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What I Learned About Menopause from My Foremothers

Family Portrait.

Spoiler alert: Revealing chats about the transition are not a thing.

A few years ago, when my older sister, who doesn’t break a sweat in a sauna, arrived at my temperate springtime birthday dinner with beads of perspiration on her forehead, I knew what was happening. And I knew we likely wouldn’t explore the situation. — Holly Carter

As a kid, I didn’t know what menopause was. But I definitely knew what it looked like. My mother would first let her audience (as in, anyone in earshot) know of the incoming heat wave, and then the hot flash would commence. She would wake up with strands that were smooth a mere eight hours ago, now coiled up. “I just can’t keep a hairstyle,” she would announce in her thick New York accent. I wondered if her suffering had anything to do with us getting central air conditioning, and I was grateful that her personal summer made all of mine thereafter more bearable.

While I sympathized, I didn’t grasp the situation. We never really had a conversation about what was occurring. I just knew it was something called menopause. I knew that she wouldn’t get her period anymore. And I perceptively deduced that, as a girl, the same thing would happen to me one day. It didn’t feel as close on the awkward scale as a basic birds-and-bees talk (which I also never received, FYI), but it did feel like a deeper dive wasn’t appropriate. Now, it could have been because I was a teenager at the time, or that she didn’t feel like her circumstances warranted exposure. I’m not sure. A few years ago when my older sister, who doesn’t break a sweat in a sauna, arrived at my temperate springtime birthday dinner with beads of perspiration ever-so-elegantly spattered on her forehead, I knew what was happening. I’d seen it before. And I knew we likely wouldn’t explore the situation.

I’m not alone in the lack of familial dialogue about menopause. I have asked close friends, who are also African American about their experiences so I could come to some sort of cultural conclusion. Discussion seems pretty limited all around. When it is spoken of, the conversation usually revolves around the hot flash, the most visible symptom. If there’s sweating involved, it seems like there’s a need to explain, to call out our bodies’ internal hormonal vacillation so we don’t appear abnormal. We dare not even speak of the other symptoms like vaginal dryness, irritability, hair loss, or reduced sex drive. Those heavyweights are either saved for the privacy of a doctor’s office or just quietly accepted.

Image of Holly. Face partially covered by bangs.

I decided to ask Kourtney Sims, M.D., a board-certified integrative gynecologist based in Houston, TX, and Phenology's Chief Medical Advisor, for her experience both as a doctor and a Black woman. She suggested that how we talk about menopause may be more regional than cultural. “From maturity around puberty to maturity into menopause, there’s more of a ritual and tradition with those changes of life in our native populations,” says Dr. Sims. “These were traditionally times of reverence when women were supposed to withdraw from daily responsibilities and spend that time honoring and nurturing themselves.” But even finding information on those African rituals, in my case, is tough. There’s just not much out there. Over the years, those traditions have gotten lost, and women feel isolated on a menopausal island, as she says. “When your mood is calm, you're sleeping again, you're not sweating all the time, and you're ready to hop back into bed, then you can come back from menopausal island. But what we really need is a bridge.”

This menopausal island is by no means a sought-after vacation destination, but what if it could be, at the very least, not dreaded? What if menopause could be honored as a woman’s transition into a period of life where her primary focus is to put herself first? “Through menopause a woman is removing that biological drive for procreation and caring for others,” says Dr. Sims. “It should be celebrated as a time to enter into your own.”

As perimenopause is now not far off for me, I am going to go adopt Dr. Sims’s take. My mother is no longer here to share her advice, but I am grateful to have a group of friends to take the journey with. (I’m also thankful to have the Internet.) I’m hopeful that we can try to change the conversation and reframe things for ourselves and the next generation. Coming into my own does sound very appealing. And if I can figure out a way to salvage my hairstyle from the peril of perspiration, then I’ll be doing my mother proud, too.

Holly Carter
Formerly the Style Features Director at O, The Oprah Magazine, as well as the Beauty Director at People StyleWatch magazine, Holly is now a consultant and content creator for brands, including Burt’s Bees, Smashbox and Josie Maran Cosmetics.

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