The life of a woman is quite funny. I would not like to lead the life of a man, honestly. But whoever is a woman and an adult, supports that she goes from taboo to taboo. Menstruation (the word alone). That’s where it starts, that’s the only taboo. Not having a period is something else. When you have your period, you make sure that no one notices (juggling tampons, sneaking paracetamol). When you finally get rid of it after about 35 years, you should feel ashamed all over again. Because then you are in menopause (the word alone). And no one really wants to talk about it. Why not? My best friend, we were in class together, she says she knows. She always says: “Menopause is not so sexy.”
This is a piece on that non-sexy topic and who’s going to read it? Not men, it makes them shy. Neither do women, because I’m a little embarrassed. Night sweats and hot flashes, insomnia and bleeding, mood swings, and dry vagina. You talk about it, preferably with a joke. Transition? Does not exist.
But there’s no point in denying it, everyone knows: around the 51st birthday, the ovaries give up and the eggs disappear: that’s the time of menopause, or the last time you have your period. Creating life is no longer an option, now death begins to show itself on the outside. Finest hair. Swelling, couperose cheeks. Deviated lips, fallen corners of the mouth. A heavier build, or tawny like a branch. Osteoporosis with sprained shoulders. And the downside is that you just have to wait and see what happens. Some have everything, others almost nothing.
Whenever I think of transition, I think of the artist Piet Paris. Years ago he illustrated A matter of guts, my style guide for women over 50. I sent him one chapter at a time and soon the drawings began to arrive. But the chapter ‘The Transition’ was silent for so long that I began to worry. And just when I was thinking: he’s a man, he can’t do anything with that, how can it be, the most beautiful drawing in the entire book came in: a stylized lady crossing an unfathomable abyss at a giant step. I saw it and I shot full. Yes, I thought. Yeah, Pete, that’s how he feels.
I say what I always say: “Transition is not ruin.”
I speak with a colleague. She is much younger than me, but old enough for menopause. She confirms it and says that she has been thoroughly informed. She is aware of strange phenomena and menopause consultants and recommends a particular book about it. “She’s on my shelf upside down,” she continues. She thinks that’s funny and I laugh, because I don’t want her to realize how crazy I think she is. I thought we were more advanced these days, especially a woman like her, modern, worldly, free-spirited. And wildly attractive, too. Why is she hiding that book from her visitors? Because it’s about decadence, she says. She calls transition a metaphor for decline, and she doesn’t want to be associated with it. I say what I always say: “Transition is not ruin.” She talks about it. She is enjoying the new phase of life, she says, really her. That sounds pious, but I believe you. Which makes me forget to tell you what struck me on the ‘Men Were Nicer Before’ podcast (NPO DOCS).
In that podcast, women crave about men who no longer look at them, whistle, flirt with them. They routinely quote nasty comments from men about women who are no longer loud. I think I’d kick that man (you know where), but they think those comments make sense. These are women who accept that men are no longer interested in them, the norm being a woman who was used to standard male attention. Until she was in her 50s, then that stopped. I understand the blow, that must have been a shock. But the others surprise me. Why do they only feel valuable when they attract attention?
Also read: You don’t talk about menopause as a woman.
The answer is confirmation. These women feel contaminated by the stigma of invisibility. Do they still exist?, they wonder, sometimes it seems not. I know that. Ask something and be airy. Suggest something and the person next to you will get a response. Say something and there will only be a response if someone else says it too, exactly the same. Being greeted at a cafe with: well, there’s no one here again tonight!
That they don’t notice you, that happens to women anyway, today there is even a term for them to cut you off verbally because they don’t value you: man–s-complaining† And for women going through menopause, this is on the rise. They won’t be seen unless they make an effort. And then soon they are called hysterical, screaming, or even attention-seeking.
And then soon they are called hysterical, screaming, or even attention-seeking.
Why do they arouse so much resistance? A woman in menopause is for some synonymous with the fact that we are finite. The transition, that is To be or not to be† Ignore such a woman and not to be Cosmetically disappears, but feels so safe.
Being declared invisible does not leave women intact. Whoever is systematically ignored and/or routinely vomited gets into her shell: Sorry, I’m here, I’m just a little me! Or he defends himself, that’s what happens. With sound. With assertiveness. Or being annoying (which can be very satisfying, I speak from experience). For most women that is too complicated, they choose a different path. If they have a good marriage, they nurture it and maintain a circle of friends with trusted supporters; gender doesn’t matter. And the disdainful mob can climb to the roof. They quietly resume their lives during the transition. They are the women on which museums float. Without which the theaters, the debate centers and the concert halls would be empty and the book industry could tremble. Sometimes they call the gray plague derogatory, but forget it. They dye their hair (grey is for Mediterranean widows) and love their clothes. They are studious and knowledgeable and when they feel like it, they play with their appearance.
Hello. Where are the men in this story? They exist. They follow the same path, although not from taboo to taboo but from glory to glory. That’s how it goes. They become fertile, have an erection for the first time and ejaculate: hard! They are turning 51 and their transition is knocking at the door. it’s called swinging midlife crisis† Now they are less powerful but fertile (they think, often wrongly, but that’s another story) and we will know that too: they want to embark on a manly dream trip with a motorcycle and a guitar. Fresh weather.
These are confusing periods, everyone has to go through them.
But transition or midlife crisisthe hard truth remains that forever Young does not exist and The long and windy road crushed to death.
The world turns away from the woman in menopause, she is no longer allowed to participate. The world regards men in mid-life crises as exciting and even heartwarming. They also become invisible, but in a positive way: their obvious signs of decomposition are not seen, they do not exist. And that is nonsense. I often find older men with a much younger woman ridiculous and I’ve never seen one actually look good in those black leather pants.
But it’s your turn, just like the women. Neither the menopause nor the mid-life crisis is cause for ridicule. These are confusing periods, everyone has to go through them.
I understand that it cannot be biologically interesting to be with a woman from whom no offspring are expected. I don’t understand how it would be biologically interesting to comb menopausal women’s hair and tickle menopause under the chin. That seems cultured manners to me. I am not happy with that. I only know good men and good women. And the rest? I declare it invisible.
Meanwhile, I am getting old. You too. What will that mean, what can we expect? I read The revival of the day (1928), the novel Colette dedicated to her transition and aging. Halfway there I come across a passage that I immediately take seriously. Colette writes: “And what is old age? I’m going to learn that. But when the time comes, I won’t understand.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on March 19, 2022.
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of March 19, 2022.