This is the sixth post in our occasional series inspired by the results of a survey we co-sponsored with PrevaLeaf, makers of natural products for intimate wellness. You can read our first post here, and catch up from there: You spoke. We’re listening.
Years ago, after the birth of her first child, a friend’s daughter challenged her mom, “Why didn’t you tell me all this stuff was going to happen?” The “stuff”my friend’s daughter was referring to were the very natural and often enduring effects of childbirth: hemorrhoids, incontinence, stretch marks, weak abs. You know, the insults we learned to live with long ago.
Preparing her daughter for these commonplace but distressing changes never occurred to my friend. She’d forgotten the shock she had felt when she looked at her own ravaged body after the birth of her first child… because life goes on.
I mention this because a couple of your comments in our survey about vaginal dryness reminded me of this incident:
I am all about health, nutrition, and exercise, so menopausal symptoms were not too severe—until the vaginal dryness. That came as a surprise, and I am still a little bit angry about that. Sex is supposed to be playful, fun and a stress release... not this much work to keep things going.
When vaginal secretions dried up I felt betrayed. Creams help but are no cure-all. I was not prepared for loss of libido. I naively thought retirement would be a chance to catch up from all of the missed sex due to overwork and exhaustion. Now I have the time but not the interest. Cruel trick.
These respondents are right on both counts: sex during (and after) menopause should be playful, fun, a stress-reliever. Something that you finally have time for. But loss of libido and vaginal dryness are some of the most common effects of menopause, and they very effectively suck the joy right out of sex. Maybe a cruel trick, yes, but also totally normal. To be expected. And, like the effects of childbirth, effects we can learn to work around. If we know about them and can prepare.
I’m thinking that if “someone” had told us what to expect, sexually speaking, during menopause, maybe there would be less shock, dismay, disappointment, and frustration. I’m not sure who that “someone” should be—mothers, older sisters, friends? But certainly it’s time for a greater cultural awareness and openness for straight talk about sex after menopause. (Well, at all stages, really.)
Which brings me to another comment from our survey:
I am 71 years old, married 44 years. I was told practically nothing about sex. My mom did not talk about getting older, and I am sorry because I am finding out things I could have known to expect, like dryness, hair loss, the need to cultivate intimacy. Our daughter is 42 and has never been comfortable mentioning women's issues so I just tell stories about what my mom did, how I interpreted that, and how I experience it now. Hopefully she will have some thoughts about what to expect.
Every woman experiences menopause uniquely. The effects can creep up gradually and may last for a long time—the rest of your sexual life, in the case of vaginal dryness. So it’s hard to prepare for exactly how you will experience “the change,” just as you couldn’t prepare, exactly, for how you would experience childbirth. But for childbirth, at least, you probably read books and attended classes to learn as much as you could. Shouldn’t we do the same for menopause?
For each of the life passages unique to women, there is a well-trodden path to mark the journey. And in the case of menopause, it’s clearly one that women need to know more about ahead of time.
We need to tell our friends and daughters the stories.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.