In The Middlepause Marina Benjamin writes about turning fifty and reflects on the effects of menopause, bereavement and the psychological impact of ageing. For her, these experiences all came close together, as she had a hysterectomy and experienced the loss of her father and a close friend around the same time.
The book intersperses her personal experience with insights drawn from science, literature and popular psychology. She dissects the social pressures on women to stay young and attractive and is sceptical of the promises of the ‘second spring’. She links this to what she sees as the over-prescription of HRT and gives some shocking examples of the history of the treatment and its dishonest marketing. Some women, though, may feel she underplays the benefits it brings and their difficulty in getting medication from their GP.
I enjoyed Benjamin’s discussion of how our experience of time changes. When you’re young, you always feel like you can take risks and make choices, because if they don’t work out you can do something else, but you suddenly reach a point where that’s no longer true, where certain decisions are irreversible.
Time also seems to go so much quicker when you’re older. There are conflicting theories about this. One is that a year is simply a much smaller proportion of your life at 50 than it was at five, but another she highlights is that when you’re older you have fewer new experiences, and it is novelty that makes time seem fuller and slower.
Some of her experiences chime with me but in other ways I feel very differently. She talks about the difficulty of losing your looks, of donning the invisibility cloak of middle age. Perhaps this is harder for women who have been used to turning heads (that was never me). I actually find it liberating to think that no one really cares much what I look like. While she has found she wants to engage more with the people around her, I now feel freer to withdraw, and not be bound by social conventions. (Interestingly, Sara Maitland in A Book of Silence talks about the menopause as a time for a woman to turn away from others and focus on herself.)
Benjamin writes that many women feel a sense of loss, not just of fertility but of the monthly rhythm that governs us from puberty, and that forms a key part of our identity. I only feel relief that those cycles which had such an effect on my mood, energy and physical well-being (I’m not sure I realised quite how much until now) are receding. It’s like I’ve been buffeted by relentless tides and am now floating, becalmed.
The Middlepause is of course, a memoir, an account of one woman’s experience, not a comprehensive review of symptoms or a self-help guide. It is beautifully written and tinged with sadness, particularly as Benjamin experienced the loss of both her father and a close friend. She seems to feel that the future will be smaller, any pleasures tinged with melancholy. But there is also a sense of acceptance, of finding a new way through life.
She powerfully illustrates that, whatever stage of life we are at, we are embodied, and our emotions do not exist in isolation from our emotional and social lives. However, for many women, the changes of middle age can offer liberation.
Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia