‘What did I do wrong?’
In the nine steps I walked from my gynaecologist’s waiting room to his office, I lost all hope of ever becoming a mother. I know the exact number of steps because if I didn’t count them, I would have frozen. When I left the piece of paper with my results on his desk, I saw a wave of sadness pass across his face. When he spoke, with a calm and reassuring voice, I could only hear a little of what he said. "Menopause, we don't know why, genetics, trauma, heavy metals. Sorry, I wish…"
After taking a deep breath, I managed to voice the single question banging in my head, "What did I do wrong?”
I’d been holding back tears for months. Now I let them flow. The magic smell of my newborn baby vanished before me. Images of my children building sandcastles with my nephews on the Aegean beaches, shopping for baby clothes with my mother, my father feeding his grandchild, holding the baby in his large hands, all these promised, future moments evaporated into air. I couldn’t breathe. Every inhale brought a searing new loss. I would never tell my sister, “Now you’re an aunt.”
When I left the doctor's office, for the first time in my life I had no idea what my next step would be. Nothing in life was under my control. Life had passed me by. I had become “the other”. I would never be normal. I not only lost motherhood, I lost my femininity at the age of 32, and I had no idea on which side of womanhood I stood.
As I walked with my eyes downcast, not caring where I was going, little did I know that I was at the start of a long mourning period. It would take years for me to understand I was not just mourning my unborn children, but my lost womanhood as well.
'Just a few months ago, my doctor said that my ovaries were very healthy’
It takes one year to be diagnosed with menopause, but in my memory of that time everything happened lightning fast. When I realised I had missed my periods for two months, I thought “it must be the stress”, but I took a blood test to make sure. When I saw the test results, I could not believe the words stating my levels were within the 'Post-meno' reference range. There must be some kind of a mistake. “Post-meno” cannot mean “post menopausal,” can it? However, every page I opened on the internet confirmed it was.
Maybe menopause had a different meaning other than the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle that my mother's friends were joking about in their 50s. My ovaries could not have closed the hormone taps at the age of 32, could they? Also it was only a few months ago that my gynaecologist said my ovaries looked healthy and if I planned to get pregnant, the timing couldn’t be better. There must be a mistake.
In the following weeks, I read every website, every resource I could find about menopause in the hope of a different explanation. I found none. I learned that once you have menopause there is no return. And it is called “Premature Menopause” if it happens before the age of 40, and “Early Menopause” if before the age of 45.
As Premature Menopause is seen in only 1 percent of women, and since I was much younger than 40, the chances must have been even lower. So I had more blood tests.
My hope grew even more when my gynaecologist said that it was too early to confirm my diagnosis without seeing the results of an AMH test, which measures the number of eggs.
On the day of my next doctor’s appointment, I received my AMH test results. I opened the envelope in my doctor’s waiting room shortly before stepping into his room. The results supported the initial test results. My diagnosis was cemented. There was nowhere left to hide from menopause.
‘When do you plan to have kids?’
My emotions were all over the place. I felt guilty, ashamed, alienated, excluded, so sad, and lost. But I hid behind my “strong” face, which I put on when random people I sat next to on a plane, taxi drivers, neighbours, or my parent’s friends popped the inevitable question “So… when are you going to start a family?”
Every time someone asked, “When do you plan to have kids?” I knew they expected an easy answer. They had no idea they’d just blithely delivered a stinging reminder of my greatest sorrow. I grew more and more furious at life, at how unfair the whole joke had become, but I didn’t let it show. Instead I smiled, put the person with the innocent question at ease, and buried my feelings. I could not face my own sadness, nor the chasm widening within.
So I focused on possible solutions, adoption attempts, egg transfer procedure, miraculous ovarian wake-up operations… With every attempt at a possible solution, I pushed my already exhausted soul further and further towards the breaking point.
But one day I felt so exhausted I couldn’t take it anymore. My body felt like I’d run a marathon, a marathon that did not start with my early menopause, but the day I was born a girl. I had been programmed to become a mother since childhood. "When you grow up, do you want a girl or a boy?" When I was too young and still thought eggs only came from chickens, older women said, “Careful! Don’t step barefoot on the cold ground, or your ovaries will freeze and you won’t have kids." Or, "You’ll understand when you become a mother," they said, "Only then you learn to love unconditionally.” Even heaven was under the feet of mothers!
Was menopause such a terrible thing?
Maybe I participated in the marathon, but I don’t know that I chose to enter the race. Either way, after I failed in every attempt to beat my diagnosis and become a mother, I was disqualified, not only from motherhood but from family. After all, how does a woman make a family if she isn’t a mother? It defied the definition. I was going to die as nothing but a person, an individual, and in pain, as I had the “worst disease” of womanhood. Everything written about menopause supported this view:
"Inevitable Nightmare of Women: Menopause", "It makes you old and fat, it steals your sexual desire, deforms your body, increases your belly fat, destroys your muscles and cause bone resorption, causes death from bone fractures, embarrasses you in public because of hot flushes, it does not let you sleep, it takes your youth away, makes you forgetful, makes you asocial, puts you on the edge, sags your vagina, makes your skin dry and thin, increases wrinkles, increases your cancer risk if you start the hormone therapy, but the risk also rises if you do not start the hormone therapy, and many more scary propositions. What else would keep you sleepless for months, if not the above stark predictions?
After reading the same sentences again and again in many different sources, a single sentence rose from me: ‘I reject this idea of womanhood.’
Was menopause, a natural life stage that happens to every woman eventually, really that terrible? Were the articles I read addressing ageing, or the absence of oestrogen and progesterone hormones in the body? Was I really going to wake up one morning and find myself, my desires, my body, forever changed?
If life was this small, if as a woman I was to be reduced to this brittle list of thin definitions that all said ‘Your worth is gone,” then was that even a life worth living? Maybe it was time to challenge the things I had been taught, the things about my purpose that I had never questioned. Maybe, just maybe, I was more than my fertility.
What is menopause?
Menopause is simply the decrease in production of oestrogen and progesterone hormones in our bodies. It is a signal to our bodies to spend its energy on things other than fertility. In some cultures, menopause is not an ending, but a beginning of freedom, wisdom, and a new respect. So why was the story I had been told so full of fear and anxiety?
“Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Rumi
If we needed to become mothers to gain the ability to love unconditionally, or if we were able to love only the children we birthed, could we cry together when we heard stories of suffering or disaster? Would thousands of people raise money to help others? Are we not warmed by the triumphs of others and stricken by the suffering of those we don’t know?
I couldn't ask the women around me for help
I am now 41 years old and it’s crystal clear for me that menopause is not about femininity nor motherhood. But when I was in my thirties, I felt that I had failed. I was too embarrassed to admit that I was going through menopause. I could not seek the wisdom of other women. I was ashamed to ask them to hold my hand. I withdrew into my shell, repressed my sadness. I lived with a huge aching hole.
I could never have known that being diagnosed with early menopause would start me on a journey that began with being totally broken, but in time allowed me to embrace my vulnerability and eventually rise up, filled with power. Yes, I lost the possibility of becoming a biological mother, but I was able to redefine what being a mother means, and in doing, open my heart. It turns out that life was much bigger than the definitions imposed on me.
Even after 10 years of menopause, I have never experienced any of the side effects above other than hot flushes. The hot flashes also stop being an issue once you slow down and stop panicking. I did not wake up to find layers of fat on my abdomen, my weight has remained the same for the last 15 years, I did not lose my libido. I continued my life with energy and I kept moving. I did not let the information on the websites identify me.
Menopause is not an illness. It is not a disease that requires treatment. It is well past time for the language around menopause to change. If health professionals claim to know your body better than you do, encourage doctors and nurses, both women and men, to reconsider how they talk about menopause.
You know what’s best for your body. Listen to it first. Life is much more joyful and light for women than those drab, old definitions. Menopause is not the end of the road for any woman, it is the first step in her latest adventure.