Menopause is a significant time for any woman, yet it’s often misunderstood. But no more! Author, journalist, and all-round champion of women Sam Baker shares the good, the bad, and the liberating
Have you ever read something that resonates so deeply with you, that it feels as though it was cosmically sent your way? Sam Baker’s The Shift: How I (Lost and) Found Myself After 40 – and You Can Too, is that book for me – a big claim, but it’s true.
Sam – former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and Red, and co-founder of The Pool – shares experiences of perimenopause and menopause in her new book.
“I wrote it for me – or the equivalent of me – at the point of perimenopause,” Sam explains. “Partly to say, ‘This is what’s coming for you and it might be shit, but there’s also a light at the end of the tunnel, and it might be great...’ because nobody told me those things.”
This was the case for me too, which explains the unbelievable sense of relief and recognition I felt reading Sam’s powerful latest offering.
Being told that I was perimenopausal around the age of 40, blindsided me. None of my close friends or colleagues were going through the same experience and, mentally, I felt very lonely, angry, and as if my body was suddenly completely unknown to me.
Feelings of isolation and estrangement from yourself upon menopausal ‘diagnosis’ are by no means unique to me – so many women also feel alone, and struggle in silence.
“Going into the menopause, I felt that I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it,” Sam says. “So when I started writing The Shift, I put out a call on social media for other women’s experiences, and I was inundated with responses. I was just astonished. So many of the women said: ‘I’ve never told anybody this – I haven’t told my best friend, I certainly haven’t discussed it with my husband, wife, or partner.’”
During these discussions with her newfound community, Sam’s belief in the importance of sharing personal experiences grew, as it became evident that many issues are still being whispered about – or left unsaid – and too many women feel alone as they negotiate menopause.
As a result, Sam and her contributors have tackled a plethora of menopausal-related subjects, bringing a wide spectrum of perspectives to The Shift’s pages. From hot flushes to fluctuating weight, vile anti-aging rhetoric, the societally perceived ‘end of fuckability’, vaginal atrophy (dryness and associated discomfort), and the last egg. And, with the end of ovulation, conversations and reflections on children and the removal of a choice, signalled by the menopause.
“I didn’t particularly want, or not want children – we believed if it was going to happen, it would happen, and it didn’t,” Sam says. “But I could never have anticipated the force with which it struck me that I no longer had that option when I started going through perimenopause.”
Choice and individual circumstances around having children require more discussion, Sam suggests, so as to fully retire binary and outdated thinking. “Not having children, except for in the context of infertility, isn’t spoken about enough. It’s very much ‘you’re a mother or you’re other’.”
While unhelpful assumptions need to be challenged, the continued judgement and questioning of women as to when, or if, they are going to get pregnant, is a personal bugbear of mine, and one that Sam and many others share, too. How do we also stop the intrusive and insensitive enquiries about our plans for our wombs?
“I think we have to take a leaf out of the millennials’ book, and call people out when they ask about it,” Sam responds assuredly. “One of the things that really struck me when I wrote The Shift was how many times I’d been asked that question, and yes it’s disgusting, but I’d answered it. I should have never answered it, ever. I should have said ‘It’s none of your business,’ whether I was being asked by my boss or my mum.”
This is what’s coming for you and it might be shit, but there’s also a light at the end of the tunnel, and it might be great
Sam is buoyed by a seeming willingness from millennials to lead the discussion around active choice, rather than being led by others’ expectations.
The all-too-often reduction of women to such stereotypes and labels, as well as society’s ongoing desire to fit them into neat little boxes, is addressed throughout The Shift – and so are the opportunities to blow those boxes up as we move into perimenopause and beyond. The second half of the book calls for claiming the future you want, and acknowledging what needs to go from your life as well. My favourite chapter? ‘Never pick a fight with a woman over 40. She is full of rage and sick of everyone’s shit!’
“Women’s anger is frowned upon – we’re hysterical or we’re out of control,” Sam explains. “But I certainly feel that as a result of that perception, the way I supressed my anger throughout my life led to depression, and ultimately I exploded.
“You hear a lot of jokes around menopausal women’s rage, ‘revenge of the menopausal women’ gags, plate smashing and all that,” she sighs. “I did go through a phase of torrential anger during perimenopause, but now I feel like I have very purposeful anger. I know what I am, and what I’m not prepared to put up with – and somebody mocking me, or saying I’m hysterical is not going to cut any ice.”
Sam came to know and treat herself better during the menopause. This involved seeking professional mental health support, something she notes, she’d never have considered previously.
“I was the person who would have taken it as an insult if someone had suggested therapy to me,” says Sam. “I was the same with antidepressants. I thought it was a sign of weakness, but taking them made a huge difference.”
Sam was referred for cognitive behavioural therapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, but the process was, initially, far from easy for her. “I was reluctant to see a therapist. I’m very outcome-orientated, and I wanted her to say, ‘This will be done in six weeks!’” Sam laughs.
“My therapist dealt with me really well, and actually by the time the therapy was over – 18 months later – I was really reluctant to relinquish her. Seeing her was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I take the opportunity to tell Sam that her book gave me reassurances, and a sense of normality about my current life stage, that I hadn’t managed to find anywhere else. “Good,” she says kindly. “Tell your friends.”
I can honestly report that I have.
‘The Shift: How I (lost and) found myself after 40 – and you can too’, by Sam Baker (Coronet, £16.99). Subscribe to Sam’s podcast ‘The Shift (on Life After 40)’, available on all major listening platforms.
Title image: Photography | Claire Pepper