I won’t be a Martyr to Menopause

images-3

 

Overtime, this blog has focussed on writing-related topics, but not today. Today I’m venturing into a quite different area although, I expect normal service to resume shortly. So if for any reason, you’re not interested in reading about  menopause, look away now.

If you’re still with me, make yourself comfortable. But perhaps from a safe distance – I could get loud.

Menopause rarely rates a mention in the media, it’s not a ‘sexy’, topic, unlike say, Miley Cyrus and whether she’s moved on from twerking and entered the sexual terrain of S&M a la Fifty Shades of Grey (yawn). However, link menopause to cancer and that’s different, especially if you can run a headline that screams – ‘ Women on HRT face increased risk of Ovarian Cancer’. Or, as in the case of last Saturday’s SBS evening news, a whole item devoted to the fact that one extra woman in every 1000 has an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer, if you’re over 50 and have been on HRT for more than 5 years. Granted, I don’t want to be the one extra woman, but I’m happy to take my chances in the lottery with the other 999 women.

I am in no way suggesting that this shouldn’t have been made public via the news or that women shouldn’t have such facts available to them when weighing the pros and cons of taking HRT. It’s the method of reporting, particularly the stereotyping of what it is to have menopause. Or not even using the word menopause in the entire report.

Whilst I have to accept I was sucked in by the screaming headline, the words ‘slight risk’ were not added until the actual report was introduced. Let’s open with the learned Professor talking studies, statistics and nodding knowledgeably.  He of course  also repeated the known fact that HRT is also linked to Breast Cancer, but didn’t mention that it’s also been linked to a decrease in heart disease.

images-5

Next cut to Bryher (real name). Bryher is a woman in her 60’s the male voice over tells us and goes on to say in astonished tones, that she has so much energy because of HRT she’s even started her own business. Fancy that, a woman in her 60’s starting her own business. Bryher was a very articulate woman and spoke positively of the relief from night sweats, hot flushes and her renewed energy since taking HRT.

Then cut to a radio studio where a male presenter was reading out a text from a listener who – ‘threw the packet in the bin and toughed it out.’

I don’t happen to be British and don’t share that ‘ we’ll fight them on the beaches’, stiff upper lip stoicism. In fact, when dealing with my own perimenopausal symptoms, my upper lip was quivering, jelly-like, and as for toughing it out – that was not an option.

One of the problems with the SBS report, and so many others, was the use of night sweats and hot flushes as being the only symptoms facing menopausal women, and if this was the case, ‘toughing it out’ may be possible. Nor was there  an explanation that what is usually referred to as ‘menopause’ is actually ‘perimenopause.’

images-2

And here’s where I start getting loud. All women will experience menopause. It is what happens to us and it’s a little more complicated than a batty, middle-aged woman suffering hot flushes and a low (non-existent) libido. How many women are educated about this fundamental transition in their lives, until they find themselves suffering a multiplicity of symptoms that start way before the average age of menopause at 51?

Bugger all, I’m guessing.

So, let’s get some terms defined. Menopause is only confirmed when a woman has naturally stopped menstruating for 12 months. What most women refer to as Menopause is actually the perimenopausal stage which can begin in your late 30’s – early 40’s. It can be as mercifully quick as 1 year or as excruciatingly long as ten years. There is a dazzling array  of up to 34 symptoms.Yes you read that right, 34.

I reckon I’m going to push it out to the full 10 years I’ve been experiencing symptoms for the past 7 years or so and I haven’ even reached the jackpot of night sweats, insomnia and hot flushes.

Given my extensive experience, I’m going to share (overshare, you may think, but it’s that kind of post) some of my symptoms caused by the monthly roller-coaster of oestrogen levels in my system.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but my periods became heavier and more painful. Previously, they’d come and they’d gone, sometimes my best friend (yay! I’m not pregnant) and sometimes the evidence that dashed my greatest hope (I’m not pregnant). But they never affected my daily life.

Unlike Rage. Not the ABC late-night music show, or partying hard. Oh no. This was an irrational rage that took over my psyche every month. It was as if a switch would flick and one morning I would wake up felling like Linda Blair in The Exorcist (without the 360 head spin or projectile vomiting). On these days there was nothing that my family, especially my husband, could do right. Whilst The Exorcist persona lasted, I was a tense ball of angry energy and even a quite innocent remark or the wrong look could cause an explosion. ‘No one knows how much I suffer or how much I’ve been taken for granted. And don’t even think about sex, in fact, don’t touch me at all.’ Fun, right? And then 24 – 48 hours later the switch flicked and I was back to my usual sweet as Heidi demeanour. I was very relieved to discover that The Exorcist persona was known to other women. My Mum described it as ‘walking the razor’s edge.’

images-4

A less common symptom is depression. If you suffer from a history of depression, as I do, to have it exacerbated by perimenopausal oestrogen fluctuations was devastating. Hormonal depression grabs hold of you and slowly squeezes out the joy, motivation, energy and the desire to open your door and leave the house. At its worst, the pain sat so heavily on  my soul that the idea of walking into Sydney Harbour and drifting away seemed like a credible option.

Anti-depressants and counselling only did so much, they helped me to function again. But I wasn’t well. My GP was about to refer me to a psychiatrist for mood stabiliser medication, when an older woman I knew suggested I needed oestrogen. ‘Take the oestrogen,’ she said. ‘You’ll feel better in 2-3 days.’ It sounded like the schtick of a snake-oil charmer, but I was desperate.

The HRT did indeed have a dramatic impact. I was energised and stabilised. I crawled out of the abyss and began to participate in life again. The rage returned to its own black hole and my periods are back to being a monthly, annoying irritant.

My perimenopause was not something to tough out bravely. I’m extremely grateful that a daily tablet has so fundamentally changed my life, like the contraceptive pill. In previous eras there is every chance I would’ve become a Valium-addicted housewife, another institutionalised woman or a suicide statistic. Perhaps I am exposing myself to an increase in the risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer, but against my quality of life right now, it’s a risk I’m prepared to take.

I appreciate that my experience is at the extreme end of the spectrum, but it’s not so uncommon. We need to start sharing our experiences with our friends, taking comfort from the knowledge that you are not going crazy or suffering alone.

More importantly, we need to educate our daughters. Of course I was told about menopause, but my take as an adolescent was probably ‘one day, when you’re really old, your period stops and you can’t have a baby anymore’. But that isn’t enough. Maybe the sexual education of our daughters needs a complete overall. Girls should know that sex is not just a procreational activity, they have a right to enjoy sex on their terms. They should be taught that their fertility will start to decline in their 30’s and sometimes rapidly. They need to know that menopause will be as fundamental to their lives as their periods, and that the perimenopause stage could last for sometime.

All is not doom and gloom, however. Post-menopausal women assure that me they feel truly liberated and enjoy a new-found relish for life.

Bring it on, I say. Meanwhile, pass me the HRT.

A couple of helpful websites are:- The Royal Women’s Hospital and the Australian Menopause Centre

 

Advertisements

In Praise of Women Who Write

A friend of mine, who is also a writer, lent me her copy of a beautiful book, Women Who Write, by Stefan Bollam. a celebration, an acknowledgement, a history  of female writers.

Many names in the book are instantly recognizable, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, The Bronte Sisters, Dorothy Parker. But there are many whose names were not known to me, which may say more about my ignorance than anything else.

The book is not only a recognition of the extraordinary legacy of women writers, it is also a reminder that a woman’s ability to choose a writing career has never been easy and was often socially unacceptable.

In her foreword, Francine Prose argues, ‘everything that a woman is traditionally supposed to be – retiring, submissive, reassuringly unobservant, endlessly forgiving, deaf, dumb and blind … is precisely the opposite of the personal qualities required to be a writer.’

Many women writers have to fight for the space, both physically and mentally, to be able to write as they juggle motherhood, work and the expectations of those around them. As Francine Prose so eloquently states, ‘the ability to describe the world or to create another world, to tell the truth worth telling, has, after all, everything to do with talent and intelligence, spirit and soul, and nothing to do with our reproductive organs.’

So, in honour and praise of women who have gone before me, who struggled not only with words, but for their right to make their mark on paper, here is my list of 10 of the women writers I discovered reading this book.

  1. Christine de Pisan (1364 -1430). Christine de Pisan could well have been the first professional female writer. Widowed, she needed to support her family and began work as a copyist. She moved on to become an author, running her own scriptorium. She is regarded as the forerunner of women in writing, from writers to publishers.

    Christine de Pisan

  2. Rahel Varnhagen (1771 – 1833) As a young German Jewish woman, Rahel Levin travelled and published anonymously. She didn’t marry until she was 43. Although her salons were frequented by aristocrats and artists, it was not until after her death that she became more widely known through her book Rahel: A Book of Memory and Friends. Of her writing she said, ‘Our language is our life as we live it; I have invented my own life, and so I have not been able to use ready-made expressions … mine are  often clumsy … but always genuine.’

    Rahel Varnhagen

  3. Bettina Von Armin (1785 – 1839) Married to German writer, Archim Von Armin, Bettina did not ‘come out’ as a writer until four years after his death. She was 50. She edited and published her correspondence between Goethe and his mother, the writer Karoline Von Gunderrrode and her brother, the writer Clemens Brentano. The Brothers’ Grimm dedicated their collection of Fairy Tales to her. She used her childhood as inspiration, a time when her soul could ‘leap to some dance music within myself, which I could hear but others can’t.’

    Bettina Von Armin

  4. Bozema Nemcovà (1820 – 1862) Nemcovà’s first language was German, but she married a Czech when she was 21 and taught herself to read Czech and learn its spelling and grammar. Although she had many lovers, she never found real love with men, ‘the emptiness in her heart’ was filled by writing, ‘It lighted the way for me, and I followed it.’ Her most famous book is The Grandmother. After her death, Nemcovà became a Czech national legend.

    Bozema Nemcova

  5. Else Lasker-Schüler (1869 – 1945) Lasker-Schüler was an eccentric, a poet and part of the Expressionist movement. She gave herself, and her friends, fantasy names and loved dressing up, ‘we can play – playing is everything.’ But there was a darker side to Lasker-Schüler, she once said of herself, ‘I am the last nuance of desolation.’ In May 1933, her books were thrown on the Nazi bonfires. A ‘degenerate’ and Jewish she fled to Switzerland and lived out her life in Jerusalem. Her last collection of poetry is My Blue Piano.

    Else Lasker-Schuler

  6. Milena Jesenská (1896 – 1944) Jesenská, from Prague, worked as a journalist in Vienna. Her articles were on culture and society and were written in a style derived from letter-writing. Of her writing, she said she could really only write love letters, ‘ultimately, that is what all my articles are.’ Her work had drawn her into a left-wing, avant-garde circle and her writing became increasingly political. In 1940. she was deported to Ravensbrück for writing for a banned journal. She died there 4 years later. ‘She is a living fire such as I have never seen.’ – Franz Kafka.

    Milena Jesenska

  7. Ingeborg Bachmann (1926 – 1973) Bachmann was an Austrian poet, who was not only a comtemporary of Sylvia Plath, she shares many of her essential features as a writer. Bachmann said of Plath that she was one of those writers ‘who have experienced hell’, recognizing a kindred spirit. Her poetry considered the pain and suffering of humans, in Songs of Exile she wrote – ‘But I lie alone/Hemmed in by ice and covered in wounds.’ The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is awarded annually and is one of Germany’s most prestigious literary prizes.

    Ingeborg Bachmann

  8. Carson McCullers (1917 – 1967) One of the leading writers of American Southern Gothic Literature. She had success at a young age with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. At the age of 24 she suffered her first stroke, followed by several others. From the age of 31, she was entirely paralysed down her left side. McCullers finished her final novel, Clock Without Hands, but died before finishing her autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, which she was dictating.

    Carson McCullers

  9. Assia Djebar (b.1936) Fatma-Zohra Imalayen adopted the pseudonym Assia Djebar at the age of 20 when she was first offered a contract with a Paris-based publisher. She is an Algerian writer and film maker who in an interview said,’Writing about yourself puts you in mortal danger.’ Educated in the French education system, she eventually left Algeria in 1980, ‘because I, as a woman, wanted to write’. She was made a member of the Academie Française in 2005.

    Assia Djerbar

  10. Zeruya Shalev(b.1959) Is an Israeli author. She has an MA in Biblical Studies and works as Literary editor at Keter Publisihing. Shalev has published 5 novels, a book of poetry and children’s book. Her trilogy, Love Life, Husband and Wife and Late Family, all received critical acclaim. Love Life was listed in Der Spiegel’s list of “20 Best Novels in World Literature” in the last 40 years. Husband and Wife was included in the French Fnac list of the “200 Best Books of the Decade.”

    Zeruya Shalev

And here is a list of my favourite women who write:-

  • Jane Austen
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Lily Brett
  • The Bronte Sisters
  • Colette
  • Elizabeth Jolley
  • Margo Lanagan
  • Hilary Mantel
  • Dorothy Parker
  • Beatrix Potter
  • JK Rowling

Women Who Write is available through the Book Depository

Images are taken from the book.

All’s Fair in Love and War… but not Women’s Pay.

The Box Factory*

I’m wondering if I may have done my older daughters a disservice. I raised them to believe that with an education and belief in their abilities as a person, they could achieve success and realise their ambitions.  Whatever they may be. I didn’t think I needed to warn them that as they entered the workforce they would be fighting gender inequity, the boys club and sexual harassment. These were in the past, battles already won by women strapping on their Armani armour and conquering the male-dominated world of work. That women as individuals and workers would be afforded the same intrinsic value as men. Feminists could quietly retire and leave the new generation to get on with their lives.

If only it were true.

Here are some sobering statistics about the reality of Australian women’s lives.

Women make up 45% of Australia’s workforce. But according to the Australian Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (AEOWWA), only 3% of CEOs are female, 8% of senior executives and 13% of the board membership of Australia’s top companies are women.

Women’s average full-time weekly earnings are now 17.2% less than their male counterparts and the gap is widening. When part-time and casual work is taken into consideration, the total earnings gap is 34%.

Australian women are 21/2 times more likely to live in poverty during their old age than men. By 2019, women will have only half the amount of superannuation than men.

And if you think we’re not doing too badly by world standards, think again. The World Economic Forum released its Fifth Annual Report on World Gender Equality in October 2010. Overall, Australia scored 72% for gender equality. Iceland scored 85 %, Norway 84% and New Zealand 78%. Surprisingly, The Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Mozambique all ranked higher than Australia.

  • Economic Participation and Opportunity – Australia ranked 24th, New Zealand 9th
  • Political Empowerment – Australia 39th, coming in behind Bangladesh, Angola, Nepal, Malawi and New Zealand (8th)
  • Health and Survival. Well, we should be fine here shouldn’t we? Um, no. Australian women ranked an appalling 73rd. Who’s healthier? Moldova, Mongolia, Guyana and Kazakhstan. But at least we do much better than New Zealand, they ranked a lowly 91st.
  • Not so surprisingly, Australia ranked equal 1st (along with 22 other countries) for providing educational opportunities for our girls.

So, if we are investing in the education of our girls, what goes wrong? The AEOWWA cites stereotypical views about women’s abilities and roles, the often segregated work of women, the unequal distribution of overtime, discretionary pay and allowances and promotions, caring responsibilities and the low value placed on the work women do.

The minimum wage in Australia is $15.51. The basic hourly rate for a childcare worker is $17.65.  We place little worth on the most fundamental of roles, raising our children. It is primarily viewed as women’s work, as are domestic chores in general. It is still men, or the perceived masculine role, to enter the workforce and undertake ‘real’ work. Until we honour and respect the carers of our children, the elderly and disabled (overwhelmingly women) then I don’t believe women will be treated as equals in the workplace.

Women do the work that is at the heart of our society for free, but often at considerable cost to their careers and sometimes their own emotional well-being. If women were to be paid for running their households, raising children, taking time off or early retirement to look after elderly parents, what value would we give it?

Australia has a long way to go. Australian women still have a fight on our hands. It really isn’t much to ask that we be compensated fairly for the work that we do in the workforce and respected for the work we do in our homes.

*Image Credit

The unofficial Part One to this Post can be read here.

What’s your Value?

I turned 49 the other week and I’ve been considering writing a post about how I feel at the end of my 40’s. Surprisingly, I feel less nervous approaching 50 than I did 40, I’m far more comfortable in my own skin.  But then my 23 year-old daughter posted this on Facebook:-

‘a boy in my class said this today “Women are depreciating commodities. Their value decreases with age, no offence girls.” This is a disturbingly accurate assessment of how women are viewed.’

I suggested my daughter hand him some Viagra to remind him of his own decreasing value.

It’s just so insulting on so many levels. To describe anyone as a ‘commodity’ is so utterly dehumanizing and reminds me of the way Peter Costello, one-time Australian Treasurer, referred to children as ‘economic units’. I am not a commodity to be traded alongside coffee by anonymous brokers sitting behind their glowing computer screens.  I didn’t have children so they could be productive cogs in the free market wheel.

As much as it pains me, I have to admit this young uni student has a point. It’s sexist and ageist, but a commonly held view. Women have an expiry date. Our best before date is somewhere before the grey hairs, sagging breasts, dimpled thighs and crows feet start to show. Our lack of youthfulness is deemed unsexy, undesirable and worse, a reminder of aging and mortality. Slowly, we become invisible.

I have long thought that young women smugly assume the fight is over, that Feminism is the new F-word. They have confused raunch culture and the pornification of our society as empowerment and equality, allowing men to have the last laugh at our expense. Women have  won the right to vote, work and control their fertility in most of the developed world. Yet we have become even more burdened as we juggle the demands of child-rearing, work and relationships. With the expectation that we will perform these tasks whilst looking trim, taut, unfrazzled and fuckable.

Feminism isn’t just about bra-burning and dungarees. Women still gather on the street in protest at events like Slutwalk. It’s about fighting the objectification of young girls in the Toddlers and Tiaras Pageant world. It’s about music videos, billboards and photoshopping. It’s about sexting. I could be wrong, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of adolescent males photographing their penis for the titillation of young women.

Society has long-feared the older woman. Most witches subjected to burning at the stake or the ducking-stool, were older women, very often midwives. Women who were bearers of knowledge and wisdom. Women who threatened the male status-quo. These days, older women are subjected to more subtle forms of degradation via the use of cosmetic surgery and have their value eroded by middle-aged, overweight marketing executives. And still we women buy into it, often our most savage critics putting celebrities in the stocks of the new village square; gossip magazines and websites.

I know there are problems with being pre-menopausal, menopausal and post-menopausal, but I really enjoy my age. I have no desire to use Botox, or other forms of cosmetic surgery to maintain a facade of youthfulness. Although, I do confess to dyeing away the grey hairs and plucking those damned annoying chin hairs. It’s only when I notice the lines cruelly highlighted by the sun, the softening jawline captured in a photo, that I appreciate how age shows on my face, the back of my hands.

I’m emotionally far braver than I was as a young person. I make tougher decisions about bigger issues. I know the pain of divorce and the difficulty of being a single parent. I have raised two children to young adulthood and am helping a third just starting on her way. I have loved, been loved  and remarried.I have maintained lifelong friendships. I know the joy of triumph and the darkness of depression.Two weeks ago, I spent four days in a hospital helping my mother-in-law die, supporting my husband as he learnt to let go.

I couldn’t have coped with these things 30 years ago when my toughest decision was which party to go to on a Saturday night. So I would have to say, that my value as a commodity has greatly increased. My physical value in the eyes of the immature may be decreasing, but my emotional worth has increased significantly. And for me, that is the testament of a person’s true value.

But don’t just take my word for it, here’s what my elders have to say.

Germaine Greer - 72

‘A grown woman should not have to masquerade as a girl in order to remain in the land of the living.’

Vanessa Redgrave - 74

‘Women are penalised [for aging]. Women are dealt with very harshly in ageist terms in many industries.’

Sophia Loren - 76

‘There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.’

Gloria Steinem - 77

‘Women may be the one group who grow more radical with age.’

Rita Moreno - 79

‘People tell me I look good these days. I look good because I feel good. I know people older than me who are 25. It’s all about attitude.’

Susan Sarandon - 63

‘I look forward to being older, when what you look like becomes less and less an issue and what you are is the point.’