Even though roughly half the world's population is female, it often seems that men understand surprisingly little about menstruation and menopause. That’s not to say that all men have to fully understand menopause — and let’s face it, who does? — but it could be helpful for guys who have beautifully aging women in their lives to learn a little more of what goes on with menopause. The whole process is uncomfortable, for starters, so a little empathy would be nice.
Men of the world: We know you care about us, so it’s time to brush up on your menopause IQ!
First things first
Let's start with the basics: Menopause officially occurs when a woman stops having menstrual cycles altogether. However, the process of getting to that point can take a long time. In fact, it starts at the age of 20, when a woman’s menstrual cycle gradually shortens until perimenopause.
Although scientists know that there are many factors at play, including hormones, they aren’t completely sure of the cause behind menopause. It’s widely accepted, however, that menopause is directly related to the dwindling number of eggs a woman has as she ages.
Regardless of the cause of menopause, however, here are a few things that women — and men — can expect from the experience:
1. Be prepared for the long haul
Oh, you thought hitting menopause meant you’re in the clear? Think again, because menopause doesn’t just happen overnight. Menopause actually begins with perimenopause, which can take years.
A woman can’t breathe a sigh of relief that she’s safely past her period until after she’s been period-free for over a year, says Mary Esselman, 54, a writer from Charlottesville, Virginia and author of “How Did This Happen? Poems For The Not So Young Anymore.”
“For many years of perimenopause, you can get your period any time — 10 days after you just had one, or 120 days after you just had one,” she explains. “It's a guessing game. It's also sometimes spotting, sometimes a geyser.”
2. It’s not something you just “go through”
Esselman is passionate about warning women (and men) that menopause is never something you just “go through.” Instead, she notes, you’ll go through years of a stuttering period, crummy sleep, weird anxiety, and not-super-fun mood swings.
“We can't gloss over it,” she says. “Aging is not an abstraction, it's a real thing, and part of what I hope to do is help younger women learn more about it before it hits them over the head — menopause and other perfectly natural (but pretty disruptive) aspects of growing older as a woman.”
3. Every woman experiences menopause differently
No woman and no menstrual cycle is ever alike, so it’s important for men to realize that not every woman will experience the same things in the same way. Women have different outlooks on their menstrual cycles and different comfort levels with their bodies. These factors all affect their experience going through menopause.
Laurie Pea, who has experienced menopause firsthand, says her life seems more timeless.
“I can no longer keep track of my days and nights by my cycle, and I live without a sort of boundary,” she says.
4. It’s not always better than a period
From a male perspective, it might seem like a woman would be downright gleeful to get rid of a monthly occurrence that forces her to bleed from her vagina. But appearances can be deceiving.
“It isn't always better,” warns Victoria Fraser. “In my experience, it felt like dementia and puberty had a kid together!”
5. There will physical changes that can be hard to handle
Menopause can cause many physical symptoms, including headaches, vaginal dryness, and changes in your hair. Although Michelle Nati, 51, admits that never thinking about her period is a positive, the cons far outweigh the benefit of getting to wear white undies 24/7.
Nati also says the physical symptoms of hot flashes, brain fog, crying, and abdominal weight gain felt like they came “out of nowhere.”
6. The PMS doesn’t always go away
If you think menopause means saying sayonara to the torment that is PMS, think again. Nati and others like her find that instead of skipping through postmenopause life PMS-free, menopause has been like one long preperiod week.
“[It’s] like PMS with no relief,” she says.
7. There will be shifting
“I've always been skinny, but at 54 I've got the pudge that won't budge around the waist,” notes Esselman. “I expected weight gain to some extent, but not the shifting of weight, the pull of gravity on everything, from apple cheeks (turning them into jowls) to my lovely vagina.”
So men, when you’re no longer going with the flow, perhaps you could learn to just let things fall where they may.
8. Hitting the gym is essential — or, at least, indulging less is
One side effect of menopause is that some women tend to experience slowed metabolism.
“While never having a period again has been a great boon, the tremendous weight gain that has occurred (despite no increase in eating!) has not been my favorite part of this experience,” says Lorraine Berry, another woman who shared her menopause experience.
How to help her transition through menopause
So, gents, here is some great advice for maintaining healthy relationships with the women in your life, especially during menopause.
When it comes to mood swings: Help her work through mood swings by understanding that they aren’t aimed at you. Sometimes, binge watching a favorite show together or treating her to a spa day is enough to lighten the load.
When it comes to sex: Be aware that her body is changing. Along with it, her body confidence, sex drive, and sexual pleasure may change as well. Be willing to talk about these things respectfully, and find ways to approach them as a couple.
When it comes to her body: Share the differences you see happening in your own body. Age affects us all, and it’s valuable for her to know she’s not the only one going through changes.
When it comes to confidence: Support her in working out if and when she wants to, but if she wants to enjoy a great meal, feed her well and tell her she’s beautiful. Because she is!
Chaunie Brusie, BSN, is a registered nurse with experience in labor and delivery, critical care, and long-term care nursing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and four young children, and she is the author of the book "Tiny Blue Lines."