Sam Baker’s new book, The Shift, is a detailed description of the impact of the menopause and ageist attitudes on women as well as a celebration of women’s ability to adapt to change and to direct their own lives.
In the last few years, more and more employers have been developing menopause policies or guidelines, although this is from a low or non-existent base. That’s in response to more older women being in the workforce and feeling confident enough to speak out about their experiences.
That includes women like journalist Sam Baker whose new book, The Shift, is both a detailed exploration of the impact of the menopause and ageist attitudes on women and a rallying call to older women to cast off the shackles of constant judgment about how they look and to embrace the opportunities of “invisibility” that come after the menopause.
Baker describes the shift as “from being a person [OK, a woman] who is constantly asked about and judged on their ability to have children [whether or not you have or want them], to being just a person: you, but without the oestrogen, and consequently a lot more attitude, confidence and, quite possibly, rage”.
The book includes Baker’s own experiences and those of over 50 other women. It starts with the bad part: all the various symptoms of menopause. The first chapter is entitled “Fuck me, I’m boiling”. Baker describes not just the hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia and the feeling of being constantly drained, but also the sense of confusion, falling confidence and the all round emotional and physical upheaval. “It’s like being 15 but with all the responsibilities of a 50 year old. Which is, after all, what it is: all the hormonal upheaval of puberty but in reverse.”
There is discussion of HRT and the right of women to make their own informed decisions about how they cope with the menopause, without being judged, based on their own experience of it. Other early chapters deal with why we don’t talk about the menopause more – the feelings of shame and embarrassment many women are encouraged to have about ageing and becoming “useless”. Baker discusses infertility painful periods, eating disorders, greying hair, outlandish claims about anti-ageing products, vaginal atrophy, sex and society’s attitude to attractiveness. She describes body changes such as putting on weight almost overnight and how this can lead to a sense that your whole identity is changing. Baker says at one point: “I looked in the mirror and no longer looked quite like me any more.”
Then there are the attitudes to older women in the workplace, particularly the sense of invisibility and the sidelining of older women. Baker says this is a massive error on the part of employers “because from where I’m sitting, society taking its eye off us at the point we’re at our most powerful, most resilient, most energised…is often the best thing that could happen to us”.
Moreover, most of the women she talks to would not swap places with younger women. They are delighted to be free of the male gaze and are anxious about the increasing pressures on their daughters, “the ‘rent’ they seem required to pay just to exist in the 21st century”. Baker also writes of the growing tendency for older women to strike out on their own, to create their own table if they can’t get a seat at their employer’s, wielding the power of their own experience and self awareness.
Riven through the book despite detailed descriptions of the negatives of the menopause, ageism, sexism and Baker’s own experience of sexual abuse, is a general positivity about how older women are increasingly viewing their invisibility as a superpower, how – as they have more time to themselves after years of caring – they are re-evaluating their lives and relationships, how their ability to survive constant change enables them to reinvent themselves and how millennial women’s activism is encouraging them to review their own experiences and channel any rage they hold productively. And she ends on a sense that life after menopause is a liberation. We are not storyless – we are story-free, she says, ready to go forward and be ourselves. “Nobody’s watching,” she writes. “We’re free!”
*The Shift by Sam Baker is published by Coronet, price £13.06.