Transitions can be hard, especially when one has spent decades teetering on shifting sand. With my menopause comes an emptying nest and a great and painful purge of my reproductive potential, accumulated clutter, dreams, and fears.
I am 55 this year, African American, a tenured college professor, a widow, and single mother of two sons. I have been a single parent through most of my years in graduate school and all my years as a professional. I am also a member of the “sandwich generation,” as I am also the sole care provider for my aging mother. But I’ve done it: fulfilled my biological and social purpose and raised two great sons.
The mood swings, depression, brain fog, sleepless hot and sweaty nights, “meno-potbelly,” joint pain, and acid reflux are sporadic and fairly recent arrivals. My abnormally horrific and painful periods ended about 8 years ago when I had my uterus removed: “yay!” for no more fibroids, but also “yikes!” for a predisposition to early osteoporosis, heart disease, and an early death. And with no time (and even less self-protective inclination) to read the instruction manual, and no “man around” around to “fix the plumbing,” we – my home and I – age, slide into social uselessness, accumulate, deteriorate, and now, purge.
So, what does this have to do with Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Menopause Manifesto? During this difficult transition, Gunter’s informative and entertaining history, guided tour, and how-to manual for thriving and surviving menopause has been a revelation to me. The book is, in a word, comprehensive! I learned that the physical and emotional aspects of my own transition are par for the course and largely inevitable, but they are also manageable with the right tools, knowledge, and attitude. I am struck by how little I knew about my own body, and I have recommended this book to friends and family members. I also plan to assign several chapters of this book to students in my Women and Gender Studies courses. We are never too young to learn the truth about our bodies.
I might not have picked up this book were it not for the opportunity to write this essay, and I confess I was a bit put off by the title and cover art. I doubted my experience as an African American woman would be included, and, although many aspects of my experience aren’t addressed here, I have learned more than I thought I would. Moreover, Gunter’s research is wide ranging and exhaustive, and her strong pro-woman voice rings through. I learned that due to my race, body type, BMI, and other socioeconomic factors I am predisposed to experiencing a longer transition, with lower levels of the hormone estradiol and higher than average rates of uterine fibroids. This was, in fact, my own experience as I, like the generic Black woman Gunter writes about, had an early introduction to the menopause transition following a hysterectomy in my mid-forties. In the years since my surgery, I have generally been happy with the results, as my physician’s intervention saved me from years of painful clotting periods. I never assumed, as Gunter speculates, that my doctor’s willingness to perform the risky surgery might have something to do with racism and doctors who “simply care(d) less about Black lives” (58). Had I had more information at the time, I might have at least considered other options.
I also appreciate the warnings and the supplement recommendations, and I am glad that I am not alone in my suffering. Most of what she lists as particular to MWB (menopausing while Black) rings true. There are, however, a few issues I wish she had addressed. Gunter asserts a few times throughout the book that socioeconomic status, especially in the formative years, shapes the menopause experience. I would like to have more insight into this. For too many African American women like myself, menopause comes after years of accumulated stress, physical and emotional baggage, which are the specific experiences that likely contribute to why menopause is so “different for black women.” (For example, see Carolyn Brown and Barbara Levy’s The Black Woman’s Guide to Menopause and the website Menopause Is Different for Women of Color.) More often than for white women, we enter transition carrying the additional physical, emotional, and psychological burden of a lifetime of chronic stress, and we are often navigating this transition alone, raising children and sending them off on their way and caring for aging parents just as menopause hits us. This provides little time for feminist mythologizing, restful reflections, restorative yoga, and affirmations.
We need more information and support; we need more and better ways to access health knowledge. The Menopause Manifesto is an excellent resource, and I am sure I will revisit her for advice and support over the years as I enter the postmenopause phase. I also intend to share this book with others in my sphere of influence.