpose and lifestyle
As women then, it seems we're hard-wired for and deeply invested in supporting the generations that follow us. We’re here to ‘save the world’ and to fix it for everyone from our partner and family, to our community and our planet.
But while we're trying to do it all, the effect on our own well-being - mind, body and spirit - is not only overwhelming, it's just not sustainable.
In Part 2, I’ll refocus the menopause lens on how we can recalibrate to create a purpose and a lifestyle that makes our menopause rock.
"Aging is not 'lost youth' but a new stage of opportunity and strength."
- Betty Friedan
Author of The Feminine Mystique