Books October 2011

The Bitch Is Back

Are menopausal women mad, bad, and dangerous? Yes—but they’re really just returning to normal.

So that’s the basic physiological landscape of menopause. Dry as the riverbeds can seem, though, one menopause book does rise like Mount Etna above the rest. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, it is the bible of middle-aged womanhood: The Wisdom of Menopause, by Christiane Northrup, M.D. Having recently spent (20? 50? 80?) hours with it, I’ve come to believe that The Wisdom of Menopause is a masterwork. Weighing in at two pounds and 656 pages, it is an astonishingly complete, mind-bogglingly detailed orrery of the achingly complex, wheels-and-dials-filled Ptolemaic universe that is Womanhood. Featuring, arch-conventionally, its smiling doctor/author on a soothing pastel cover, the book is very much of the genre, and yet explodes it. Northrup presents both a celebration of Western medical practice and a revolt against it. Three times as big as the others, Wisdom is no less than the Jupiter in the menopause-book solar system, our Gravity’s Rainbow.

Let me now gloriously unbutton my too-tight mom jeans, wave my Hadassah arms (even more hideous term heard recently—bat wings), and wax on. Are you grasping, yet, the scope of this thing? Wisdom is a Homeric poem of modern femalehood. No stone from Western or Eastern (or Southern or Northern) medicine is left unturned, from folic acid to breast exams to personal dancing to selenium to feng shui to cosmetic surgery (Northrup allows it, while counseling discretion as a protection against judgmental friends). Woo-woo passages on Motherpeace Tarot cards and the chakra work of the astrologer Barbara Hand Clow alternate with biological analyses of an almost kidney-squeezing complexity. Which is not to say there isn’t tons of news you can use:

I highly recommend a snack at around four in the afternoon, right during the time when blood sugar, mood, and serotonin tend to plummet.

This totally hit home. Although the Hour of the Wolf is typically considered 4 o’clock in the morning, for many mothers of school-age children, how many of our inner wolves appear at afternoon carpool time?

Even Suze Orman makes a guest appearance, in a TV green room (the place where all modern witches gather):

She told me that you can see people’s ill health in their money and cash flow first because money has nowhere to hide an energy imbalance.

You either have positive cash flow or you have debt. Simple. Sooner or later, if the behavior patterns and beliefs that create money problems are not addressed, they will manifest as health problems in the body.

I couldn’t help gasping in recognition again and penciling in the margin, like Woody Allen’s “Whore of Mensa,” “Yes, very true.” You see? Wisdom is of such a multitasking, infinitely varied scope that I think few men could tolerate it, or even maintain consciousness through it. But they remain ignorant at their peril!

All of that said, even under my inspiring leadership, it is unlikely the targeted demographic of women will ever engage in Bloomsday-like readings of Wisdom, as is done with Joyce’s Ulysses. (Groused a girlfriend to whom I was manically recommending it: “Why should I bother? Every day of menopause already feels like you’re reading a 600-page book.”) So, for the bloated and tired, let me give you the CliffsNotes.

Today women between the ages of 44 and 65 are the largest demographic group. So it’s no surprise that Northrup considers menopause a major cultural event. Without going into the sometimes arduous detail other feminist texts do (the rising or falling number of women in government, the social architecture of food-sharing collectives), Northrup suggests this gigantic demographic transition will change society—somehow—for the better. All well and good, no arguments there, but now here comes the juicy core of Wisdom:

A woman once told me that when her mother was approaching the age of menopause, her father sat the whole family down and said, “Kids, your mother may be going through some changes now, and I want you to be prepared. Your Uncle Ralph told me that when your Aunt Carol went through the change, she threw a leg of lamb right out the window!” Although this story fits beautifully into the stereotype of the “crazy” menopausal woman, it should not be overlooked that throwing the leg of lamb out the window may have been Aunt Carol’s outward expression of the process going on within her soul: the reclaiming of self. Perhaps it was her way of saying how tired she was of waiting on her family, of signaling

to them that she was past the cook/chauffeur/dishwasher stage of life. For many women, if not most, part of this reclamation process includes getting in touch with anger and, perhaps, blowing up at loved ones for the first time.

Woo-woo! Duck, Uncle Ralph! Go, Aunt Carol!

In short, never mind the wavy-graph technicalities of all those estrogen/progesterone/FSH fluctuations. Opines the doctor:

I think it’s useful to get your hormone levels tested. But it’s far more useful to tune in to how you’re feeling than to focus on a lab test, which gives, after all, just a single snapshot of an ever-changing process.

What the phrase wisdom of menopause stands for, in the end, is that, as the female body’s egg-producing abilities and levels of estrogen and other reproductive hormones begin to wane, so does the hormonal cloud of our nurturing instincts. During this huge biological shift, our brain, temperament, and behaviors will begin to change—as then must, alarmingly, our relationships. As one Northrup chapter title tells it, “Menopause Puts Your Life Under a Microscope,” and the message, painful as it is, is: “Grow … or die.”

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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