As Diana Whitney tells
My first encounter with menopause happened before my 52nd birthday. It was summer in Florida and that hot flash hit. It was shocking and debilitating, like an inferno inside me that kept getting worse. Fortunately, I was at home, not in the office or at a social event. It happened in a private moment.
Even though I heard people talk about hot flashes, at first I didn’t realize what it was. I just knew that something extreme was happening to my body. I tried to discard it but when it happened again I called my stepmother.
“Aha,” she said, “it’s probably a hot flash.” Then she described her personal experience with menopausal symptoms, which was incredibly helpful since my mother had died in her early 50s and we had never discussed menopause.
What struck me at the moment when I experienced these intense symptoms was how much I wanted to call my mom. I was prepared for puberty and for both pregnancy and childbirth. And I had prepared my own daughters for puberty. But the downside of puberty is menopause, when our reproductive time comes to an end. It’s a natural transition, but it’s not taught in schools. We all get puberty training when we are teenagers, but we don’t get training during menopause.
During that phone conversation my stepmother gave me great advice – what could help, what not to try. Then she said, “Oh, and by the way, it’s going to be 10 years.”
It was like a bucket of cold water had been thrown on my head. ten years! The nonchalance with which she said it was a revelation to me. I realized that she probably wasn’t alone in her decade of symptoms. So I started doing research. I’ve learned that menopause is more intense for both African American women like me and Latina women. It often starts earlier and takes longer than women from other cultures.
Women fought so hard to get a seat at the table. Now we’re sitting at the table coping with symptoms that can be very uncomfortable. We don’t want to show up sweaty and fight an internal inferno. And we don’t want to tell our colleagues I need a menopause break.
In the workplace, we tend to suppress what we’re going through because it puts us at a disadvantage. And at home, we tend to focus on our children and families rather than ourselves. We only deal with it and “suck it up” because we meet everyone else’s needs.
But we also discovered ingenious tricks like sticking your head in the freezer to cool off, which I did. I’ve tried everything – wet washcloths, frozen necklaces, personal fans that put my bare feet on a cold marble floor. My friend says that when it gets really intense, she crawls on the granite slab and just lies down. It’s a nice cool sensation.
Nevertheless, we try all of these things independently and do not share our experiences in a community. If you are lucky, you will have a group of friends going through the Shift together. But when menopause comes at different times, women feel isolated. The important conversations are not happening enough.
And often the doctors we see aren’t certified during menopause. I learned that through the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) you can find a directory of doctors across the country who are certified menopause. Your primary care doctor or even your gynecologist may not have any knowledge of menopause.
After my own shocking hot flashes, I learned about perimenopause and realized other symptoms I’d had for years – like mood swings and anxiety. And I was excited to help other women understand this transition. Renaming menopause as a natural and liberating season has become a movement for me. I’ve connected with organizations like NAMS, HealthyWomen, and AARP.
I also founded Multigenerational Sisterhood, a Facebook group for women 25 and over to share information, advice and personal experiences about our health and menopause. I wanted to create a safe community where women for generations could encourage one another on our reproductive wellness trips and thereby destigmatize menopause.
I have two daughters in their twenties and have spoken openly with them about what I’m going through. My girls are empowered now because they know how their bodies will change over time. Many of her friends share that they have never spoken to their mothers about menopause.
A friend took layers and layers of clothes home every time she visited her mother because the house was always cold. Then one day she went home and the house was a comfortable temperature. When she asked her mother why, her mother said, “Oh, I’m over now.” The house had been a freezer for 10 years and the daughter never understood it was menopause.
Debbie Dickinson and her daughter Markea are building a multi-generation movement
I also have two sons, aged 18 and 22, and include them in this conversation. They support women and in awe of what we juggle – our families, our jobs, and now the menopause, which seems like puberty for adults. As we normalize the conversation about menopause across generations and genders, the culture of silence begins to shift.
This is a new frontier for women’s health. We had a movement around menstruation and it has become more acceptable for girls to talk about their periods without shame (although we still have a way to go global). But I can’t tell you how many women I meet who say, I’ve never talked about menopause. I’ve never expressed that before.
My own journey through menopause has improved a lot. I have found a doctor who is menopausal certified and connected to several communities of compassionate women. My perspective has also changed – I now see menopause as a natural time of life, something to embrace and celebrate with dignity.
Debbie Dickinson is a happily married mother of four. She is a seasoned social benefits attorney with a JD degree from Harvard Law School and a lecturer at the Wharton School of Business. Also a serial entrepreneur, Debbie enjoys traveling, gardening, and writing.