Last week my partner Nancy and I took a much needed vacation to Mexico. We’ve both travelled to Mexico multiple times but this time we found a magical beach, more beautiful than any either of had ever seen. It was quiet, secluded, clean, and full of whales! We stayed in a beach tent on the Pacific Coast of the Baja Peninsula. We read books, drank margaritas, took walks, and watched whales migrate south.
Breakfast was included in our stay so we wandered inland to the main facilities in the mornings to eat huevos rancheros and sopes. One morning we sat next to two young couples. At one table was a man and woman in their mid-thirties. The woman was heavily pregnant and very chatty. Just beyond their table sat another man and woman, about the same age.
As they talked, the non-pregnant couple shared that they had a one-year-old back at home. The women talked and talked about their pregnancies, the one who was one year into motherhood talked about how she managed work and mothering. The still pregnant one talked about her worries and her plans for balancing her new mommy responsibilities. The “dads” sat quietly, proudly, admiring their fertile, capable vessels, piping in periodically but mostly encouraging their wives to talk.
I’ve been pregnant and I am a mother. Pregnancy and motherhood are my favorite life experiences, bar none. But I just turned fifty-four and, like clockwork, I’ve been hit hard with raging night sweats and daily hot flashes. My belly is round (not from a baby in there) and I’m irritable. Sitting there listening to those youngins basking in the glow of their fertility was really bugging me!
My partner Nancy has already been through the hormonal whiplash that I’m going through now and she’s been a patient, loving and helpful advisor with me and my newish symptoms. As we sat at breakfast I found myself distracted, half paying attention to my conversation with her while also trying to eavesdrop on the conversation of the new parents.
Later that night as Nancy I sat outside on our beach chairs looking at the stars that blanketed the sky on the most beautiful beach we’ve ever been, I said, “Can you imagine talking about menopause with men the way those women were talking about pregnancy?”
“Never,” she said, shaking her head without taking her eyes off the stars.
Menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause are the three profound and significant biological life events women experience, but pregnancy is the only one that seems to warrant any co-ed conversation. Why is that?
When girls get their periods they somehow know to keep it a secret, never letting their male peers know about the equipment and supplies they need to use or the symptoms they experience. From the time menstruation starts, girls and women are mocked for their mood and body changes. As if that isn’t hassle enough, girls must also manage being sexualized in response to their hormonally changing bodies.
If there is any kind of male-female mealtime chat about menstruation, it is not in a reverential way to proclaim how amazing it is that these female bodies are now capable of reproduction but rather to discuss how inconvenient and unpleasant the period process is. Girls learn early, in middle school and sometimes earlier, that period talk in the presence of boys will only lead to humiliation.
Conversations about menopause are equally unwelcome around co-ed dinner tables. Menopause happens to women, so why subject the fellas to this nuisance talk. Even the most open-minded/open-hearted men steer clear of menopause chat. Men (and sadly women too) are socialized to believe that women in menopause are hysterical. Jokes are made that women will lose control and attack for no reason when they enter the dreaded menopause. While young women are hyper-sexualized when the start to menstruate, older women are desexualized once they reach menopause.
Pregnancy is the one phase of a woman’s life where the male species shows interest and respect. It’s no mystery why. Pregnancy involves men. Those two nice young new fathers at the breakfast table in Mexico nodded lovingly, enthusiastically, appreciatively as their fertile females waxed on about the changes in their bodies and their lives pre- and postpartum. There was no mocking, no teasing, no dismissing their pregnancy experience because they were part of the equation.
It’s wonderful that men want to be involved in the pregnancy stage of a woman’s life, but to really understand women, men must understand the other significant hormonal stages that women go through as well.
Menstruation and menopause affect women and so they affect men. To dismiss or disregard these stages that bookend the pregnancy period is a disservice to women and men alike. For women, this shadow culture of menstruation and menopause breeds internalized shame. Women hide their symptoms for fear of being mocked or humiliated.
For men, they are denied the opportunity to really understand the profound workings and power of the female anatomy. In turning a blind eye to the very hormones that make pregnancy possible, they are missing opportunities to truly know and understand the women in their lives.
As the mother of a girl, for obvious reasons, I’ve always talked to my daughter told about menstruation and pregnancy. Boys need to learn about these things as well. I’ve encouraged my friends with boys to talk to their sons about what it means to get a period and of course how to control for unwanted pregnancy. I’ve talked to my daughter a little bit about menopause, but I could do better. And I’m guessing that in most families, menopause does not come up in parental conversations with sons.
Sitting in my pot-bellied hot-flashing body that day watching the pregnancy and new mother glow of the young women holding court next to me, I wanted to protect them from their future selves, “Hold onto that power,” I would tell them, “remember how fierce you feel now, being able to grow a human inside your body! In twenty years when your hormones take you on entirely different road trip into menopause, remember that power is still inside of you.”
I’d tell them that society will tell them otherwise, but not to believe it. I’d hug them and bless them and wish them well. I didn’t say one word to those women that morning, but I really of wish I had.