Last August, we gathered a group of six women in a studio in New York City and asked them about their peri/menopause and their midlives.
We laughed, shared our deepest feelings, and touched on everything from sex, motherhood, spirituality, and self-realization to what it means to be a person of a certain age in our society and how ideas around aging need to change.
Here’s what we learned: We’re more powerful now than we could ever have imagined we’d be when we were in our 20s. Yeah, we’ve got a lot to be angry about. But we’ve also got a lot to celebrate.
Amid the emotional and physical symptoms of perimenopause and menopause, there’s also an emerging and powerful reckoning. We know who we are. We know what we don’t want. We’re tired of smiling just because someone else told us to.
And we won’t settle for anything less than what we deserve. —Editors
Joanna Briley, 53
New York City Transit worker and stand-up comedian
"I was working in the token booth when I felt my first hot flash. I was 44 and still getting my cycle, so I had trouble accepting what was happening. When I realized what it was, I cried — I was working out and looking good, and I thought, 'There’s no way I’m going through this change, I’m too young.' I really thought you had to be 60 years old to be experiencing all these things.
My bedsheets were wet every night. I was craving salty foods. My breasts were sore, my hair was falling out, and I was gaining weight around my midsection. I was totally going through it.
Menopause was just never something we talked about in my community. As a Black woman, I wasn’t hearing a lot of conversations about it. My mother didn’t even know she had gone through menopause. When I talked to her about it, she said she never experienced symptoms or changes.
When it comes to these discussions about menopause, I do not see myself in many of the advertisements. Most of the time it was white women who were talking about hot flashes or HRT, so I thought it must be a “them” thing. That’s why it never really dawned on me that we go through it, too. We definitely need to talk about menopause more: on TV, in books, everywhere. We need moments where we can sit down as women and say, 'I’m 35. What can I expect?'
Midlife, for me, is like a renaissance. I know who I am now, and I didn’t know who I was ten years ago. I’ve settled into being Joanna and accepting all my flaws and all the changes, that I’m in control, that I’m a full woman even though I don’t have any children. I don’t care what people say. I laugh a lot, that’s my therapy.
I’m so proud of being a woman. I’m so happy to be a woman. It’s actually an amazing time we experience just by going through it.
I don’t worry about my age. 50 is the new 20, if you let it be."
Kelli Dunham, 54
Nurse and stand-up comedian
"I started to have inklings that this was going to happen based on some physical symptoms I was having. The symptom that most caught me off guard was that I didn’t want to have sex anymore. I just was like, 'Oh, this is not as interesting to me as it once was.' And that was surprising to me, because that has never been an issue with me before. I still really like sex, but I don’t need it.
Of course, the biggest thing that made me realize I was menopausal was not having periods, which was just amazing! I was so excited for that. That was really fantastic and it made me feel better about the whole thing.
My mom reached out to talk about menopause, which was kind of amazing because there’s so much my mom and I didn’t talk about. But she was happy to discuss this because it was something she had gone through that I was also about to go through. We’re in different places in our womanhood, but we were able to bond about it. Watching her was so valuable, like a graduate lesson in aging.
I feel like I audited old age. I lost two partners in a row to cancer and then I had a knee replacement. The most terrible things that can happen to you can also come with these weird gifts. That was one of the gifts: not being so afraid of aging.
I think 20-year-old Kelli would be super impressed to see how my life has turned out. There was a time in my 20s where I just thought I wasn’t even going to make it out of my 20s. But I’m very much living the life that I would have wanted to live.
Aging isn’t easy and it’s not always this great, glorious experience. But I feel very privileged to grow older."
Lisa Levy, 66
Artist and radio show host
"I remember missing a period around age 48. My mother said that she went into menopause at 50. So I started thinking, 'Oh, we’re getting started now.'
Other symptoms I had were irregular periods and a few hot flashes. My perimenopause-to-menopause experience was pretty smooth. But going through menopause was a lonely experience. When we get our periods, there’s more of a community experience. But women don’t want to talk about menopause; it isn’t part of our culture or society.
One of the things I didn’t expect as I got older was feeling better about my body. I had a very average body when I was in my 20s. But now, as I’ve had more time, I’ve really gotten into hiking and walking and using my body. I’m more athletic now than when I was younger.
There are so many things that I started doing in my 50s. I started my own radio show when I was 58, I paint, I have a gallery. It’s only been in the last five or 10 years that I’ve actually had the time to do the work I really want to do. I got married at age 54 for the first time. I couldn’t have imagined this life in my 20s and 30s.
I have very strong feelings about women and aging. It makes me really angry. Society has one standard of what makes women attractive, and youth is part of that standard. Women have this pressure to look young and beautiful no matter how old they are. But as we get older, the pressure becomes more intense. If we’re all chasing youthful looks, we are never, ever going to have any kind of real equality.
Menopause needs a rebranding. It needs to be thought of as something that all women go through that is a normal part of life, and that there’s this whole experience afterwards where there’s a lot of freedom. We need to be more positive about aging and celebrate all the great things about it.
I hang around young people and I don’t try to pretend I’m their age. I learn so much from everybody and everything. And I keep wanting to have new experiences. I’m busier than ever. That’s what keeps you young."
Margaret Champagne, 47
Actor and comedian
"After I had my kid at 42, the doctor told me I had endometriosis. I’ve had issues with awful, heavy periods and lots of pain since I was 16. But I hadn’t even known that endometriosis existed! And then one night when I was 46, I was at a concert (my husband plays in a rock band), and my friend, who is ten years older than me, looked at me and asked if I was OK. I said, 'No, I’m not,' and I told her what was going on with me. I was getting these ridiculously heavy periods and sweating and just feeling miserable. I had been having breast pain, I went for a mammogram, I was convinced I had breast cancer.
She said, 'That’s perimenopause.' And I said, 'Peri-WHAT?'
We started talking about perimenopause and we almost missed the whole show because we just sat in the corner, drinking our cocktails and talking. On top of endometriosis, it was another thing that was happening in my body that I didn’t know anything about.
There was a controversy about putting actors’ real ages in their IMDB listings. As an actor, I was panicked that I might get cut out of auditions, because while maybe I could look like I’m 35, they’d know I’m 47 and therefore not see me for the role. I have something different to offer. This is not a contest. I’m not competing with 27-year-olds. I’m not competing with 35-year-olds.
There’s endless pressure to look younger, to act younger and be younger, and we don’t see reality in film and on television. Like, why are older men praised for having a 'hot dad bod' but we’re not for having a 'hot mom bod'? People say that women don’t enjoy sex as they get older, but I’m finding I enjoy sex a lot more. Menopause or perimenopause doesn’t mean we’re not sexual beings anymore! We’re softer in other places and we know what we like, and we have better sensitivities to our own feelings.
It’s so important to have these conversations about aging, because I like myself at my age! I work so hard to stay in the moment, but sometimes it’s hard when you’re in pain and you feel like you’re battling something you can’t touch.
For my birthday I went to an amusement park and rode a roller coaster because I wanted to scream. And yeah, baby, that was fun."
Narisara Vanichanan, 51
Yoga instructor and business owner
"I was in my mid-40s and wanted to come off oral contraceptives and I wanted to use more natural methods. It was then that I noticed my body had started regulating itself without the intervention of birth control. And then I started noticing other changes.
After I went off the pill, I felt a lot of fatigue, saw some weight gain, experienced some brain fog, and was just not feeling like myself. I didn’t have as much energy as I used to when I was running around, 24/7. And I really wanted to get back to the level I was at before.
I’d had to really re-establish relationships with myself on all different levels — with my mind and with my heart, as well as how I balanced hydration and sleep and sugar and fat and salt and sex. I had to learn what self-care was, because in the past I’d do the bare minimum and then just run out the door again to keep up with the bustle of having an active life. But when my hormones were changing, it became clear that I had to take some time for myself.
To treat my symptoms, I decided to try more traditional, natural paths, such as Chinese medicine and acupuncture. For me, it helped a lot. Acupuncture helped me manage pain, flow, and heaviness, and provided a layer of stress relief. Sometimes I’d cry during it; I’d feel a sense of letting go. I thought about things I’d say in my yoga classes and realized I needed to take my own advice: that my body is my teacher, my breath is my teacher.
I’d have to say that midlife feels like life. Midlife feels like being alive. If you are finding joy, finding purpose, finding connection, then it’s all going to be fine. And the times in my life where I haven’t found that, when I’ve been misaligned with a career or in a relationship that was wrong, that’s felt worse than being in midlife.
For me, menopause is about freedom of the spirit, freedom of the body, freedom of the mind. It’s an opportunity to reevaluate, recalibrate. I’d like to see older women featured in media. I like to see older women featured in leadership. I like to see older women just out there just enjoying their life a little bit more. I think seeing more of that that would take away the stigma and take away the fear."
Amy Shankar, 45
"Perimenopause was something that I started reading about in magazines, like Marie Claire, Cosmo, even Newsweek. Then I saw something on the BBC. That’s when I thought about my irregular periods and how my eggs seemed to be planning their exit strategy and realized, 'This is serious.'
I hate how we have to deal with all of this; it’s brutal. There’s this conventional wisdom that men get better-looking as they grow older when really, no, they don’t, haha. They just get wealthier, and we’re supposed to be attracted to that because we’re attracted to money. But women get stigmatized for being older. It’s not at all the same. It’s a shock to the system when suddenly people are holding the door for you, but not because you’re hot.
I’ve never been married. I like being a relationship, but I’m at a place in my life where I know not to dive into something with somebody just to be in something. I’ve never wanted kids. One thing that I’m excited about is not worrying about getting pregnant. Now I only have to worry about STDs. This cuts my worrying in half, which is a big deal because I’m Jewish, and we worry a lot.
I started dating somebody last year who was way younger than me, and I was seeing these differences in how we looked at life. He’d use 'current' words that I’d have to google when he wasn’t looking. When he’d hand me his phone, I’d have to hold the screen far from my face so I could actually read it.
I think women need to be portrayed as much more independent at our age, being happy and doing things that they want to be doing, as opposed to just following their man around and making sure that they go to the doctor and eat healthy meals and stuff. I think that at our age, we’re treated like nurses that are supposed to just do everything for everyone else. But we’re not their caretakers, you know?
In my 20s, the only women I knew in their 40s seemed really unhappy. I was working as a teacher and I didn’t like how the women around me seemed to be feeling. That would have been a huge regret if I hadn’t quit teaching and pursued stand-up comedy. That’s a part of aging and getting to know yourself that’s amazing: You can get an understanding of what makes you happy and you can focus on accomplishing it.
I like my mom’s outlook on aging. When I ask her how old she is, she’ll say, 'I’m 54. Oh wait, no I’m not. I’m 70!' The same thing happens to me when people ask me my age. I’ll say, 'I’m 36, wait, no I’m not!' And I’ll think, when did that happen? And why do I still identify with 36? Either way, I don’t feel old at all. Sometimes I’ll look at my face and see smile lines, but what can I do? I’m a comedian. I’m not going to stop laughing."
Want to share your meno story? Join us at The Hot Spot, a safe space to learn, laugh, and talk about all things midlife and beyond.
Photos: Mindy Tucker
Video Editor: Cheyenne Picardo