For many women it is our mothers who we look to for a clear line of sight on our future selves. Perhaps we wonder whether we’ll follow in their footsteps when it comes to the careers we’ll have, the moisturiser we’ll favour or the age we’ll discover our first grey hair. Often we are witness to great changes in our mothers’ lives, which in turn become part of our own lived experience. Talking to women – and indeed some men – before writing this piece, most were able to tell us when their mothers experienced the menopause. Some remember it as a dramatic shift in their mothers’ temperaments, for others it was more of a series of subtle changes and for a handful it was characterised by the sudden arrival of their mothers’ hot flushes. Not all of these men and women remember knowing – or being told explicitly – that what they were witnessing was indeed the menopause. On reflection though, many of the women we spoke to now sift through these memories as they themselves begin to approach 51: the average age in the UK to start experiencing symptoms.
What we all agreed upon was the devastating lack of awareness surrounding the menopause and indeed the damaging stereotypes associated with the women who experience it. For Rachel Weiss, founder of Menopause Café, providing women (and men) with positive images of how older women can still be valued and enjoy life is essential to her work. She hopes this will counter society’s gendered ageism, where older women are seen as "past it" once they reach menopausal age. Where advertisers urge women to conceal all signs of ageing, as if it were something to be ashamed of and covered up, both literally and metaphorically.
After watching the BBC programme ‘Menopause and Me’ by Kirsty Wark, Rachel was struck by the simple fact that people don’t talk about the menopause. So much so that the women approaching it (and their partners) are not prepared at all for the impact it may have on their physical and mental wellbeing, relationships and performance at work. Having spent many years as a coach and counsellor at Rowan Consultancy, Rachel knew that facilitating discussion in a non-judgmental and supportive environment helps to reduce shame and stigma. Following a post on Rowan's Facebook page, she was surprised by the number of women interested in attending a potential Menopause Café. Two of these women - Gail Jack and Lorna Fotheringham - actually offered to help her run the very first one.
And so, at the Blend Coffee Lounge in Perth in June 2017, 28 people sat with each other and talked about the menopause.
Rachel believes, as we do, that despite the many websites and leaflets that are available, storytelling is the most effective way that we as human beings can learn (in fact research has shown it to be 22 times more effective than facts). Creating a space that was relaxed and non-medical normalised talking about the menopause. No expert speakers: just ordinary people sharing their questions, stories, tips, bewilderment, laughter and tears. Anecdotally Rachel knows that some of the benefits of the Menopause Café include easing the sense of isolation that many women feel, providing hope that there is a way through as well as useful, practical advice to take forward on the (often difficult) menopause journey. The women who attend a Menopause Café also comment on how much it helps to restore their confidence, both energising and empowering them with its strong spirit of community. Through our own research and work with organisations such as The Feminist Library and She Can Consultancy, we know how important it is that space be carved out for women in a world that - all too often - does not allow them to feel safe and supported while navigating their unique paths through it.
Menopause Café went on to appear at the first WOW (Women of the World) Festival to be held in Scotland, something Rachel feels was important in order to align the ethos of Menopause Café with WOW’s own gender equality remit. As what many perhaps don’t realise is that menopause, the symptoms women experience and the knock on effect to their confidence levels often holds women back at work. Studies have shown that at least of 50% of women have reported finding work difficult due to their symptoms, while around 10% of women have actually given up work all together. However there are currently 15.1 million women in the UK aged 16 and over in employment, with around 3.5 million of those women aged 50 or over. When viewed in this context, initiatives such as Menopause Café become a vital part of the feminist agenda. In fact with women over 50 now the fastest growing group of employees, we should all be advocating for Menopause Cafes as one important way to seek out and remove the obstacles that stop women from achieving their potential.
Building on the success of the world's first Menopause Festival earlier this year, the organisers are currently planning a bigger, better Menopause Festival for 2019: #FlushFest2019 in Perth, Scotland. Starting on Friday April 26th with a seminar on ‘Menopause in the Workplace’ looking at ways employers can support and retain menopausal employees, followed by speakers including Dr. Andrea Davies, co-author of the government's report ‘Menopause transition: Effects on women's economic participation’. There will also be a talk from Dr. Laura Jarvis on the medical side of the menopause as well as creative workshops, an art exhibition and a set from the stand-up comedian Gusset Grippers. The aim for the festival is that it not only continues furthering the awareness raising agenda of the Menopause Cafes, but that it also works to start making menopause something to be celebrated.
For ourselves, our future selves and for our mothers it is vital that we as feminists continue to reframe and redefine menopause as the start of a new (albeit slightly different) phase in our lives. The power for us as women lies in reclaiming menopause, in order that we might help the world understand that being a woman doesn’t begin and end with our youth. Empowerment forever lies in education – in knowing our bodies and in helping others learn the best ways to
support us through their evolution.
For further information and details on #FlushFest2019 visit https://www.menopausecafe.net/menopause-festival-flushfest2019/. You can find their supporting materials on menopause at https://www.menopausecafe.net/useful-links/ . Rachel would love to see Menopause Cafes popping up worldwide - the first one to take place outside the UK was in Toronto earlier this year. Resources are available for volunteers to run their own cost-free Menopause Café here: https://www.menopausecafe.net/resources/, along with their ‘How to Run Your Own Menopause Café’ guide.