The idea of talking to your family about your menopause might feel daunting or embarrassing – but it’s really important. Here are some practical tips to help you explain menopause to your loved ones…
By Hilly Janes
Talk to your family about the menopause? ‘No way’ may be the answer that springs to mind. Because although millions of women are going through the menopause at any one time, it is still a bit of a taboo subject that we refer to in a whisper as ‘the change’. But as one of our community members said: ‘We need to make menopause as normal as having periods and babies and every other medical landmark in our lives.’
The taboo is partly because some of the symptoms can be embarrassing – suddenly turning beetroot pink as a hot flush comes on, bursting into tears for no apparent reason, or feeling as if your brain has turned to cotton wool. Night sweats and vaginal dryness are upsetting for any woman – and for family members, mum turning into a bit of a monster for no apparent reason can be totally bewildering.
Know your facts
Before you start talking to your family about the menopause, it’s a good idea to make sure you understand what is happening to you and why so that the conversation can be calm and rational. The menopause is all about your hormones and how they they decrease and fluctuate with the cessation of periods, on average when women are in their early fifties.
Women who have had their womb or ovaries removed for medical reasons will find the onset of symptoms more rapid and intense, but for the rest of us, signs that this entirely normal and natural process is starting can begin several years earlier – the perimenopause – and can continue for years afterwards. Some women sail through it all with very few symptoms, for others it can be torture. Here’s why:
- Progesterone: this hormone decreases and explain the dreaded mood swings and why little things can suddenly start to get you down or wind you up.
- Oestrogen: levels can fluctuate wildly and produce more physical symptoms like trouble sleeping and night sweats, lack of energy and one of the least talked about subjects – the vaginal dryness that can make sex uncomfortable or even downright painful. This lack of natural lubrication can also lead to unpleasant urinary infections.
- Testosterone: while this is thought of as a male hormone, women produce it too and falling levels can result it in tiredness, lack of self confidence and a dwindling sex drive.
As if all this wasn’t enough for to cope with, menopausal changes can coincide with other mid-life challenges like parenting tricky teenagers, insecurity at work or coping with frail, elderly parents. Even all three!
Talking to your partner about menopause
Probably the most important person to talk to is your partner, because their support and understanding are essential. Try and see it from their point of view: ‘What’s the matter with her? Why does she get upset so easily? She’s tired all the time and she’s gone off sex – maybe she doesn’t find me attractive any more?’
Bear in mind that your partner isn’t in the flush of youth either, and may be feeling insecure about getting an erection. Reassurance can go a long way in easing any tension he may be feeling.
Try and find a quiet moment to sit down together or go out for a walk if that feels less intense, and explain that it’s not your feelings for him that have changed, but your hormones, and the symptoms may not last that long.
Discuss the options together, like asking your doctor to prescribe HRT, which replaces some of those dwindling hormones. HRT has been controversial in the past, and your partner and older family members may have heard that it can increase the risk of blood clots or breast cancer, but doctors now believe that the benefits outweigh the risks – which are small anyway. HRT is likely to be prescribed for only a few years at the most to see you through the menopause, and the risk factor will decrease once you stop taking it.
If penetrative sex is impossibly difficult, it may because the walls of your vagina are getting thinner due to a lack of oestrogen, not because you can’t stand the idea. You can remedy this with a HRT cream to apply around or insert into your vagina, available on prescription. Over the counter lubricants can help if the dryness isn’t too bad and experimenting with them can be part of a new kind of foreplay.
Lotions and potions from health food shops or websites should be approached with caution – these are not regulated in the way that medicines like HRT are, but may cause similar side effects if they contain natural sources of the hormones they are designed to replace.
The important thing is not to let the menopause come between you and your man, so try to talk about other forms of intimacy that show you still find each other attractive, even if it’s just cuddling up on the sofa or going to sleep in each others arms. Consider sharing more activities you enjoy together and that will distract you, whether it’s cooking, country walks or joining a book club – whatever helps you enjoy life.
On a more practical level, if night sweats are disturbing your sleep and leaving you both feeling drained during the day, try sleeping under a cotton sheet but using separate duvets so that if you fling yours off in the night, he won’t freeze. If you have a spare room or sofa bed, you could discuss taking it in turns one night a week to sleep separately so that you both catch up on some proper rest. That will seem less threatening than moving permanently into separate rooms.
Talking to your children about menopause
What about the children? If they are young adults, you should be able to explain the facts without too much emotional oversharing. They may be adults, but bear in mind that you are the grown up. You could explain that menopausal changes are caused by hormonal fluctuations similar to those experienced with PMT, and point out that young women will eventually go through the menopause, too. While PMT lasts for a few days every month, however, these up and downs can last for several years – but reassure them that it’s not forever.
A community member said:
‘I have three girls in their 20s and they all enjoy laughing with me at those silly moments when you find a tea towel in the freezer, or burn a pan because you forget its on! They are all concerned by my mood swings and hot flushes, but they all make me feel blessed as they have each asked individually about menopause and we have discussed the fact that they may well experience the same or similar symptoms.’
Teenagers should be approached with caution. Many of them are bundles of raging hormones themselves, whose brains are undergoing huge transformation as they approach adulthood, affecting their ability to see reason. Teeangers find domestic conflict deeply unsettling and getting into an argument with them won’t improve your menopausal mood. You could ask them to treat you as they would like you to treat them when sparks fly – by backing off. In calmer moments explain that it’s your crazy hormones talking, not the real you.
There is something every family member should be able to do: give you some extra help. Rather than sobbing over the kitchen sink that you have to do everything and why doesn’t anyone help you around the house, be specific. Agree some tasks that they could take on – cooking the supper one night a week, doing their personal, visiting granny and grandpa – and always, always putting out the bins.
For more tips – and to share your experiences – why not visit the Live Better With Menopause community forum.