BT’s current ad campaign helpfully reminds us that human potential is ‘Beyond Limits’. Only with the telecom giant’s assistance of course, since making the most of our abilities is clearly not something we can manage on our own. One of the campaign messages posted locally is a prophecy in child-size letters: Technology will save us. I was walking too fast to notice if it mentioned from what we might be saved, but I’d like to think that the options could include climate change/peach-flavoured vapes/school sports days. And menopause. That unjust reward for a life of being female.
Actually, it has become possible that technology will save us autumnals from our inevitable passage into the winter years of dry vaginas and warty chins. The answer lies not with our choice of broadband provider but with ProFam, a company in Brum who for £7-11K will freeze a slice of ovarian tissue for up to twenty years before re-implanting it in the donor’s armpit. The theory is that these thawed cells will kickstart the dwindling hormone levels which pre-empt the menopause. No doubt the chances of an axillary pregnancy are low, and would in any case require something more adventurous than the Missionary Position.
I don’t normally like the idea of fiddling too much with nature despite acknowledging that inoculation, antibiotics and IVF are excellent advances for health and happiness. But in the evolutionary game of human adaptation, menopause does seem to be more snake than ladder. The development of Homo Sapiens from neanderthal to civilized indicates a move towards something increasingly mature and self-aware, in which the politics of reason has taken over from a purely physical, animal response. Only last week, I overheard a couple of geezer-types discussing their parenting styles - "I prefer to be more Socratic than didactic" - and realised how far we have come from the basic caveman wallop.
If a combination of successful behaviours and natural selection has led us to the sophistication of democracy, science, law, ethics and tinned omelette, could menopause, with its characteristic negatives - hot sweats, libido slumps, mood swings and sleeplessness - also evolve into something better? The answer would seem to be no, because menopause by definition (mḗn: ‘month’ + paûsis: ‘pause’ or ‘stop’) signals the end of fertility. (The word might include ‘men’ but I can’t go full-fat feminist about its patriarchal roots because the plural of bloke has its origins in German whereas ‘mḗn’ is Ancient Greek. Girly Swot alert.)
For evolutionary principles I turn to our local park, home to a flock of garish yellow and lime parakeets. These exotic birds are likely to evolve into duller, browner versions, since those with feathers that blend into the English landscape have more chance of avoiding predators. Women, however, must continue to pass on the features of menopause to the next generation because this inevitable phase of life takes place only after procreation is no longer viable.
Perhaps therefore, menopause has a positive side that is clearly advantageous for the herd, and which makes up for the promise of weight gain, thinning hair, deflated breasts and rhino skin. Do night sweats and insomnia equip older women for being on grandchild watch? If osteoporosis leads to greater caution, might this attitude balance the fiery impetuousness of younger adults in the family group? When the Shadow Equalities Minister, Dawn Butler, suggested at the Labour Party conference that menopausal women should get flexible working conditions to accommodate ‘the change’, she touted this as beneficial for business. My guess is that most employers were quick to harrumph the suggestion.
The fact that older women can bring calmness, wisdom and experience to the workplace should equal a big tick for any personnel department. And now that their state pension is being deferred for several years, many women will find themselves working for much longer than their mothers. As a result, staff numbers will include a greater proportion of menopausals, but you can’t have them all slapping wet flannels round their necks in budget meetings.
Instead, why not devise ways to fortify the working day for women undergoing this completely normal chemical imbalance, like the adaptable hours and practices now offered to pregnant women? The concept of work crèches was a pipe dream fifty years ago but has become a norm (at least in progressive European states). Favourable legislation on maternity/paternity leave, time off for antenatal care, shift rights, rest breaks, even breastfeeding ‘stations’ have propelled employers towards supporting the soon-to-be and new mothers on their payroll.
Ms Butler’s call for a menopause mandate has at least helped drive the subject into the open where it can be considered “like a long-term fluctuating health condition”. After all, we’re hormonal, not psychotic. Embedding menopause into the popular narrative might also help shift the entrenched paradigm of older women being either dulcet or diabolical, epitomised by the two witches in The Wizard of Oz. In today’s money it’s clearly Glinda The Good who was on HRT. So, if technology really can save us, let’s start with a thermic network and an app to reconfigure the air con for every desk. Also good for be-suited men in summer requiring their own moment of emancipation…