It’s the reading list we all need: Sam Baker shares her 11 top picks for books about menopause that can help you with its challenges.
Where to start with long, dark nights? Like any woman in her 50s, I’ve had more than a few, but I have to say the hot, dark, damp, anxiety-ridden nights I experienced during perimenopause have to be up there amongst the worst.
I was in my mid 40s when it started. Although I didn’t know that until the hot flushes and night sweats kicked in, because like many women I thought that was what menopause was – hot flushes, back flab and the occasional incandescent eruption of temper – like a sitcom mum IRL. (Yes, I had swallowed that patriarchal narrative that tells us middle-aged women exist to be the butt of the joke and not much else. A prognosis that clearly didn’t help with the depression…) Extreme highs and lows, depression like I’d never known, 3am anxiety attacks (6am anxiety attacks, 9am anxiety attacks…), plummeting confidence, total lack of self belief.
But the thing that shocked me most, once I’d gained control of my senses, was the silence. This was 8 years ago, my friends were all in denial (“Menopause? No, not me, how old do you think I am?” “Er, older than me…”). I looked in all the usual places – social media, online and magazines – there was information, yes, but what there wasn’t was community, support, advice. To be a woman growing older, albeit still in her 40s, was, it seemed pretty clear, not a thing to draw attention to. Anyone would have thought it was a conspiracy… I was depressed already, hardly surprising if this complete lack of human conversation about this most human of conditions, made it worse. 48 and history? Really?
How books helped with my menopause
All my life I’ve turned to books for solace. So that’s what I did – and I was stunned to discover there were hardly any. There were menopause tomes, of course (of which Germaine Greer’s late ’90s doorstop, The Change, is still pretty definitive) and there were self-help books by the bucketload (stand up, Lesley Kenton), but I wasn’t seeking medical information and I’ve never been a fan of the woo-woo or the ding-ding. What I was searching for was company, identity, voices and stories of women like me sharing their experiences, offering advice and telling me what life would be like on the other side. (I’m there now, and let me tell you, it’s pretty great.)
So I found myself in a literary no-(wo)mans land, where I had to self-medicate. And so I wrote my own, The Shift: How I (lost and) found myself after 40, and you can too (out now in paperback). It’s the book I wished I’d been able to find when I hit my own crisis, one that spoke my language – frank, funny, a bit angry, a lot productive. But before I reached that point, there were a few vital books that saved my sanity while I got there, and they might save yours too:
Big Magic: How to Live a Creative Life and Let Go of Your Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
A book about creativity, self-expression, facing your fear and giving yourself a break, this is my favourite of Elizabeth Gilbert’s books. It will likely speak to you, even if you couldn’t give a monkey’s about creativity, but are just looking for some warmth and understanding, at which Gilbert is unsurpassed.
Flash Count Diary by Darcey Steinke
This is Steinke’s account of her own experience of the shocking silence that surrounds menopause and how she overcame it. It’s interspersed (stay with me) with her voyage into the life of her menopausal role model, the killer whale! (Whales are the only other animal that experiences menopause.) This is the first menopause book I encountered that actually made me think, “Yes! That’s it!”
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy
When Deborah Levy’s marriage fell apart at 50, after several decades, she was surprised to discover she was no longer interested in stitching it back together. This series of essays is perhaps the best thing I’ve read about the disconnection, relocation and self-centering that commonly strikes women at this time. (The next book in this (very) loose trilogy, Real Estate, is out May 27th.)
Untamed by Glennon Doyle
I fully expected this to be way too “American” for me, but how wrong can you be? Practically every page of this wonderful memoir-come-self-help book hit a nerve. Doyle writes ragefully about the way little girls are trained to be good (tamed) and how, as grown women, we can learn to untame ourselves.
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
The queen. But I still don’t feel bad about my neck. (My stomach is a different matter.)
Books that came too late for me but not too late for you!
Please Yourself by Emma Reed Turrell
An excellent realistic, non-judgemental and genuinely helpful guide to growing a backbone. It took me decades to realise why I people pleased (compulsively) and how to stop. This is a life changer.
Stronger by Poorna Bell
I love this practical memoir, the first I’ve read to centre strength over slimness and what women’s bodies can do over how they look. Journalist Poorna Bell writes with candour and compassion about how weight lifting gave her inner and outer strength after her partner died, combined with many other diverse women’s stories and puts a grenade under long-held beliefs about women’s physical (and mental) strength.
The Menopause Manifesto by Dr Jen Gunter (May)
Canadian-American Ob/Gyn Dr Jen Gunter is a women’s health vigilante who’s made it her life’s mission to empower women to get better healthcare. Her book The Vagina Bible was a bestseller, Jen has now turned her attention to menopause and it’s an absolute banger of a book.
Repotting Your Life by Frances Edmonds (May)
Are you feeling pot-bound? Then let Frances Edmonds help you pull up those roots and grow some new shoots. If the plant-facing puns don’t work your nerves, this is an easy read with lots of useful ideas.
If you’re a bit more open to woo-woo than I am, Dr Shefali Tsabary’s A Radical Awakening (May) traces a path for women to break old patterns (and who doesn’t have those) and forge themselves a new path. Oprah loves it, so who am I to argue?
Re-educated by Lucy Kellaway, out in July
Former FT journalist Lucy Kellaway’s story of retraining as a teacher in her 50s will ring very many bells with Noon readers. Realising in her mid-50s that her hard-won outwardly successful life – great job, good marriage etc – no longer served her, she set about dismantling the whole thing. Job, husband (hair!) – all went in the bin. Tempted? You won’t be alone.
The Shift: How I (lost and) found myself after 40 and you can too by Sam Baker (Coronet, £9.99) is out now.
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