Celebrating the Fourth Age: Mapping Menopause with Curiosity and Love
Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life is a beautiful and complex book grappling with the experience of menopause. The author interweaves research with her personal experience. What is menopause? What should it be? From the deep discomforts of sleeplessness and hot flashes to her eventual landing place that one might even declare transformative, menopause is dealt with not as an inconvenience or curse but as a pilgrimage. Steinke is driven by the belief that there is more, and she is right — there is room for a new story of menopause.
Steinke is a novelist and memoirist, and it shows through the beautiful and electrifying writing throughout this book. She comfortably moves between telling her own story, often intimately, and confronting the historical and cultural approach to menopause. She ties in details of horrifying past approaches used to try to ward off menopause, including surgical implantation of monkey ovaries in the 1920s, as well as more familiar approaches, such as bioidentical hormones. She also invites the reader briefly into her formative relationships with her daughter and mother.[gblockquote]“My story is like a choral piece with many different parts. In fact there are so many separate but connected narratives that I sometimes feel a temporal vertigo—I am all ages and no age at all” (212).[/gblockquote]
This passage, found near the end of Flash Count Diary, resonates deeply with my experience of middle age. It is disorienting to look across the decades I’ve traveled, and that can make it hard to focus on the moment I am living in. Steinke takes readers on a journey through her experience of menopause, including this temporal vertigo, like a trip with a well-read and well-traveled friend. She isn’t (just) Googling what to do about her hot flashes; she is collecting data, collating experiences, and questioning all the societal baggage that has been carelessly draped around this very personal experience. The hormonal transitions people experience are often private — in more cases than not cloaked with the kind of mystery that invokes more shame than intrigue — and menopause suffers this curse of shame doubly so. Passing through puberty might be a rough ride, but when people come out the other side they’ve moved from childhood to adulthood. As Steinke points out, “No one proposes we eliminate childhood, adolescence, or adulthood from the female life cycle. Only menopause is considered something to be cured and reversed, done away with completely” (56). Where does one arrive when they reach menopause? Steinke wants to figure it out and share her discoveries with her readers.
On the one hand, it feels like people are always renegotiating their relationship with their concepts of themselves and with their bodies. Personally, I want to appreciate the opportunity that this might be – but with the fatigue, and hot flashes, and associated joys that hormonal changes have brought me, it can be hard to see menopause in that way. This book helped me to bring together those complex strands that make up this experience. A significant part of the author’s physical journey is to the Pacific Northwest (where I live) to visit the Southern Resident Orcas, an endangered extended family of orcas that are both bellwethers of the damages of human driven climate change and some of the only other animals on Earth to experience menopause. Steinke looks to the orcas for guidance, a search for connection I initially was a little uncomfortable with but eventually came to appreciate. I get nervous when people anthropomorphize to understand human biology because it can so easily slide into false explanations deploying “naturalness” to excuse rather than explain human behavior, but Steinke pulls back from that ledge without falling over it. She recognizes the human urge to turn to nature for explanations without wallowing in it or using it to assert some false truth. But she also learns from the orcas in J pod that she observes: “The wild matriarchs have given me hope …. They demonstrate to me what no human woman could: that it is not menopause itself that is the problem but menopause as it’s experienced under patriarchy” (215–6).
Steinke goes back and forth between trying to understand her physical symptoms and confronting the changes in how she is seeing herself in the world. She touches repeatedly on the rage of women and how her own rage is becoming more accessible. She explores how she feels expected to suppress this rage to protect others or to be cast out to protect them. Several books have come out in the last several years speaking directly to the power of women’s anger. From Rebecca Traister’s look at anger as a shaping political force in Good and Mad, to the way rage gets mediated over the lifetime of a woman in Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly, to a very personal account by Brittney Cooper about anger and her relationship to it, especially as a black woman and an academic, in Eloquent Rage — some might say exposing, examining, and even celebrating the anger women experience is having a moment. This book is at least adjacent to these other contributions amplifying women’s voices and making room for a larger collection of emotional experiences to be heard. While exploring the experience of transgender folks transitioning through hormones, Steinke identifies with the ease of accessing anger as estrogen is removed. “I also feel angry more often,” she tells us, “a menopausal condition that doctors classify as hormonal irritability but that I’m starting to see as a gateway to authenticity” (88). When society makes room for this authenticity, the world is made a richer place. By the end, it feels like Steinke is beginning not only to find her peace with her body’s transformations but also to feel the power of experiencing a newly authentic version of herself.
Just a few months ago, The Highwomen, four country musicians and songwriters who are grown-ass women making room for the rest of us, released their first self-titled album. One song, “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” seemed to echo Flash Count’s celebration of how femininity might look outside the standard patriarchal frame.[gblockquote]Today I didn’t listen to the voice inside my head
I peeled out of the driveway left my family in bed
Know it wouldn’t be easier to just quit the road and stay home
I’d lose myself inside the halls, unsatisfied and alone.[/gblockquote]
Darcey Steinke has written a book for the women who aren’t comfortable staying home, unsatisfied and alone, listening to the messages about what being a menopausal woman should look like or feel like. “Since I’ve stopped my struggle to be beautiful,” she says, “I am overtaken by beauty more often” (93). She provides a new framework to consider the experience of menopause — historically informed and emotionally grounded. For me, I’m grateful she’s given me a starting place for my own adventure into the next decade in this grown body of mine.
Sarah Tuttle is a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. During the day she builds spectrographs for ground-based and sub-orbital telescopes, and studies galaxy formation and evolution. She simultaneously frets about how to build community while fostering healthy selves, how she's going to get her kid to clarinet lessons, and figuring out when she can juggle again. Her activism is is a mix of understanding reshaping the sciences using a feminist & anti-racist framework, reproductive justice and abortion funding, and being an anti-fascist Jew.