MENO-RAGE is what Caroline Phipps-Urch calls the perimenopausal anger that sometimes rises in her. It’s a word even her three sons, aged 9, 11 and 12, use. In fact, the eldest, when he found her hacking away with a saw at a garden tree branch asked her, “Is this helping your meno-rage?”
That’s the level of openness that there is about menopause and perimenopause in her household. For instance, asked how the menopause affects his mum, 11-year-old Magnus says, “Mum gets brain fog and then she gets angry because she has forgotten what she was going to do or say. Then we do something that upsets her and she gets really angry at us and so we get angry at her, and makes me fed up and annoyed… But I know it’s happening because of menopause.”
Phipps-Urch, an Edinburgh-based yoga teacher who is one half, with her GP sister, of The Menopause Sisters, running workshops delivering fact based information on the menopause, has been keen that within her family the subject is no taboo. “I think boys need to know. My sons have sex education at school. The older two have covered a lot it – having babies, pregnancy, periods all the rest. But I don’t think menopause is making it onto the agenda quite yet.””
The menopause is not something we experience alone – even if the taboo that still lingers means that many women often feel alone as they go through it. We experience it in households, in communities, in workplaces – and the others around us, our husbands, wives, children, colleagues, experience it too. When I was working on Still Hot! the collection of real-life stories about the menopause I wrote with broadcaster Kaye Adams,a comment by one of the contributors stood out for me. Chinese author Xinran Xue was talking about how all hormonal transitions are experienced by those we live with as much as ourselves.
“These changes we go through,” she said, “for instance, menopause or puberty, are happening to everybody – to the boys, to the girls, to the mother, to the whole family. But we don’t talk in that way. We say that it’s a woman’s problem, it’s a boy’s problem, it’s a teenager’s problem. No, we are all part of it. In family life, everybody is part of it. In the whole society, everyone is part of it.”
In other words we need to treat the menopause as something experienced by society and families, not just individuals. I remembered this comment when a discussion with the publicist working on Still Hot! inspired me to start collecting what we called “hot in the house” conversations, chats between menopausal women who were mothers and their young, teenage, and sometimes, adult children.
It struck me that such stories illustrate how the menopause and perimenopause can also be experiences of families. They may not be for everyone – many women go through the menopause alone, or in a couple without children – but when there are children, they are impacted by it too, and the more we talk about it with them, the better.
Phipps-Urch told me that she was experiencing the following symptoms: “There are mornings where I wake up and I say to my husband, don’t come near. I hurt from my toes to my head. Or sometimes I’m still getting periods all over the place. ve had a frozen shoulder, sometimes get dizzy, had heart palpitations, I’ve got a dry mouth, brain fog is off the clock at the moment. I forgot my oldest son’s orthodontist appointment a couple of weeks ago. I leave my keys in the front door. The car’s usually unlocked. It drives my husband insane.”
Her sons are well aware of what causes this. Magnus, recently wrote a note to remind her to take the traditional photograph of his brother Walter’s shiny birthday balloon. “I said to him, ‘What’s the note for?’ He said, ‘Well you forget everything now mum so I thought that would be helpful.’”
Conrad, 12, describes his mother’s brain fog, saying, “It makes it hard to find things because you end up putting stuff like the flour in the fridge and the milk in the cupboard. It’s a bit confusing. You once put your phone in the fridge.”
One of the things that has altered the way households experience menopause has been that women are often having their children later. As Phipps-Urch observes “Women might be dealing with teenagers, the navigating of our hormones and their hormones, their brain changes as well as our brain changes. We might be dealing with elderly parents, perhaps if you are a single parent you’re doing it on your own, and if you’re on your own the last 18 months it’s been one of the loneliest times in recent history.”
Like Phipps-Urch, I have sons, aged 12 and 14, and I know about this. My kids hear about the menopause. We sometimes discuss how, just as their hormones are changing, so are mine.
This collision of puberty and menopause in the same household was something that often came up when I was researching Still Hot!. Danusia Malina-Derben, mother of ten and author of NOISE: A Manifesto Modernising Motherhood, for instance, said, “There was a time when the triplets were two to three in tantrums, the teens were in tantrums and I was in tantrums. We were all stamping our feet. But we just hung on like it was a rollercoaster ride.”
Danusia Malina-Derben and family
Radio presenter Angie Greaves even called the menopause Puberty Part Two. “It’s very, very simple,” she said. “Puberty Part One, you start your periods. Puberty Part Two, you stop. I came up with that phrase because I felt that menopause sounded like something so sad, dark and final.” Both part one and part two were going on in her own house, her daughters experiencing the former, herself the latter.
But menopausal symptoms can also devastate households. One young woman tells me of how, prior to finding relief through HRT, her mother was close to suicide because of the pain of vaginal atrophy. They even had conversations about Dignitas. “It was affecting all of us,” she says.“It affects only mum physically. But it affects dad and us because seeing mum in pain is really hard to watch. We try and do things to either keep her positive or change her thought direction, but there wasn’t really anything that any of us could say that would make her feel better.”
She reflects on how she too might suffer this menopausal affliction. “It’s more than likely that I will have some symptoms that mum has, because it’s often hereditary, or symptoms are generally passed down.”
I also know of women whose daughters diagnosed their menopause. This was what happened for Helen FitzGerald, author of best-selling book, The Cry, on which the TV drama is based, and also Worst Case Scenario, a novel about a menopausal probation officer, and wife of screenwriter Sergio Casci.
FitzGerald describes what she experienced as a nervous breakdown. “I was working part time in social work,” she says, “and trying to write a book a year. I always had huge amounts of energy. But that just stopped. I remember one morning, I woke up, and the night before I’d written a long list of what I wanted to do the next day. And I looked at it and burst into tears. I went straight back to bed and pretty much stayed there for quite a few months.”
Her GP diagnosed her with depression and prescribed ant-depressants, but her daughter, Anna Casci, worked out, through conversations with her friends whose mothers were going through similar experiences, that her mother was in fact menopausal.
“What I first noticed about mum,” Casci recalls, “was that she seemed not happy. I looked up other mental health disorders but she didn’t seem to fit anything in particular so I spoke to my friends. One of them said, ‘Oh, that sounds so similar to my mum, who thought she had a whole bunch of different disorders until she realised that the reason she’d been crying for years was because she had the menopause.’ I talked to more friends and discovered that all these middle-aged women were having the same thing. I told my mum about it. It was the same with the other mums. They were all given anti-depressants that didn’t work.”
Helen recalls that revelation. “When Anna told me she thought my problem was the menopause, I didn’t believe her because it felt like I was crazy. And the doctor had confirmed that I was crazy and given me antidepressants. I remember the moment so clearly when Anna was at the kitchen bench saying, ‘No mum,, it’s menopause.’ I was saying, ‘It can’t just be that.’ But she said, ‘No, no, that is menopause. My friend’s mum has been in the house for two years crying because of it.’ I can’t tell you how much better that made me feel. I thought, ‘It’s something that I can sort.’
“One of the reasons it’s important families talk about the menopause is so we don’t bring up another generation of young women, and the men that are part of their worlds, to be taken by surprise.
“What this project made me aware of is the need to make menopause and its symptoms something that is talked about publicly – in the same way that puberty is. We need to talk about it in our homes and we need to talk about it in our schools. As yet menopause is not properly taught on the curriculum for excellence in Scotland.”
Many families are, of course, already doing it.
Amongst my most cheering conversations was with Orkney-based ultrarunner Erica Clarkson and her 15-year-old son, Woody. What was clear was that no topic was off-limits around their kitchen table. Woody, for instance, observed, “We do talk about the menopause and women’s health in our family. One of the things is you’ve never made anything taboo. You talk like these things are normal. You don’t make everything a big deal and that means I don’t feel confused or uncomfortable. I don’t think it’s the same for my most of my mates – even the girls.
Erica Clarkson agreed. “If you do keep things hidden, you end up making something mysterious, and then you make it excruciating for teenagers. But I don’t think we’re a normal household – not every family is comfortable enough with each other to talk about the menopause – or even aging for women. I do think, particularly in rural communities like the one we live in, there’s potentially still quite a lot of reluctance to discuss the menopause or periods, or hormones, or testosterone, or any of the things that women and girls experience. Honesty and openness is the best policy for kids.”
But they too had memories of darker moments, of a time when Erica was swept by a confusing rage.
What is apparent is that getting through the menopause can be a family team effort. Helen Fitzgerald describes how her daughter, Anna, was central to helping her sort herself out. “We got together to discuss it in the end as a family. I ran away to an Airbnb. I’ve always done that to write, but this time it wasn’t to write. At that point Anna started a family chat on Facebook. She said, ‘Right. We need an action plan. There’s something up.’ As a social worker, I love action plans. This one was go get HRT immediately. I started taking HRT and also got a referral to a private psychiatrist. I remember saying to him, ‘I’m not sure I need to be here because I think the HRT is working, I think it’s just menopause.’ He said, ‘Oh no, you’ve got a mental health problem.’ He was going to give me even stronger antidepressants, which I thought was really dodgy. So I didn’t go back to him.”
Anna Casci puts make-up on mum, Helen FitzGerald
Casci describes the anger she and her friends felt at the fact that their mothers had been misdiagnosed as having depression. “Having gone through that together, we have a common sense of anger for our mothers that they were all considered mentally unstable when it was a physical thing that happens most women. It’s so crazy that it wasn’t known.”
Talk to Casci and you can’t help but feel optimistic for the next generation of women. What’s striking is that she is now an ambassador for menopause education – keen to ensure that it does not remain a taboo. She believes that what she went through with her mum made her reflect on her relationship with her body.
“I’m really grateful for it,” she says, “because I think I’m much more aware of what my body is doing and what it will do – in a way that many generations previous to me of women have not been.
“It has saved a lot of turmoil for me potentially in the future. A lot of my friends feel the same way. They thought, ‘How lucky are we that our mothers spoke to us about it.”
One family’s story:
Erica Clarkson is a civil-servant and ultra-runner, who in 2019 set the Guinness World Record for ultra-running on a track, when she did her Meno Ultras, to raise awareness around the menopause. Supporting her through it was her son, Woody, now 15 years old, who was also present when she had a terrifying fit of rage in the kitchen when he was 12.
W: If I had to explain the menopause I’d say it’s something that happens to women in their middle age – like after about 45 maybe, where they get grumpier and a maybe a bit less energetic.
E: But he does know about all the hormonal stuff too. He gets it – for a 15 year old boy, he has an in-depth knowledge of menopause symptoms – and is pretty sensitive to what women might experience at different stages in their lives.
W: The most memorable rage my mum had was the one we call the dishwasher moment. It was pretty scary for me as I was quite young at the time, and I’d never seen my mum like that before. I didn’t know how to help or what to do.
E: You’re making it sound worse than it actually was. Nobody died… But I hope you don’t mind me saying, Woody, you did get very upset that day. You were crying because you were confused by what was going on. And as a parent I was mortified – but at the same time, I couldn’t step myself from feeling so angry.
W: It did feel a bit like what’s happened to my mum? Who is this crazy person? There was a lot of stress on her at the time. I was only 12, but old enough to know that something was wrong.
E: That for me was a pivotal moment. That was when I, realised there was something not right here because I wasn’t being the parent I wanted to be for Woody, I saw for the first time the impact it was having on Woody.
I was in the kitchen one day and my husband Adam and I were talking heatedly about something so irrelevant that I can’t even remember what it was – but it was making me feel furious. And I took a knife from the dishwasher and I didn’t know at the time if I was going to stab Adam to death in a blind fit of rage or whether I was going to hurt myself. Deep in my heart I knew I wasn’t going to do either, but I held it with such a terrible anger. And, as Woody says that’s really just not me.
That was the light-bulb moment for me. As soon as I could, I went to see my GP here on the island – and I struck gold, because he’s really incredibly compassionate and interested in women’s health. He saved me I think. I got HRT through him.
Still Hot! 42 Brilliantly Honest Menopause Stories by Kaye Adams and Vicky Allan is published by Black & White