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Jane Ahlin, Published September 25 2011

Ahlin: A doggoned funny essay about ‘major cultural event’

Delicious essays are too good not to share. An example is in the October issue of The Atlantic magazine. Written by Sandra Tsing Loh, the essay is titled “The _itch Is Back.” (Not “Witch”; think Newt Gingrich’s mother back in the ’90s, whispering her favorite description of Hillary Clinton to Connie Chung. Chung lost the CBS news anchor seat over that one.)

Title aside – and really, compared to the rest of the essay, the title is weak – Loh has written a spot-on and doggoned funny look at menopause. OK, OK, before your eyes glaze over and you move to something more exciting like the obituaries, consider that “women between the ages of 44 and 65 are the largest demographic group” in the nation. Or as Loh cites Christiane Northrup, M.D., who wrote a 656-page tome called “The Wisdom of Menopause,” a group of that magnitude is capable of making menopause “a major cultural event.”

Here, here. Although let us pause for a moment to do something Loh did not do, which is to question the very word “menopause.” It’s so unattractive. Yes, it came from the Greek words for “month” and “cessation,” and as such, might make sense to the Greeks. But in English, it doesn’t come off well. That’s because we don’t think of a “pause” as an ending. (Note, for instance, the use of the word early in this paragraph.) To us, “pause” is all about wait-and-see, a “hiatus,” or, as another dictionary meaning is given, an “awkward moment.” Then there’s the ever-popular “pregnant pause,” but that really confuses the issue.

The point is, turning “menopause” into a cartoon, one imagines a wild-eyed, middle-aged woman suspended over a flaming pit, youth behind her, death ahead, and not one pleasant thing happening in between. Other than hot flashes, weight gain, mood swings and sleeplessness, life’s over. (Really, if menopausal women weren’t so hard to get along with, the term would change. Given the demographics, maybe, “menopower”?)

As Loh points out, menopause wasn’t a problem in 1900 when a woman’s life expectancy was 40 years. Only recently with fertility spanning little more than a quarter of a woman’s life has it assumed new dimensions. Indeed, Loh views the hormones that turn women into selfless nurturers and caregivers seeing to the needs of their families before their own – hormones of fertility – as the odd thing. When fertility ends and hormones “(wear) off,” a woman can “rejoin the rest of the human race: She can be the same selfish, non-nurturing, non-bonding type of person everyone else is.”

Oh, my. Not exactly the way we want to think of Mom and Grandma. Nevertheless, Loh makes clear, menopause isn’t referred to as “Change of Life” for nothing. In fact, it can be downright invigorating for a woman. And for her family? Not so much. Loh uses Northrup’s example of “Aunt Carol,” who stunned her family in the middle of their Sunday dinner by “throwing the leg of lamb right out the window.” The family saw this as “crazy” menopausal behavior, although for “Aunt Carol” it really was an announcement “that she was past the cook/chauffeur/

dishwasher stage of life.”

Loh applauds this even as she bemoans her own status as a “late boomer/GenX wom(a)n” who embarked on marriage and family older than most. Thus, she worries what will happen when she’s in the “full fires of menopause just when (her daughters) are in the full fires of adolescence.” She’s also dealing with her 90-year-old father, “who wheels his (wheelchair) into traffic, pees into a Starbucks cup, and still wields, intact, his own power of attorney.” In other words, like many women during menopause, she is caught between generations. Her biological self wants to run away, but reality won’t allow. And all self-help books do is tout healthy living, “more exercise … yoga stretches before bed,” no “alcohol and caffeine, and yet (how does this follow?) reduced stress.”

Better to howl at the moon and keep a sense of humor.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com.