What makes you happy? Wait, don’t answer that. First let’s forget that “happiness” is a buzzword these days. Let’s forget that there are a thousand books and articles and blogs telling you how to be happy, as if they know you personally. Forget all that, and find a mirror. Take a good hard look at yourself. Then, ask yourself the question again, but this time, don’t emphasize the word happy. Instead, emphasize the word you.
Happiness is in the eye of the beholder, and as you gaze into the mirror, I want you to recognize that the beholder is you. There is no formula for happiness, and it certainly isn’t the same throughout every stage of life. Especially through the transition of menopause, the definition for you is likely to change because what made you happy in your 20s is probably not what made you happy in your 30s, and chances are good that what made you happy in your 30s has almost nothing to do with what makes you happy now, or what will make you happy in 10 or 20 or more years from today. The longer you live, the more life experience you have…and that changes what you want, who you are, and what gives you fulfillment and joy.
Although it is somewhat different for everyone, one of the biggest changes that tends to happen to women as they approach and go through menopause has to do with the effects of estrogen. Hormones really do change how you feel. Estrogen is the hormone of caretaking and nurturing, and it is highest between puberty and menopause. Whether or not women actually give birth to anyone, they tend to focus externally, caring for children, a partner, nieces and nephews, even pets. This is biologically based and often results in a time of self-sacrifice. Putting the needs of others before our own can even make us happy and fulfilled.
When we are overflowing with estrogen and oxytocin (another hormone) after the birth of a child, we are the happiest with that baby in our arms. But once estrogen fades away, so does that impulse towards sacrifice, and many women are taken aback by the sudden impulse to focus not on everyone else but (gasp!) on themselves! Happiness becomes more about who you are, who you’ve become, and who you want to be next. You may find it is wonderful to hold someone else’s baby—or a grandchild—but you may also find that there is deep happiness in being able to give the child back to his or her rightful owner. It’s not that babies don’t make you happy anymore. It’s just that you are no longer in that largely hormone-based stage of life when you feel compelled to make them your responsibility.
In short, happiness becomes more me-centric than ever before, but not in an early-20-something, sowing-your-wild-oats-before-settling-down type of way. More in a reap-the-benefits-of-all-your-experiences type of way. Menopause is not the end of womanhood, and estrogen is not the marker of womanhood. Menopause is the beginning of self-care, of self-nurturing, of self-fulfillment—a time when a woman is less likely to feel guilty when she politely says “no.”
Do we change so much during menopause that the essence of who we are shifts? Not really. But in a way. I contest that this time of life is about finding the truest, purest form of happiness, because happiness becomes about exactly who you are. Maybe it always is, but more than ever, who you are is actually about you now. Discovering this and exploring what it means is a great freedom.
I turn to the trusted words of author and women’s health expert Dr. Christiane Northrup, who discussed the “intimate relationship between a woman’s psyche and her ovarian function throughout her menstrual cycle.” She cites a study done in the 1930s validating her theory that before ovulation, when estrogen levels are highest, women’s emotions are more outward-driven, while during ovulation women were more relaxed and receptive to receiving care from others. Further, after ovulation, during the premenstrual part of the cycle when progesterone is the highest, women are more focused on themselves. (Northrup, Christiane, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Bantam Books, 2010.) I believe this variation in inward vs. outward focus is a window into where we are all going, when that inner focus becomes steady rather than cyclical.
If you are now in that perimenopause phase of life and you are finding it difficult, challenging, irritating, and all those other uncomfortable feelings and symptoms we associate with “the change,” I have a suggestion. Between the hot flashes and the mood swings, can you take some time to reflect, recharge, reevaluate, and think deeply about what makes you happy? You are losing that estrogen safety net that keeps your focus pointed externally, but you can embrace this transition as an excuse to become who you have really wanted to be all along.
These hormonal changes come at the perfect time for us, though. In some ways, we are at the point in our lives when we are wiser, smarter, and more introspective. Menopause also is associated with consistently elevated levels of FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone), which are usually only elevated during ovulation during those menstruating years. As Dr. Northrup says, the continual elevation of these hormones “renders us more open to a continual flow of wisdom that heretofore was available only at ovulation.” She cites Celtic and native cultures, where the postmenopausal women are the most wise and most powerful. We get to embrace a side of ourselves that does not come until we are actually older, and have survived the menopausal dance successfully.
So, about that buzzword: Happiness. One day, your menopausal symptoms will fade away. Then, you will be left with yourself—your heart, your mind, and your spirit. Tap into your wisdom, power, and your newly forming sense of self. As much as those you love bring you joy and happiness, this time around, it’s all yours.