Here’s a question for you in the grand tradition of the proverbial tree falling in the forest: If a middle-aged woman complains about a hot flash in the blazing heat of Southwest Florida, will her husband listen?
Unlike other Zen-like variations on this theme, this question actually has an answer: You betcha. In fact, he’ll offer genuine sympathy, unless he wants to be flattened like a gecko on I-75. What do women want men to know about menopause? First and foremost, that it can bring out the homicidal maniac in even the kindest, most refined and smartest of women. Lois A. Bolin, Ph.D., a community steward with Naples Backyard History, says men should know that, "When a woman says, ‘I’m out of estrogen, and I’ve got a gun,’ you shouldn’t take it personally."
The gloves really come off when you ask women in the know about menopause. They wax funny, wise, salty and occasionally poetic about their own experiences. Most illuminating of all, they confirm that there is, indeed, sex after menopause. From Boston to Naples, here is some more wisdom to guide the good men of Southwest Florida as the women in their lives undergo The Change.
Compassion can yield unexpected dividends.
Dr. Maria Roca, associate professor/department chair of communication and philosophy at Florida Gulf Coast University, went through her change solo, with her trademark grace. She is now "enjoying life on the other side," and waxed poetic about her transition:
"I must admit, I haven’t pondered what I want men to know about menopause since I went through the process without a man in my life—perhaps the best way to go through it. It was a relatively easy process for me compared to what I have heard others describe. What would I want men to know? Perhaps that the ‘pause’ in menopause is appropriate because life goes on after the process is complete. Women are still very much women with all the same desires and passions but without having to worry about ‘being late’ if you choose to act on those desires and passions!
"I think I would also want men to know that post-bleeding means post-breeding and, as a result, relationships can take on a whole new richness where the complete focus is on each other. You know that a woman is not going to try to ‘trap you’ by claiming she is pregnant. I think a post-menopausal woman is also going to be more understanding of a man who might have ED [erectile dysfunction] issues.
"I would want men to understand that women grieve the loss of their ability to have children and of their youth. During this time, it is important for men to continue to see the beauty in the more mature woman. In fact, the best man will see the menopausal woman as even more beautiful as she gains wisdom and strength and the resolve to continue to be a vital, engaged human being with incredible gifts to offer her partner and to the rest of the world."
Menopause hormones can alter personalities and wreak havoc with relationships—and this is just as scary for the woman as it is for the man.
Linda C. of Washington, D.C., had a far less spiritual experience. Menopause reduced this bright, funny, even-keeled and socially graceful woman to a single emotional note—anger. She shared this harrowing account of how a much-debated treatment, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), virtually saved her marriage:
"My mother always told me that ‘Menopause was nothing. Everyone makes such a big deal, but it’s nothing!’ But my mother changed dramatically at around 50 in mental ways. She became very confrontational with other people. I’d long had this wonderful, witty, brilliant, caring mother … and she was suddenly picking political fights with everyone.
"So I turn 50 or thereabouts, and I feel perfectly normal, only I am really angry at [my husband] David—probably because he is the person closest to me, the person I feel most comfortable being myself with—and I am so mad at him … for various transgressions that I can’t remember today.
"And then [our daughter] Melanie comes home from college for vacation, takes in the situation and says, ‘I’ve never felt this kind of friction in this house before!’ And that’s my warning signal. My mother.
"And I thought about how I’d been having hot flashes and such. So I went to the doctor, and I went on HRT for a while—seven years. Even though I may die early as a result of cancer caused by HRT, I have to say that it made me go back to sanity and left me able to cope with the hot flashes—which come back when you go off—as a minor discomfort, compared to … being my mother!"
The right—and wrong—words for him to say.
Retired Unitarian Universalist minister and writer Angeline E. M. Theisen was delighted recently to be carded in Fort Myers while ordering from the "55 and older" menu. She’s 63, which shows that it pays to have faith. She was remarkably candid about her libido before and after the big M:
"I went through menopause about 10 or 12 years ago. I had one hot flash. My mom thought women made an artificial big deal out of menopause, because [like me] she had so little effect. On the other hand, she told me it put a real strain on her marriage to my dad, because for a period of time she had no sexual sensation. She also told me the libido came back, but never as strong as before.
"Telling you that makes me remember the same thing happened to me. I spent the years from, oh, about 14 to about 52 with what is often characterized as a man’s libido. I thought about sex all the time. After I hit my 20s in the 1970s, it was anytime, anywhere, with anyone I liked. Then boom. Nothing. I told my doctor, ‘I’ve known me my whole life, and this is a me I’ve never been.’ It did come back. And never as strong as it was, which is good, because it was over-strong for my lifestyle."
For the menopausal wife whose husband can’t seem to find the right words of comfort, Rev. Angie offers a helpful script, in the vein of Dr. Phil’s "Script of the Month" in O, The Oprah Magazine. Here’s a brief excerpt:
"Sir, do not, under any circumstances, tell me you know how I feel; I don’t even know how I feel. When I try to tell you how I feel, listen. Just listen. Then put yourself in my place. How would you feel if you suddenly could not count on yourself being the self you had always known? How would you feel if you had always been competent and controlled, and now you’re crying in the produce section of the supermarket and you don’t know why? A most helpful and always welcome phrase is: ‘I cannot imagine how you feel.’ (Neither can I, and it’s happening to me.) You continue: I feel so helpless not knowing what I can do or even whether there is anything I can do to help. Maybe there is nothing I can do, but I love you, so if there ever is anything I can do for you, big or small, and I am missing the message or your signals, please tell me."
Sex after menopause can be better than ever.
Nancy K. Schlossberg, author of Overwhelmed: Coping with Life’s Ups and Downs and Retire Smart, Retire Happy: Finding Your True Path in Life, is an authority on aging. She divides her time between Sarasota and Washington, D.C., and offers real hope for post-menopausal lovers everywhere:
"It was the middle of winter the year I turned 50. We were at a dinner party when suddenly I had my first hot flash and felt wet all over. I was thrilled. I am always cold in winter. I couldn’t wait to tell my husband, my children and my father. After all, this was big. I was moving into a new period of life, without periods. I was lucky. My symptoms were not bad.
"Now, what do women want their husbands to know? That sex can now be at any time of the month since there will be no periods, that there is no longer any fear of pregnancy and that with all the great creams there will be no problem with vaginal dryness. So, except for changing nightgowns in the middle of night or sleeping nude, there is nothing to worry about."
It’s best to leave the menopause jokes to the comedy professionals.
P. Lewis, an elegant Southern lady who currently resides in Washington, D.C., summarized the thoughts of millions of women with some uncharacteristically salty words:
"Hmmmm. I’m flattered to think that you would imagine that I can even remember menopause! Let’s see, what should men know? That hot flashes are nothing for a man to joke about—unless he is willing to let the woman set fire to his private parts and see if he thinks that’s funny. That the naturally thickening of a woman’s waist is both beautiful and to be admired. That he should tell a woman how sexy she is when she looks at him over her reading glasses. (And also as she is losing her eyesight, she is less able to see his drooping skin and hair loss.) I would write more but my menopausal-impaired memory is getting to me."
Your house might need a few minor alterations.
Judi Gallagher, celebrity chef and restaurant consultant, lives in Sarasota and just received the "She Knows Where She’s Going Award" from Girls Inc. She started her acceptance speech off with the following words: "Thank you for this incredible award. I must confess, however, between the recent hot flashes and memory loss I often do find myself driving down the street and asking, ‘Now where am I going?’" Here’s what Judi thinks men should know about menopause:
– Don’t question why there is an air-conditioning company up in the attic drilling more holes in the bedroom ceiling. Just accept that there needs to be more cool air blowing down (especially at 2 a.m.).
-Men better start listening the first time because if they ask a woman in menopause to repeat what she just said, she is apt to forget it.
-If a man wakes up at 3 a.m. and hears a room full of women—don’t worry—it is the Menopause Book Club. None of the members can sleep between 2 and 4 a.m.
-Men should never ask a woman in menopause if she is now going to start wearing red hats and purple dresses.
-When in doubt, take two aspirin and consult a medical expert.
Dr. Betsy Brothers is an obstetrician/gynecologist affiliated with the Southwest Florida Women’s Group in Naples. She intuits that men might be most concerned about how menopause will affect their sex lives. Can a woman still have a healthy libido after menopause?
"The answer varies," Brothers explains. "It really depends what a woman’s libido is like before she becomes menopausal."
So it’s like the old joke about whether someone can play the piano after hand surgery?
"Exactly," she says. "Also, some women experience pain with intercourse and decreased libido. The pain from dryness can be fixed with lubricants."
Brothers confirms that menopause symptoms like hot flashes can vary widely from woman to woman. "I would say about 30 to 40 percent of the women I see have the worst problems," she says. "However, they’re loud enough that you’d think it was 100 percent."
A couple of married doctor friends from Wellesley, Mass., confirm Dr. Brothers’ 30 to 40 percent estimate. The husband, a general practitioner, thinks that most women over 45 are just plain tired. "Fatigue is the biggest thing," he says. "The women we see have very stressful lives. They have jobs, careers and are Super-woman at home. Estrogen gives them a little cushion, but when it drops, they’re completely running on adrenals. Then, they really start to notice the fatigue."
The GP’s wife, an obstetrician/gynecologist, considers her husband’s words thoughtfully and then adds her two cents. "Look, just tell your husbands, ‘Everything makes me angry right now, including you.’"
Ultimately, women going through menopause need what they have always wanted: to be heard and understood no matter what’s going on with their hormones. The big difference is that, now, men can be assured that the unpredictable mood swings will come to a Zen-like end, once and for all. Women want men to be as optimistic about the change as they are trying to be, and to offer patience and compassion. Even if they start wearing red hats and purple dresses, there is to be absolutely no laughter. Be flexible about the air-conditioning levels even if it means wearing Gore-tex in July. After all, your wife might be packing more than one kind of heat.