When I was young I was given two books, Where Do I Come From? and What’s Happening to Me by Peter Mayle.
My parents were liberal about teaching me through books, and answering some questions, but these books only covered reproduction and puberty, in all fairness. No sex, safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases or –god forbid—oral sex was introduced in these books. Nor did my high school teach anything except for how you got pregnant. Taught, of course, by the most awkward male science teacher on the planet.
Last spring, we partnered with Health Education & Promotion to develop programming around sexual empowerment and sex positivity. We wanted to teach students about sexual empowerment and sex positivity but also include the ways in which empowerment can lead to consent as intertwined and important.
At the same time I was jumping head first into a female change of life. And thinking back to what I learned about my “body” growing up, I realized that in all those books I read, they never mentioned there would be this “other” female experience I might be lucky enough to experience if I made it to my late 40s. No wise woman in my life, and I’ve known many of them, handed me a book like my parents did when I was 10 and said “read this, honey.”
I’m sure many women felt uninformed when they started their periods and realized how awful they were. I was lucky on that end with fairly mild cramps and mild bleeding my whole life. And yes I’ve heard the “stories” about the women having hot flashes and mood swings, but only witnessed a woman going through them when I was in a play in 2006. We had to embrace on stage and she was covered in perspiration. After our scene, back stage, I said, “wow, the lights must be really hot out there.” She whispered, “I think I was having a hot flash.” So many other older women in my life must have or do hide it well.
Before starting an over the counter CVS “menopause support” vitamin, suggested to me by a wise woman in my life, I was waking up at least 3-4x a night that I know of. I wake, and for a second wonder why I have woken up, then, almost as swiftly as the thought arrives in my mind, I feel as if someone has thrown a water balloon in my face and my face is drenched. Some nights I wake and I’m just sweating underneath my breasts and between my legs. The other night after I woke, I went to the bathroom and when I climbed back into bed, I noticed the sheets were damp.
I also seem to be dreaming a lot about sex, as if the desire for sex is gone in my waking time, but still exists in my dreams. I am beginning to understand the laissez-faire attitude older women have toward sex and their sexuality. This information would have been helpful, as well. The only book I know that addresses the changes women go through as they age is Ourselves Growing Older by The Boston Women’s Health Collective.
I’ve asked my birthmother about her menopause experience and she only says “my doctor told me there is not such thing as peri-menopause.” And I always ask, “then how do you describe the symptoms of irregular periods, hot flashes and night sweats?” She just shrugs.
What we teach women—and men—about their life experiences around their health is paltry. The numbers of students I work with who have never touched themselves is astonishing. I wonder why school systems stay static in their health educations and don’t even recognize that teaching people about their long-term health experiences would not only be helpful but possibly life changing.
NPR is doing a series called The Changing Lives of Women and yesterday’s story focused on older women and their invisibility. As an add-on they launched the hash tag #GrownLadyCrush and asked listeners to post pictures of their favorite older women, like I did here, of my mentor, bosslady and friend Cynthia Cummings.
This all harkens back to the need for women to have a voice, at every decade of their lives. The silence surrounding the experiences of older women leads women, like me, to enter into their late 40s astonished by our body’s behavior, unsure and confused.
This summer I decided to head back to my favorite community acupuncture clinic to see if they could help with my flashes. I’ve gone almost ever week since. Acupuncture has been the solution so far. But whenever I’m fanning myself from a hot flash, people still look astonished. “How old are you? You’re too young for that!” And I look back at them and say, “Apparently I’m not.”