Sex and Stability Post-Menopause
he poster crone for the power of postmenopause is my friend Julie Whitten, who calls it mellowpause, and she oughta know: She had one hell of a time getting there.
"I went into early menopause at 45, and my doctor decided to start me on HRT," Julie tells me as we’re waiting outside the UC Berkeley gym for our yoga class to begin, surrounded by a gaggle of college girls. "The upside was, the HRT spared me the symptoms of perimenopause," she says. "But then I was diagnosed with breast cancer." She had to quit HRT cold turkey. That threw her into perimenopause at age 63, 15 years after her final period. "Between the hot flashes, the emotional turbulence, the cancer, and the cancer treatments, I really couldn’t tell what was in my body or what was in my mind."
"Fast-forward to now," she continues. "At 66, I’m healthier and more energetic than I’ve ever been. My kids are on their own and doing great. I can do what I want, when I want, and I’m making the most of it. Not much scares me anymore."
The gym doors burst open. Ponytails whipping, our fellow seekers of centeredness rush inside. Julie and I roll out our yoga mats in the back and sit contemplating the rows of lithe, smooth-skinned bodies in front of us. "Just think," Julie whispers, "we’ve already been through the hard stuff. They still have it all ahead of them."
Since my friends’ and heroes’ responses to menopause so closely mirror my own, in the interests of journalistic objectivity, I decide to solicit a minority opinion. To that end, I call psychotherapist Jerilynn Ross, of the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, in Washington, D.C. Since Ross’s clients are self-selected as the less, um, sanguine among us, I figure she might have treated a few women who fail to see the magic in postmenopause. Sure enough, Ross sees the dark side of the light side in some of her clients.
"Approaching menopause can be very difficult for women who haven’t had kids," she tells me. "Some go into a total panic when their menses stop. They feel like this is it, I’m losing my chance to reproduce."
I take a moment to consider this — and realize that feminism notwithstanding, being the last apple on my family tree might make menopause feel less quieting, and more like a door slamming shut. Just as I’m sinking into sorrow for my child-free sisters, Ross strikes a happier note.
"But then, once they’re fully in menopause," she continues, "many of those women feel a sense of relief. Their bodies have made the decision for them. They tell themselves that they have to accept it. And most of them do." She pauses. "It’s not unusual for a woman I’ve been treating for years to quit therapy after her hormones stabilize."
"Uh-oh," I say. "If menopause is bad for business, maybe you’ll be needing a second career."
Ross chuckles. "We all hear such awful things about that phase of life," she says, "and then you get there, and realize that you’re still the person you were, only more so. You still feel sexual. You have more confidence and security. Instead of competing with other women, your friends are your support system."
That insight is borne out by facts: In a 1998 survey by the North American Menopause Society, 51 percent of postmenopausal women reported being happiest and most fulfilled between the ages of 50 and 65. In a MacArthur Foundation study conducted between 1989 and 1999, 62 percent of postmenopausal women said they experienced "only relief" when their periods stopped.
From 1997 to 1999, therapist Gina Ogden, PhD, author of The Return of Desire, conducted a sexuality survey of 4,000 men and women ages 18 to 86. "The 50-, 60-, and 70-year-olds were having more meaningful sex than the 20- and 30-year-olds," Ogden tells me. "They reported richer relationships — so much for the assumption that sex goes downhill when you spot your first gray hair."