Vita Nova is Latin for new life. Kudos to my beautiful and brilliant 88 year old mom for that! She is not, however, pictured above.
As all of us embark upon a shiny new year, full of "vita nova," promise and reflection, and an optimism that often blooms in the shadow of residual fears, it seems natural to talk of new beginnings. And how timely, then, to talk about one of the most exciting new beginnings of all – menopause!
While myths and folklore abound, sometimes it’s a little tricky trying to actually pin down what we mean when we talk about menopause. Of course, all of us know the basics, right? It’s the time when one’s monthly period comes to a quiet end, and unless we enter menopause surgically, for example by having a hysterectomy, it’s a process that tends to take awhile, one that begins with natural, normal changes in our hormones. It’s a hugely important issue and one that women frequently say that they’d like to know more about.
So here’s the real deal. Technically speaking, menopause is the complete stopping of menstrual bleeding for one entire year. Although 52 is the average age at which women in the
US experience this milestone, it can
happen as early as the late 20s for some rare individuals, and more commonly
between our 30s and our 60s. There’s also some evidence to show that there’s a
hereditary link between the age of menopause within families, ditto - at least
sometimes - for the kinds of other changes that may, but certainly don’t
always, accompany it.
Most experts consider the period called perimenopause to be the 2 to 5 year interval prior to actual menopause, or the absolute end of one’s menstrual period. Many of the changes we associate with menopause begin to occur at this stage and often increase in strength and frequency.
Indulge me a word of extreme caution here. During perimenopause, when our periods can skip months at a time, and are often unpredictable in much the same way that they were when we were teens and first started to have them, it’s absolutely vital that we continue using a reliable form of birth control. Need proof? Remember back in the day, hearing the old ladies at church talking about Ms. So-and-So who’d just had a so-called “change of life baby?” Even now, it happens more frequently than we tend to be aware; we’re prematurely lulled into thinking we’re no longer fertile, often when we’re happily looking forward to the quieter, less stressful pace of our approaching golden years.
So unless we’re okay with having a child later in life, which of course is perfectly fine if that’s a conscious choice, it’s wise to continue using some dependable form of birth control until we’re absolutely sure of where we stand. By the way, if we’re in doubt, a certain blood test can provide some sense of where we are in the overall process. Once we’re period-free for 12 consecutive months, we’re officially postmenopausal, or post-reproductive, and I leave it to you to decide which term you prefer.
Just as with most things in life, there are multiple truths to the menopause story. We’ve all heard of, and many of us have experience with, the infamous hot flashes, believed to be caused by extreme fluctuations in hormonal levels as our bodies work to establish a new equilibrium. There’s also such a thing as cold flashes that occur for the same reason, as well as changes in skin elasticity and altered sleep patterns.
Vaginal penetration can also become painful, presenting an additional challenge due to hormonal changes that cause vaginal dryness and thinning of the vaginal walls.
Of course, opting for oral sex or the liberal use of lubricants can usually address this. And certainly, many women try additional options like anal penetration, since anal walls do not thin out like vaginal ones do in response to our decreasing levels of estrogen. Of course, whenever anal play is in the mix, it’s crucial to remember that objects, including mouths, toys, penises and the like - can go from vagina to anus, but not the other way around without a thorough and vigorous sanitizing of said objects first.
But in contrast to the complexities, other menopause truths are hugely empowering. For thousands of years, in many cultures across the globe, postmenopausal women, or wise women, as they were often called, held powerful sway over their communities, outranking men, and menstruating women as sages, policy-makers, judges and the like. But somewhere along the way in the circuitous course of herstory, the cultural narrative about menopause was negatively reframed by power-hungry patriarchies in ways that recast postmenopausal women as asexual, powerless, marginalized members of their societies. Worse, we began to believe it.
Contrary to myths and stereotypes about sexless, dried up, used-up old hags, untold numbers of women find that menopause itself is a significant, exhilarating and long-awaited milestone on the road to a new-found, unexpected freedom. It’s a time when unwanted pregnancy becomes a ghost of the past. Moreover, we know our bodies well by then; we know what pleases us as well as what doesn’t. We walk in the world differently then. There’s a grace and power in the carriage of our bodies, a self-confidence that’s only earned by paying one’s dues and through the passage of time. So long as we remember that safe sex practices are still the wisest choice at any age, it’s a time in our lives that can brim with a new spontaneous creativity as we begin to explore worlds untold, freedoms we only dreamed of, and delicious new desires “pregnant” with possibilities!
But enough for now; more on this amazing metamorphosis in later posts! Happy New Year!
What are your thoughts on menopause? How have have you or women in your life approached this important milestone?
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/aspexdesign/7914713460/">Aspex Design</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">cc</a>