Kathryn Reilly on menopause for the non-mother

We can be productive when we’re not reproductive. Even if we aren’t mums.

I very much looked forward to the menopause. It had been a breeze for my mum and I’d been plagued with agonising fibroids, amenorrhea and periods since the age of 11. Bring it on, I thought. My only slight worry was that I might regret choosing not to have children, when it was literally too late. Motherhood is a woman’s purpose, right? It’s normal. It’s what you should do. However, I think it’s a privilege to have a child, rather than a right. And some people just aren’t parent material. Including me.

Almost exclusively associated with loss (libido, hair, vitality, muscle tone, continence),  the menopause – from the Ancient Greek “men,” meaning month, which is related to the word moon, and “pauein” meaning to cease or stop – is something to be feared, we are consistently told. Look out for the symptoms, they say (but it’s not an illness). For me, in many ways, it felt like a letting go of all the bad stuff – the pain and inconvenience, the hormonal roller-coaster and desperate visits to doctors and hospitals. The drugs and therapies. One by one, the bad stuff stopped and I was set free. I didn’t feel any less womanly, even if I have to accept I do feel more invisible. But I quite like that.

Yes, I had hot flushes, but they were bearable. I felt (and feel) tired but I don’t know anyone, male or female, who doesn’t after the last few years. My memory isn’t what it once was (I could say the same about this and the stress of the pandemic). My hair is even thinner than ever, but there are ways of coping with that. I wouldn’t swap any of this to go back to that monthly hell.

But what about coming to terms with the fact I definitely wasn’t going to be a mum? For me, there were more reasons not to have children than there were to. Maybe it’s because by the time I met my husband when nearly 40, I’d assumed that I wouldn’t reproduce. Or because I have suffered from depression throughout my life and didn’t want to risk passing that on. And I certainly didn’t want to tempt along the post-natal sort. Or it might have been because I had an unhappy childhood. And the state of the world didn’t seem to exactly encourage me to add to the next generation.

Plus, I didn’t think I’d necessarily be a good mother. The ones I’ve witnessed who seem to “boss it” are totally attuned to what’s best for their offspring, rather than themselves. And ultimately, that means letting go. I can’t imagine how hard that must be. I was also terrified of childbirth having had my passage into the world – and how it nearly killed her – recounted at regular intervals by my mother. But possibly the most decisive factor is that I am an only child from a dysfunctional family.

For many women, the start of the menopause is inextricably linked with the thought of never having another child. But not all. It’s a different matter, of course, if you really wanted to have children but were unable. Which is what most people assume every woman without kids must have gone through. It’s the difference between considering yourself childless or child-free. And isn’t it abnormal not to have maternal feelings. I’m lucky that we now live in an age where I won’t (necessarily) be deemed a witch. And where I managed to swerve the pressure to procreate without too much trouble or too many nosy questions.

It would seem I’m not alone in making this call. Birth rates in the USA are at their lowest for decades, although UK figures went up slightly in 2021 (showing no evidence of the COVID baby boom many were anticipating). In evolutionary terms, we’re lucky – past generations might have died in childbirth or before menopause. But there’s an evolutionary argument as to why we are the only species apart from whales that lives on after our birth-giving years – and it’s that grandmothers can help keep their children’s children alive.

We’re now at a point where it’s not hugely unusual for women who stop menstruation at 50 to live another half century, whereas in the Ancient Greeks’ times, 50 percent of women died by the age of 34. So to think of ourselves as ‘over the hill’ and without purpose once we’re not fertile is kind of silly. Where did all the negativity come from? In Medieval times it seemed you could either be a witch or a lovely granny.

The good old Victorians are responsible for a lot of nonsense, especially surrounding women and ‘morals’. They believed the womb and brain to be connected, they thought it highly likely that post-menopausal women might go mad. In more recent times, women without functioning ovaries were somehow ‘unnatural’ and therefore hormone replacement therapy began. And is there a more emotive insult than to be called “barren”?

The greatest Queen of England, Elizabeth I, was thought to be just that, although there’s no proof to support this. It’s more likely that, given her mother’s demise, she associated sex with death. She was also clever enough to know that if she married, she would diminish her supreme power. So even though she couldn’t leave an heir, it would seem she chose not to become a mother.

Nowadays, it’s sometimes argued that not having kids is selfish. Another viewpoint might be that having a child is the ultimate act of selfishness because it’s all about creating a mini-me. Ego is in charge. Not to mention the fact that the planet can’t sustain more people. There are always two sides to an argument.

Despite thinking of myself as ‘not a child person’, I adore spending time with my nieces and nephew. I am lucky to have many close friends who also don’t have children. Tellingly, we all worked together, pouring an enormous amount of time and energy into our careers. And we were largely of the generation who were encouraged to put work first. I am also lucky that my friends who are parents don’t consider me a freak (that I know of).

Hoorah for the post-menopause years!

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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.