Say the word “menopause,” and chances are you’ll instantly come up with a list of negatives, from hot flashes and chin hairs to a thicker waistline and nonexistent libido. So naturally, most American women view this stage of life with dread and trepidation.
As an anthropologist who’s traveled the globe studying this topic for the past 30 years, I’ve discovered that many women in other parts of the world actually welcome menopause.
Attitude makes a difference. The more you worry about and dread the physiological changes, studies show, the greater the likelihood you’ll have a negative experience.
The truth is the experience is often better than many women think it will be. In fact, most studies show that once a woman has gone through menopause, she has a more positive view of the transition.
Here are six benefits that menopausal women in the US and other countries have experienced and shared with me. They’re not all true for all women, but they’re a lot more common than you might think. Many women have told me that…
1. SEX LIVES GET BETTER
Gynecologists will tell you that sex becomes problematic during menopause, but that’s partly because the women they see are the ones who are having problems. In my first study in upstate New York, half of women said their sex life had gotten better after menopause. No more birth control! More spontaneity!
The ones who thought their sex lives were going downhill said it was because their husbands had back problems or they weren’t having sex because they were widowed. These are the same reasons that women in other countries give for not having sex.
Of course, vaginal dryness is a common complaint, but instead of viewing the condition as the inevitable end to their sex life, women all over the world use their ingenuity to find ways to make sex more comfortable. When I was in Puebla, Mexico, for instance, I found that pharmacies didn’t sell lubricants but the women used a little olive oil instead.
2. HOT FLASHES AREN’T SO BAD
We often hear that 80% of women have hot flashes at some point during menopause, and that’s probably true. While it’s also true that some women have hot flashes for years, they aren’t the majority. Some women actually just have a few, and some have only one—ever!
This doesn’t mean women find them pleasant. I’ve only encountered one woman, in Mexico, who told me that she enjoyed the “wave of heat.” But it does mean that if you have a more positive attitude toward menopause, you’re less likely to report having bothersome hot flashes. Research has confirmed that phenomenon.
In addition, the more stressed you are while you’re having them, the more severe and intense your hot flashes will be, studies have found. Having a sense of humor about your hot flashes helps to defuse some of the irritability that goes along with the feeling of wanting to undress, stand in front of a fan or put your head in a freezer.
3. DID WE MENTION…NO MORE PERIODS?
Not having a period is a lovely thing. It’s especially welcome as women get older, because toward the end of perimenopause many have heavier periods that last longer, so it’s a relief to have that phase end. And then there are just the regular inconveniences (not to mention the expense) of menstruation, such as having to buy products every month and bleeding through clothing.
4. YOU BECOME MORE IMPORTANT
You may have reached menopause, but you aren’t old yet. You still have your good health, and you’re still productive and doing things for your family.
In Mexico, with age, women feel more and more essential because they’re taking care of children, grandchildren and parents—and supplementing the family income. Mexican women embrace this midlife role and don’t believe that their useful lives are over.
In Muslim and Hindu cultures, where religious participation is restricted during menstruation, menopause brings an opportunity to participate more broadly in sacred routines. Example: Postmenopausal Hindu women in Bangladesh can bathe and anoint the statues of deities with milk and blow the horn made from a shell at the start of rituals without a monthly interruption.
What’s the takeaway for American women? The universal lesson here is that women’s social, family, and religious roles may actually expand when they hit menopause. Just like the women in Mexico and India, you may find that your role in holding your family and community together gets more important, not less.
5. YOU BOND WITH OTHERS
Remember how pregnancy was a way of connecting with other women no matter how little else you had in common? Menopause is like that, too. When you pull a fan out and frantically start fanning your face, chances are there’s at least another woman who will nod and say, “I know exactly how you feel!” That shared moment of empathy, no matter how short, can get you through the hot flash and even your day.
6. YOU FIND YOUR VOICE
Something more positive that coincides with aging and menopause is a general increase in emotional maturity. And that includes the emotional strength to speak your mind, without worrying too much about what others will think of you.
So when someone complains to me about women who seem irritable around the time of menopause, I often think those women are finally saying out loud what they used to hold inside.
Do you remember the 1994 book Reviving Ophelia? It was about how confident, interesting little girls lost their self-confidence and their voices with adolescence. Menopause may be the moment in a woman’s life when her voice returns—with strength and honesty. Let’s celebrate it!
For more insights into the positive side of menopause, see the Bottom Line blog, “The Natural Side of Menopause.”