Menopause – from Gloom to Optimism

Around the time of midlife, women face what feels like the perfect storm as our meticulously arranged lives start to unravel. Disappearing fertility brings with it the stark realization of our own mortality. Personal illnesses or physical limitations may set in. Our bodies are changing in ways that can be devastating to accept. That voice in our heads questions our relevance, even if we have no desire for childbearing, asking, “If I’m not fertile, then who am I? Am I officially old now?” (I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I received an introductory mail offer from AARP right after my 50th birthday.) Our children are often struggling or leaving, aging parents may be sick or dying. Relationships are changing, and our careers are either as far as they will go or coming to an end. Combine these forces with a raging storm of hormonal change, and we are standing at a fork in the road. We have a choice. Either wake up, accept and embrace the wondrous possibilities of this new reality or pile on more delusion and denial.

Like most of my patients, I had been stuck in the latter until I suddenly – literally overnight – became intensely aware of the optimism and hope that had been a giant blind spot for me. Instead of seeing the second half of life as an end to everything I valued, I sensed a vast openness of limitless possibility and freedom from the endless hamster wheel that had occupied most of my previous life.

This is an idea worth talking about. After more than 20 years as an expert in women’s health, I can tell you with absolute certainty that most of us are missing out on this great truth and the hope it offers: Our best life, including our sexual life, doesn’t have to end at 50, 60 or 70. The truth is, it has the potential to grow richer and fuller with every moment we’re blessed to be alive.

As I talked with my patients in my landmark 2018-19 study that I call the “Menopause and Relationships Study” (or MRS study) I identified a group of women who I playfully named the “sexually woke,”- women who had come to terms with menopause and had found this to be the best time of their lives- sexually, spiritually and relationally.  This theme came up over and over again. These women did not complain about aging, rather they appreciated their newfound wisdom and freedom, and universally described this as the best time of their lives. Surprisingly to me, many women shared similar images and metaphors to describe their own awakening. In Robin’s words:

“The idea of the fullness in life when we are younger is paradoxical because we tend to think of fullness related to success, achievement, money and status. Then, we find the futility when we get to menopause – the futility of trying to hold it all together. The first half of my life, I felt like I was building a very solid structure. That gave me some comfort. But then we literally start to see our bodies fall apart and realize that it’s all falling apart, really. That solid structure was not based in anything real. My new house got old, my perfect kids grew up and didn’t do what the plan dictated, and my marriage fell apart. For me, the acceptance of that and letting go of the fantasy of solidity really let me enter the fullness of life. With the solidity of the walls I had created, I had no access to other possibilities. I was pretty delusional that life was solid.

After my divorce, I was free … finally free to have that fullness of life and be available to meet someone I could be my full self with as my full sexual being. I’m 55, and life has never been better. As for sex, I’m only just beginning to find out where I can go with that. There’s no roadmap, no walls. I can do wherever I want. It’s beautiful.

All of a sudden you have some space. You can finally ask those questions like, “What am I really here to do?” With that space to reflect, you can integrate yourself, pull all those pieces together, and really show up. People might call it a midlife crisis, saying, “Oh, she went nuts, left her husband, and moved to France.” But I don’t think that’s what it is. It’s an awakening. More like, “Oh, I’ve only been half here all this time.” When you’ve cut off your sexual being and then find it, it’s like you’ve been walking around without one arm then realizing that you have both. “Wow! Look at all these things I can do now with two arms!”

Alexa shares another beautiful metaphor:

“I think of my sexuality as a sea snail, the kind with the coiled shell. For most of my life, my sexuality had lived inside a shell. For one thing, it’s not safe to be gay, so I hid. But now when I feel safe and happy, the snail will venture out of her shell and start to venture across the ocean floor and explore this unknown new world. I used to think the shell was a prison, but it’s really just a place to be safe if there’s real harm around. When I feel safe, there’s a door that I can venture out of and go as far as I want.

I’m 61, and I was thinking about women my age whose sexuality has gone out like the tide, or at least they think it has. Then I started thinking about spaciousness, to live in the spaciousness of the unknown, of possibility. Inside the shell can feel safer, but I think an existence with spaciousness is what we are hopefully evolving into. There’s this ‘letting go of certainty’ aspect in sexuality that mirrors letting go into the spiritual life. For me, I think that’s how those two come together. There’s a huge element of letting go around the time of menopause. The reality of our finite life can be very freeing. There’s a letting go of needing to be a certain way, the way that conforms to being young. Instead of framing that as loss, to me it’s letting go of a whole lot of baggage and realizing your shell has a door. It’s freedom.”

I was amazed at how frequently words like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’ were used by the sexually woke in relation to midlife. This certainly wasn’t what I was taught! Freedom came in many forms: freedom from limiting beliefs, freedom from fear of pregnancy and even freedom to make more noise or be more spontaneous without family in the house. Christine adds:

“Sex is so liberating now. I am past the baby stage. There’s no more waiting for a period to either get here or not and no more worrying about getting pregnant. I know what I like, and we are comfortable with each other. His body knows my body, it ‘listens’ and it’s learned when to move left or right, keep going, stop or try something else. Although we talk openly about sex, sometimes he just knows exactly what to do by the way my body is responding. It’s like we are in our 20s again but better because we’ve both learned so much and look forward to just being together.”

As Caitlin describes:

“It seems to me there are two possibilities. One is that you are still in a fog of years of youthful, idiotic, and delusional thinking, not really understanding things. On the other hand, now with some years and experience under your belt, you have a certain strength, clarity, and wisdom. I am starting to understand things. In the old days, they would have called me a crone. The wise old woman that the village would go to for advice. But maybe I can be a sexy crone. I feel better than ever. I don’t care so much what other people think. I am free to be myself. I can have sex with my husband, and I am all here.”

Another kind of freedom was described in several ways by the sexually woke: freedom from the male ‘gaze.’ This was one type of freedom that had not occurred to me previously. I work in an almost entirely female world. My patients and co-workers are women, and rarely does discomfort with issues like sexual harassment and personal safety come up in my professional world. But for many women, this has been a constant reality that thankfully fades with age. Maryann puts it this way:

“I just think midlife comes with a sort of ease, a comfort in your own being. I still have some body image issues but way less than when I was young. It’s the ease with which we wear our lives. I can ‘wear my life as a loose garment.’ I like that saying. It’s not giving up; it’s letting go. I no longer have to look good for men, I’m not getting catcalls when I walk down the street and I’m not getting hit on at work. I’m not getting harassed. There’s so much freedom in that. I’m not a slave to my period or to anyone else. I don’t have to live up to some ridiculous standard that has us measure ourselves through the eyes of men. Now I can measure myself with my own stick. I look good for myself.”

No Time to Rush

Tara Brach is one of my favorite authors, speakers, and teachers. A long-time psychotherapist, she shared a story from one of her clients who had been diagnosed with cancer and told that her life would be cut short. Suddenly realizing the importance of every day, she told Tara that instead of rushing to get things done in her limited time, she slowed down to savor each moment. “I have no time to rush,” she said. While Tara didn’t share about this woman’s sex life, one can imagine that it grew richer and more fulfilling, as did every aspect of life.

One common realization in midlife is that we are all going to die. Even you. Even me. A common cultural response to this realization is to try to deny it, backpedaling furiously to try to be younger, fueled by the fear that I don’t have enough time. But for the sexually woke, the universal response was something different. Back to the idea of love and fear, they approached their limited time with a sense of love, openness, and ease. In Kimberly’s words:

“I think there are two choices when we go through menopause. There’s, ‘Oh God. I’m going to die soon’ with a negative, fearful view of the future. Like, ‘I’m old now, so I may as well give up.’ That’s pretty bleak. But the other way is, ‘Oh gosh. We don’t have forever. Let’s make the most out of every moment.’ Every day is more precious. It opens you up to see the things that have been there all the time and let go of the stuff that makes you miserable. One day, one of us will not be here. I don’t worry about the little things anymore. I let them go. Life is too short to bicker. We don’t want to have regrets that we didn’t take the opportunity to enjoy each other and give to each other. I think that’s what we realized as we got older. I wouldn’t trade this time in my life for anything at all.”

Live from Abundance

All of these accounts seem to point to one thing: a shift from a scarcity mentality based in fear, to an abundance mentality based in love and freedom. Whatever metaphor was used – emerging from a box or a tunnel, coming out of a shell, finding freedom and spaciousness, becoming more present in the moment, having more peace and ease –we don’t have to see ourselves as old and irrelevant. They did not view their lives as being over; rather they had a strong sense of a new beginning. Reverend Linda sums this up so well.

“I remember having joyful, completely free sex when we were trying to have a baby. It was a very liberating time.You’re kind of going to that creative place. But I think post-menopausal sex is also about liberation. It’s not about procreation anymore, but it’s expressive of the things, other longings. A word we use in the marriage rite is ‘cherish.’ In this season, I am really coming to cherish my husband. I’m almost 60, and I’ve been so aware that he’s not going to be around forever. The sense of preciousness around that is really interesting to me. From a theological perspective, sex is generative but not just in the way of procreation. It should give you life and give life to others through your love for each other.

In our tradition, we talk about the ‘three goods’ of marriage, which are also in the marriage vows. Marriage is for the mutual joy of the couple, for help and comfort in adversity and prosperity, and for procreation. So, the first two remain as we age. Mutual joy, help and comfort, no matter what. Sex can be an expression of mutual joy. That feels very liberating. The way my husband adores me, I have never been adored by anyone like that. His adoration, his love, has made so much of my life possible. So it’s creative, it’s generative, way after having babies is the goal. I think many people in the spiritual world see sex as an encumbrance rather than a resource. I think that’s a misunderstanding.”

Thanks, Linda. I think so, too.