It’s a strange but true fact that one of the most universally shared experiences of womanhood is also one of the most universally hated: menstruation. Every woman remembers the moment when she had her first period — where she was, how old she was, and how she felt.
Though every single young girl goes through menstruation, many are still not taught about it and are therefore ill-equipped to understand what is happening to their bodies. I was one of the lucky ones; I distinctly remember sitting through my elementary school’s puberty assembly -- completely un-ironically called “TAP - Totally Awesome Puberty!” -- and learning about the changes my young body was on the cusp of undergoing. And as time went on, my friends and I discovered -- whether from our mothers, our awkward school health classes, or our copies of Seventeen Magazine -- the wonders of PMS, cramping, and weight gain that are the universally-recognized hallmarks of womanhood
That’s why it’s weird that, while most every woman I know dreams of the day she no longer has to have a period, none of us are very clear on what actually happens when we gradually stop bleeding each month and our bodies move into the phase known as menopause.
In its most basic scientific definition, menopause refers to the time in a woman’s life where menstruation naturally stops. However, it’s also a word that conjures a haze of strange, sometimes scary visions: uncontrollable hot flashes, higher stress levels, tiredness, moodiness, and even depression are all recognized and documented symptoms.
But, apart from the oft-cited horror stories about profuse sweating and hormonal imbalances, knowledge about menopause remains woefully scant. School health classes only scratch the surface of this process, discussing just the basic biological changes within the female body and glossing over (if not completely skipping) the lived experience of entering menopause. I wanted to know what it’s actually like to go through, so I turned to my nana to talk about her experience entering the second half of womanhood.
What did you know about menopause growing up? Did anyone ever talk to you about it?
Growing up, I don’t remember anyone telling me about menopause, although I think I read about it in a booklet on menstruation when I was quite young. I found it in a bookcase in my house -- I’m honestly not sure where it came from. I don’t believe it was from my mother -- she and I never really talked about anything having to do with womanhood.
Back then, books were really the only way that you could learn about sexuality, about what it means to be male or female. It was not a topic that was in the media or in popular discourse as it is today.
So when was the first time you remember hearing about menopause?
I’m not entirely sure. More than likely, it was in that booklet I mentioned.
What you have to understand is that when I was growing up, discussions of sexuality (and everything related to it) were all but non-existent. Though we had health classes in school, they centered mostly around maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet -- there was no such thing in those days as sexual education. Additionally, women’s magazines back then were limited to publications such as Good Housekeeping and Redbook, which focused largely on fashion and homemaking rather than actual experiences of womanhood. In general, people were very tight-lipped about sex and sexuality when I was young.
Did you ever ask your family or friends about menopause like I am asking you now? Did you ever hear them talk about it?
I don’t believe I ever did. I grew up without any living grandmothers to talk to, and as I mentioned before, I don’t remember ever talking to my mother about anything having to do with becoming a woman. The only thing I knew about my mother’s experiences growing older was that she had a hysterectomy when she was in her forties, so she no longer had periods. I may have spoken to my older sister about it -- she’s five years my senior -- but more than likely it just wasn’t something I ever thought very much about.
It’s interesting -- since sexuality wasn’t taught in the classroom or talked about in public discourse, it was expected that you’d just get knowledge handed down to you from your family or your peers. And, to a large extent, I do remember talking with my friends about feminine issues such as getting our periods. But I think that menopause just never really came up -- after all, it was so far away that it just didn’t seem relevant to us.
When did you first start experiencing symptoms?
I was in my early fifties.
What were they like for you? Was your experience like what you expected?
I had certainly heard of the most common symptoms and had a vague idea of what they would be like. I ended up going on hormone replacement therapy fairly early on once I hit my fifties, so my menopausal time was definitely not as difficult as it is for some women.
I do distinctly remember sitting at my desk at work one day and suddenly becoming very hot and a bit sweaty. I said something to my secretary, who was quite a bit older than I, and she verified that I was indeed having hot flashes. I also remember experiencing night sweats occasionally, as well.
Having the notorious hot flashes was a strange and unsettling experience. It’s completely different from feeling hot in the sun because when you’re outside and you begin to feel overheated, you know exactly why. Hot flashes, on the contrary, seem to come on quickly and for no reason -- it’s like all of a sudden, your entire body is sweating! It almost feels like your internal thermometer begins rising and you’re getting hot from the inside out.
How did you feel about the changes that were happening for you? Were you angry? Relieved? Emotional?
To be honest, I was more relieved than anything else, because being menopausal meant that I didn’t have to bleed every month anymore! I’d suffered from heavy, painful periods for a long time when I was young -- in fact, I remember my period being so heavy at work one time that I bled right through my white coat -- so the fact that I would never have to deal with that again was an enormous relief. That, I think, outweighed any other emotions I might have felt at the time. Even now, I still largely feel grateful that I don’t have to put up with the hassle of having a period.
It’s funny -- it’s such an irony that when we are young girls, we almost can’t wait to get our periods because it’s such a huge rite of passage, a milestone on the path towards “growing up.” Yet, once menstruation actually begins, we realize what a massive pain (both literally and figuratively) it is, and we long for a time when we don’t have to deal with it anymore.
Did you feel like your doctor clearly explained menopause to you? Did you feel like you understood what was happening?
I don’t remember ever specifically discussing it with my doctor, although I am sure it came up in passing. It was not a big deal in the same way the onset of menstruation was; plus, as I mentioned before, I started hormone replacement pretty quickly, so I wasn’t experiencing a whole lot of physical or emotional symptoms that I needed to talk about.
My doctor did mention, though, that a lot of the physical aspects of aging -- sagging breasts, wrinkles, etc. -- have a lot to do with the depletion of hormones, especially estrogen, as you go through menopause. So because I am on hormone replacement therapy, my breasts have largely retained their shape and I haven’t developed a lot of facial wrinkles. That was certainly a welcome surprise for me.
What were the biggest positive and negative changes for you?
By far the biggest positive change was (and still is!) not having periods anymore. I can’t express how much nicer it is never having to worry about buying sanitary products or experiencing cramps! That, to me, was such a huge relief that I initially didn’t think about anything else.
But looking back, I do feel some sadness. It’s a little hard, knowing that your life as a “woman-woman” in the “Mother Nature” sense is over. You realize that your natural role has changed and that your entire body has aged -- therefore meaning that you are much closer to death than you were before.
Additionally, when I had my surgery a few years ago to fix my prolapsed bladder, almost all of my reproductive organs were removed -- my uterus, my ovaries, everything. While in one sense it’s nice to know that I am no longer at any risk of developing diseases or cancer in those organs, it’s also difficult to come to terms with the fact that I’m now, in a sense, an empty vessel.
But as with any of the phases of womanhood, menopause is an objective milestone -- in the sense that every woman will undergo it at some point or another -- with subjective effects. I was lucky that the effects I experienced were, all things considered, fairly mild.
What is one piece of advice about going through menopause that you wish you’d known, or that you want to pass along to me?
I think it’s important for you to know that you will likely have both some physical unpleasantness (though I hope you’ll be spared this!) and some emotional reactions about entering menopause and about what it means to no longer have periods.
It’s a bittersweet moment in a woman’s life, for sure -- but in my experience, it was (and is!) mostly sweet.
Emily L. Johnson is a 26-year-old Atlanta native currently working in copywriting to fund her coffee shop and Etsy addictions. Fun facts about Emily include that she was in the Peace Corps, she has a mild obsession with unicorns, and that she makes really, really good grilled cheese sandwiches.
Photo Credit: Getty + Cultura