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Health: loss and freedom at the menopause

by
15 October 2021

The ‘change of life’ is physical and psychological. It is also theological, says Rachel Jones

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A WOMB is a curious timepiece. All other methods for marking time — sun, moon, stars, Fitbit — are detached from human beings. But, for women, a womb is a part of them. With each new period, another month (or thereabouts) has passed. Whether our period arrives with an element of surprise or a rush of relief or with crushing disappointment, “day one” is still a new beginning of sorts. We have reached the top of our own internal circle of life. And then the cycle begins again. Until . . . it stops.

Our wombs don’t just mark time month by month; they mark the seasons of life, too. They provide a vivid transition from girlhood to womanhood, and then to whatever we can politely call what comes next — which is certainly no less womanhood but is nevertheless a transition significant enough that they call it “the change”.

While most [women] remember [their] first period, only some of us will know what it’s like to have our last. If, like me, you find yourself in that first category, then it’s entirely possible (even probable) that you don’t really know what to expect of the menopause. After all, our culture doesn’t really like to talk much about it beyond the obvious jokes and stereotypes, and there are no mid-life sex-ed classes for us to faint through.

Technically, the “menopause” is a single day, 12 months after your final period. In the UK and United States, the average age for this is 51 — but that average masks a huge range of experiences. (Anything before 40 is considered “premature”.)

The symptoms that come before that day are the “peri-menopause”, and anything that comes after that date is “post-menopause”. But, in popular parlance, we use the term “menopause” to refer to the whole period of time in which a woman experiences symptoms. This lasts about four years on average, although it can be as many as 12.

When it comes to the symptoms, there are those that our culture likes to joke about: hot flushes and night sweats and hair in unwanted places. There are those that our churches are unlikely to talk about. There are those that are harder to put your finger on: a general brain fuzz that leaves you feeling not quite at your best, and mood swings and irritability (“I think I just felt angry for five years,” says one colleague as she looks back).

Women who are going through the menopause also talk about the related emotional impact of everything that this stage of life typically brings: questions over their identity as their nest empties out; a sense of loss of femininity as their hair thins, and the fear that goes with it; a grief that their childbearing days are over, or that they never began and now never will.

It’s worth remembering that some women will sail through the menopause with few symptoms and little emotional turmoil. Many women say they feel a great sense of freedom and relief, not grief, at no longer having periods. But, for others, menopause is an ordeal that makes monthly menstruation seem a walk in the park by comparison.

Maybe, if you’re in the midst of the menopause, calling our wombs a timepiece sounds far too elegant. In reality, the cogs grind — and then they grind to a halt. And yet again, we feel that women get the raw end of the deal.

But what if there were another way of looking at it? Writing for India’s Elle magazine, the novelist Zadie Smith reflects: “It is commonly thought that time is the particular enemy of women. Because we supposedly have so much to lose: our ‘looks’, our fertility, our cultural capital. . . But there are other ways of looking at it. That women have timepieces built into their bodies — primarily ‘biological clocks’ and the menopause — signs that must eventually be heeded, signs that are, finally, impossible to ignore, seems to me at least as much gift as curse. . . Without that dreaded ‘biological clock’, without the menopause, and with few honest mirrors in the culture in which to reflect themselves, what or who will tell a man that he is old?

“The truth is . . . age exists for us all. It comes to you whether you believe in it or not. And I am now very grateful to be in a body that reminds me every day of this simple human truth. Which is not to say age does not bring me sadness, that I don’t sometimes mourn for my 27-year-old self, nor miss a certain version of my face, breasts, legs or teeth. . . [But] I think on the whole, I’d rather be sad than deluded” (Elle India, June 2018).

Zadie Smith isn’t a believer, but in some ways she sounds like a modern-day version of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes: “All share a common destiny. . . Time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9.2, 11). Her words echo those of Moses: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90.12).

Our timepiece is a blessing if it tells us the truth that we’d so often rather avoid: we’re all ageing. More to the point, we’re all dying. Our womb may shut up shop first, but one day so will our bodies. It’s as though the hourglass has been turned over for each one of us, and our periods — and the menopause — remind us that the sand is slipping through.

Zadie Smith says that she’d rather be sad than deluded. But what if those weren’t the only two options — what if there were a way for your timepiece to give you a renewed sense of purpose, vision, and hope? When we look in the Bible, we find that there is. . .

 

UNDER the old covenant, God’s people grew primarily through reproduction. As the Old Testament unfolds we watch them grow from one childless couple, Abram and Sarai, into a nation that was the envy of the ancient Near East (albeit relatively briefly: 1 Kings 10).

And that’s partly why periods were viewed in such negative terms in the Old Testament. If God’s promises were to be brought about primarily through childbearing, then every period — every month in which you were not pregnant — was a month in which God’s mission was not being advanced. . .

But we are not in the Old Testament, and under the new covenant things are different. While childbearing remains a great gift, it’s no longer the great emphasis. God’s Genesis 1 commission is echoed in Jesus’s Great Commission to his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28.19-20).

It’s an expansive vision — more and more people, from more and more nations, living as disciples of Christ. These verses encompass both making new disciples . . . and the ongoing work of discipleship — since “teaching” someone to “obey everything” that Jesus has commanded doesn’t stop at the baptism pool.

 

AS OUR timepiece shifts within us, moving us from one season to the next, it reminds us to use our time well. Maybe you’re a woman who feels a great sense of freedom at the prospect of the menopause — you relish the idea of being released from particular burdens or responsibilities, and entering a new season of life. That’s great. Verses in 2 Corinthians 4 are a reminder to make that new season count for the things that really matter.

Or maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’re a woman who’s arrived at the menopause mourning the children you didn’t have, or the dreams that never materialised. Or you’re a younger woman, and reading about the menopause has produced a sense of panic that you’re running out of time to have the kids and realise the dreams — you feel the sand slipping through your fingers, and would do anything to make it stop.

If that’s you, don’t miss this: “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4.18).

As you look at your middle-aged friend with a bunch of children up-and-grown and a house full of photographs and more grandchildren on the way, it’s pretty easy to “see” what she’s done with the past three decades. And, yes, what a wonderful use of them.

By contrast, maybe the fruit of your labour for that part of your life feels a lot less tangible. You can’t identify your spiritual children with a DNA test; you can’t weigh spiritual fruit in pounds and ounces. That doesn’t make it less real or less significant.

Even if it looks as though we haven’t made any significant difference to anyone, looks can be deceiving. Much of what God is doing remains unseen by us in this life.

St Paul invites us to look beyond the here and now, and trust that, somehow, our efforts are producing “for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4.17). The challenge for all of us, whoever we are and whatever season we’re in, is to daily fix our eyes not on our ageing body or the earthly circumstances we can “see”, but on what we can’t see, but which is none the less what is most real and most reliable: on Christ’s Kingdom, and our place in it.


This is an edited extract from
A Brief Theology of Periods (Yes, Really) by Rachel Jones, published by the Good Book Company at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.19); 978-1-78498-621-6.

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