Research suggests women actually grow happier as they age, but there are undoubtedly struggles we face as we get older that are relegated to the shadows, making our journeys more difficult. We are often taught to suffer in silence, to preserve the façade that everything is okay, to the detriment of our physical and mental health.
People who go through menstruation, pregnancy and birth, and/or menopause can likely all attest to the impacts of this unwritten code, this belief that it’s not acceptable to show the extent of one’s pain.
Jess is a 36-year-old Nova Scotian with self-diagnosed PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder). She has been waiting for two years to receive an official diagnosis from a gynecologist. In her late twenties she noticed a shift in her premenstrual cycle, first with physical symptoms like breast tenderness, and then with mental health changes like serious bouts of depression.
In recent years, this has gotten worse. “I tend to have ‘apocalypse days’ when things don’t feel workable—they feel like the worst-case scenario in my body and my brain,” Jess says. While therapist-recommended magnesium and 5-HTP have helped her cope, the symptoms she regularly faces are intense.
Jess says she was never “in tune” with or aware of these potential cycle changes when she was younger, but the support she receives from other friends in their 30s going through similar challenges, as well as PMDD social media accounts, have made her feel less alone.
While time has improved the way we talk about these particular health concerns (we no longer diagnose women’s mental and physical suffering as “hysteria” for example), these experiences are still often shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.
Dr. Carrie Lionberg is a registered clinical psychologist whose scope of practice includes specialization in the assessment and treatment of women’s health psychology. “Women have become more comfortable discussing these previously taboo subjects to a significant extent,” she says. “This is healthy and strengthens their self-image and self-esteem in many ways, and promotes their seeking and accepting support more comfortably from each other.”
But we have a way to go, says Dr. Lionberg, especially regarding pregnancy and postpartum struggles. “There remains a great deal of shame, stigma, and fear around acknowledging that [mothers] are experiencing anxiety and depression,” she says. “Much of the stigma and secrecy that prevails with these issues is related to fears of being judged or condemned due to many myths and idealized notions that pregnancy, giving birth, attachment with the infant, breast-feeding, and motherhood are automatic and natural processes which should be uncomplicated.”
Laura, a New Brunswicker and mother of three young children, says the myths around motherhood added to the stress of her first birth. Eventually making her way to the hospital after 36 hours of at-home labour, Laura says the trauma of an episiotomy lingered with her in the months to come.
“I literally begged the nurses and doctors for any pain relief stronger than Tylenol, but they denied that request,” she says. “I felt so much grief and shame and kept replaying the scene over and over again in my head.”
Laura required a lot of physical care to heal, and none of the journey matched her expectations. She walked around with a limp three months after her son was born, and continued to feel pain a year onward. To this day, she doesn’t know if what she was feeling was “normal”.
It was the subsequent delivery of her twin girls that helped her reframe the first birth, and after that, she no longer thought about her son’s entrance into the world with sadness or embarrassment.
But she did experience postpartum depression, a topic she says is “definitely swept under the rug.” The medication she takes has helped her with this experience, but Laura also believes that in conversations around motherhood, “we’ve lost the village. Other cultures to this day have sacred and beautiful rituals around postpartum that are meant to support the new mother’s health, but this is foreign to my experience.”
Dr. Lionberg says that although new mothers can be reluctant to admit they are struggling, it can be helpful to reach out to other people who could very well be going through the same thing. But because of patriarchal expectations, a lack of encouragement, or the fear of being criticized, this doesn’t always happen.
Beth*, a 65-year-old mother of four, went through menopause 19 years ago, at the relatively young age of 46. She says she had “no clue” about what was going to happen to her. The symptoms came on suddenly, including hot flashes that kept her awake through the night. She couldn’t stand to be inside her own body. Brain fog was also a problem, and she would sometimes find herself driving without knowing where she was going.
The most intense symptom was rage directed at things she could typically cope with no problem. This was particularly difficult with children still at home.
But she is grateful for the capacity she had to spend time researching and advocating for herself. Because of the media coverage around the connection between HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and cancer at that time, she decided to try a “natural regime”, which included supplements like black cohosh.
Five years through the journey, Beth went on bioidentical hormones and the symptoms seemed to lift, but she acknowledges it would have been much easier if she had more emotional support and understanding.
Dr. Lionberg says that “Individually and collectively, open communication about women’s health issues is one way to mitigate against the longstanding myths and other negative notions that depict womanhood in unrealistic ways and perpetuate this stigma and shame.”
While it should never be on an individual to feel pressure to share their difficult or traumatic experiences, as a culture we need to be there for one another, to encourage sharing, and to make these rites of passage less daunting.
Perhaps, in doing so, there will be a shift in the right direction, toward a more open and honest place, one that validates our pain, one that takes this burden of silence off our shoulders.