Becoming fifty was a triumphal and splendid landmark. I marked it in ritual fashion, fasting on a Welsh mountain and passing a very dark night. The following day I visited an ancient stone circle, and descended with power coursing through me, and carrying grave responsibility.
A few months passed before this responsibility became clear, when I felt myself called to stand for parliament – a role which regularly took me out of my usual comfort zone. I was able to operate from a deep sense of having been allocated the task, of being held and supported in carrying it out. And I didn’t just operate; at times, it felt like I was flying.
I shall soon be 51, and I find myself sailing erratically away from the shores of the first part of my life. I’m not called to any grand task. Actually, I’m deeply unsure of myself and my direction, and such uncertainty threatens to undermine my effectiveness in the world. I’ve looked for explanations, such as post-election fatigue. But I have also gently begun to ask myself: is this the beginning of menopause?
My cycle is still regular, though for the last year or so I’ve noticed some ‘creep’: each month, it advances a day, or two, or three. After 36 years, I can’t plan holidays and other events around my period (which is increasingly a time of purdah, for reasons both physical and emotional). But more disruptive are occasions of cognitive meltdown: wrong turnings when I’m driving, forgetting what I was doing, and so on. Each time, these incidents surprise me. Sometimes they are funny. But not always. They can range from amusing to inconvenient through to screamingly, hair-tearingly frustrating. I’m told that rosemary helps with memory, so I keep a fresh sprig nearby.
Also disturbing is a sense of being pared right back to a vulnerable and deskilled rawness. Again and again. I first experienced this stripping down over three years ago. I learned to trust the process, sit it out… and eventually something new would emerge; good work. But this time … some days I have a deep conviction that I no longer know anything worth knowing, or have anything worthwhile to offer (and maybe never did).
More than ever, destruction and suffering in the world are overwhelming. At times I suspect that I no longer care. And yet there is always a thread of me that sparks back into life. It knows my work here is to support life, creativity and wellbeing, and knows how I do it best.
At times, I have no faith in any thing or any one, and I fully expect the world to have no faith in me, either. For a cynic, this might be unsettling; for an idealist, it can feel hopeless. Yet there are times when I do believe in kindness, grace and love: when I experience them (which happens more often when I risk seeking them).
A friend advised: when feeling hopeless, do delightful things. It’s good advice. I face the world more eagerly if I start the day walking somewhere beautiful rather than absorbing horror stories on Facebook about climate change or factory farming. But if the swamps of sadness have already claimed me for the day, trying to do delightful things is pointless because I have no capacity for delight.
Working is good, because I am fortunate enough to have work I love. It evokes my energy and passion, and restores a sense of skill. But I need space in between. I need to keep things relatively simple. It’s as if some enormous, organic process is slowly unfolding inside me, leaving me with little energy and focus for the outer world.
Naturally, each woman’s experience is different. Some are more affected than others; some notice the effects more than others. Practical and decisive women are often alarmed to find themselves impractical and indecisive, even weepy. Those who are already tender-hearted and prone to sadness can find their sensitivity almost unbearably heightened.
Someone recently observed that the world must be full of women covering up menopause. In my work I see that this is true: women hiding an upheaval of mind, body and soul from colleagues, from their families, and sometimes even from themselves. And they hide it for good reasons. Some feel intensely private about this timeless, sacred ritual. Some fear that they will be judged, or thought weak. And often they are right.
It’s not only men who can lack tolerance for the concept of menopause (and of course men can go through similar transformations). Young women grow impatient, perhaps fearful at some level of the journey they know they too must make one day. And many menopausal women deny their own experience. In what feels like a competitive, pitiless world, they vehemently reject the suggestion that menopause (or indeed menstruation) can affect behaviour and competence. But although the depth of menopause can drive amazing, creative work, it can also be frighteningly debilitating.
Equality doesn’t mean we are all the same. In fact, that particular feminist interpretation of equality has robbed women of the ability to recognise and honour their own and others’ important rite of passage, forcing it into shadow.
Can we find a way of acknowledging menopause, and indeed other transformational, hormone-rich times, in a way that is authentic, respectful and mutually supportive?
Suppose workplaces offered the option of Menopause Leave, or temporarily reduced hours, or temporary changes of task? Or responded with compassion to uncontrolled weeping? Many workplaces aim to be flexible, able to adapt to complexity. But what we call flexibility and adaptability are often only structural tweaks to a rigid traditional framework. A step towards working truly effectively with complexity is to respond creatively to the powerful, hidden emotional and bodily fluctuations of being human.
As I begin this important, turbulent crossing of unknown breadth, I’m guided by the many voices of women who have crossed before me. The losses and grief they speak of are balanced by stories of unexpected treasure – some reclaimed, some never before even dreamed of. And from their various tales, I take this precious reminder: my voyage will be smoother if I focus not on trying to grasp a slippery rudder, but on softening my grip that I might ride the waves with as much ease and grace as possible, until I reach that mysterious new shore.