On the Caribbean island where they lived, my great gran and my grandma were feminist trailblazers. They kept their own animals, selling them to earn their own money; they had their own bank accounts; they were proud, powerful, self-sufficient women. Such things were unheard of in their traditional, rural village. There, the women stayed at home and kept the house, while their men worked the land or fished the seas or had jobs in local government, handing their wives money from their pay packet. My female forebears bucked the trend by being strong, independent women, unafraid to stand up for themselves and speak out. But there was one issue they were silent about. The menopause.
The family mantra: ‘be independent, get educated, earn your own money’ and other life lessons were passed down through the female line, to me. But women’s health – especially the menopause – was always a taboo subject, never mentioned by generations of my Caribbean family. Until now.
It caused terrible problems for me – both the silence and the menopause itself. I started to experience the menopause early, and naturally, I was in denial. I convinced myself that I simply couldn’t be at that stage yet: but the symptoms were crippling. I tried to mask their terrible effects and carry on with my life, but I was living in a great deal of pain and distress for almost half of every month. My symptoms included aching joints, menstrual cramps, paresthesia (pins and needles and electric shock sensations) and other more extreme symptoms that left me feeling shattered, daily.
I needed help! But my male GP dismissed me as if I were a naughty schoolchild, saying: “It’s just par for the course.” Being the daughter of a strong women, I challenged his unhelpful attitude and decided I was going to leave that particular GP practice, there and then.
That left me with no support. I had no one to turn to, and I knew I couldn’t speak to my mom. “We don’t discuss things like the menopause,” I told myself, in agony. “Besides – I’m too young for it to be that.” And yet…
A recent report found that Black women experience the menopause differently from white women – starting two years earlier than the national average. The Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) also found that Black women spend more time in the menopause transition than white women, with hot flushes and night sweats being reported by them more often than their white counterparts.
Why should that be the case?
Dr. Nanette Santoro, Professor and E. Stewart Taylor Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said: ‘My educated guess is that a lot of the differences have their basis in lifestyle, SES (socioeconomic status), and other stressors, such as systemic racism and their long-term consequences.’
So, the physiological effects of racism and associated stress are the possible reasons for early onset menopause! (Source: SWAN)
Juggling my career and managing the symptoms was dreadful – the daily humiliation of begging my manager for a fan to alleviate my hot flushes left me drained. My workplace provided very little support at the early stages of my menopause.
“If generations of women before me have managed to raise families and work through this,” I thought, “so can I.” That’s what women always do. But I felt awful, and without a support network, it was tough just ‘doing’ life. I coped because I felt I had to, but coping in excruciating pain and misery is not okay.
My mom and I are very close and we talk about everything. Everything BUT. We Caribbean women just didn’t dare utter the ‘M’ word. But with searing pain leaving me doubled-up, and after me using countless excuses for not seeing my friends, I had to confess.
So, one day, while we were eating together – my hands sweating and heart racing – I said, “Mom, can I talk to you about these shocking symptoms I’m having with the menopause?” Mom put down her glass of juice and looked at me like a deer caught in the headlights. There was such a long silence that I regretted the words leaving my lips and was about to change the subject.
Then she smiled. “Tell me about it, and let’s see what we can do to help you.”
Tear drops squeezed, tight in my eyes, as well as my mom’s. We both knew the taboo had been broken, the unspeakable had been spoken. The menopause was ‘out’ there, and the relief was huge. Mom hugged me as I described how alone I felt, with these symptoms raging through my body. And Mom shared, too. It turned out that she had experienced a number of the same symptoms, so she advised me about the herbal teas she drank and self-care she had practised. She, too, had felt alone, since my Dad was not the type of man who would discuss “women’s things” and my grandma would never have entertained such a topic of conversation.
As we looked at diet and exercise and shared our journeys, my mom’s menopause advice lifted a huge burden off my shoulders. I was falling but she caught me, and she continues to be a lifeline for me.
I believe we both helped each other – she could talk freely and openly about her own menopause journey, and her wise advice helped to reduce my shocking symptoms.
And in our own way, we broke the family taboo. Menopause is, after all, a natural process for women – nothing to be ashamed of or hidden away, leaving us to suffer in silence.
Mom’s love and support helped me to have a positive view of my menopause, and we connected at a deeper level. She made me see that I am my own beauty queen – I’m just going through a new stage in my life.
This act of unity between a Caribbean mom and a British daughter cemented an already strong relationship. Strong, but not silent.
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We understand there’s a lot of information out there on the menopause. You can read through the NICE guidance on menopause management, as well as the NHS overview on the menopause.