Going through menopause can be an isolating experience, especially if those around you don’t understand how your symptoms are affecting your daily life. Helen Wills shares her tips on talking to her family, especially her teenagers, about menopause – with positive results!
Perimenopause at 40
Looking back, I think I went into perimenopause right after the birth of my last child, when I was 40. I thought it was my pelvic floor (and my torn and battered vagina) that was just failing to recover fast enough, but when the post-birth loss of bladder control wasn’t much better after two years I realised that this was a long-term issue. It was going to need a bit more input than a few lift and squeeze exercises!
Over the next few years I went through all manner of bladder investigations – if you’ve ever stood naked from the waist down over a Pampers mat while two nurses run a tap and take you through a waterfall visualisation, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I hope my experiences might help you try out other options before resorting to that.
Nothing helped. Not even the surgery I put myself through because a consultant checking out the state of my vagina mentioned I had a small prolapse. He did at least confirm that my pelvic floor muscles were tiptop, so at least I had some validation for all the pelvic weights I’ve strained to keep tucked nicely up inside each night whilst watching all seven seasons of Mad Men.
The diagnosis – urge incontinence
You see, my problem wasn’t my pelvic floor after all. I had something called urge incontinence – sometimes referred to colloquially as ‘key in door’ syndrome – where the minute I feel the need for the loo my body takes over and decides that right NOW would be an ideal time. My bladder once chose to get the job over and done with during a conversation with my brother-in-law. I had Harry Enfield in my head for months afterwards (Google that if you’re too young to remember) and I don’t think he looked me in the eye again for a year.
A cocktail of symptoms
By my late 40s I was coping with two years of horrendous night sweats, waking up nightly to peel off drenched pyjamas and lay a towel down on my soggy mattress. I cut down on alcohol, convinced this was just my poor body trying to detox overnight (how I laugh at 48 year-old me now I know the real cause). Then I got debilitating joint pain and muscle stiffness. It was so bad first thing in the morning that I started joking to my family that my bones were now 88 until I’d had a couple of strong lattes.
Eventually, when my doctor advised surgery for stiff shoulders, I finally bit the bullet and saw a private doctor who specialised in menopause. And guess what? It turns out that urge incontinence is also quite a well-known symptom of oestrogen deficiency – not many non-specialists know that. I should say that I know private medicine isn’t an option for many, but I hope that by speaking about my own experience, other women will be able to go to their doctor armed with more information on what they might need.
Read more about how to speak to your doctor about menopause or visit our symptoms library.
Talking to my teens about menopause
At 55, I now have an HRT combination that makes all my symptoms much more manageable, but it’s fair to say that my family have seen the toll those years took on me. I had long periods of low mood as I worked my way through the symptoms and medical suggestions with limited improvements. Mostly, I kept it to myself, which was draining, but since I’ve started to feel better, it’s become important to me that my family understands menopause, and how they can help. Here’s how I’ve tackled it…
1. Normalise the conversation
My own mum never talked to me about her menopause. I overheard hushed conversations with her friend about heavy and erratic periods, but it was clear it wasn’t for my ears, so I never asked. Equally, I’ve felt quite uncomfortable talking openly to my own children about my menopause, but I want them to understand that this is a normal life issue, not a mysterious illness that women have to deal with alone.
It’s become important to me that my family understands menopause, and how they can help.”
2. Keep it short and sweet
My conversations with my teenagers about menopause have been anecdotal. Teens are not known for their love of a long chat about personal issues, so I’ve figured that dropping it into everyday conversation in tiny soundbites is my best bet.
3. Make it relevant
Talking to teens about menopause doesn’t feel easy, but I try to be matter-of-fact. I think taking the mysterious, whispered euphemism route of my mother’s generation would be counter-productive, so I just tell it how it is, without too much drama.
How to talk to your teenage son about menopause
Despite great HRT, I’ll sometimes feel utterly wiped out mid-afternoon. Instead of ploughing on at my desk (with a mainline of sugar at my side) I’ll often go and flop on the sofa next to my son as he’s giving his FIFA goalie a dressing-down for lack of commitment.
I tell him that I’m exhausted, that fluctuating hormones at my age can leave me feeling suddenly drained, and how frustrating that is when I’ve got a deadline and a dinner to cook. He tells me to go for a nap and look after myself a bit more. He hasn’t quite got round to suggesting he cook dinner yet, but he’s showing awareness and empathy. I feel quite gratified that his mates in the headset are getting a small education in menopause through these little interactions, too!
He hasn’t quite got round to suggesting he cook dinner yet, but he’s showing awareness and empathy.”
How to talk to your teenage daughter about menopause
With my daughter I take opportunities to explain menopause in terms of hormones, in ways she can relate to. We’ve always been relatively open about periods, and she’ll tell me if she’s feeling particularly tired or emotional. I think by being open about what fluctuating hormones in menopause can do to me, I can help her understand the impact they might have on her own body, and how they might affect her over her lifetime. It’s not something she needs to dwell on at the moment, but I hope it will just add to the tapestry of her life story so that she can take it in her stride – and speak up for herself – when she reaches that point.
I think by being open about what fluctuating hormones in menopause can do to me, I can help her understand the impact they might have on her own body, and how they might affect her over her lifetime.”
My kids might not thank me in this lifetime, but I’m firmly convinced that sharing snippets of personal information in daily conversation is always the best way to land topics they might otherwise prefer to avoid. And only one or two sentences at a time – just enough to slide in before their fingers go in their ears and a chorus of ‘la la la’ carries them up the stairs to their bedrooms.