Ah, Easter, and the pleasant boing, boing, boing of Lindt balls throwing themselves into my mouth. Easter, is a time when we eat even more chocolate. There is a mysterious series of leaps, or hops, between the story of the sacrifice of Jesus and the symbolism of eggs, and fertility and rebirth, and then chocolate eggs, and then rabbits, and then chocolate rabbits. Of course, some people are described as being “about as much use as a chocolate condom.” Perhaps that is the link. Theologians please note.
At my age, the abundance of rabbits and eggs on every supermarket shelf also reminds me that I no longer have any eggs in my personal basket. Hooray! Fertility is no longer a part of my life, and I love it.
There are two milestones in every woman's life. They come with the package. They are puberty and menopause: Whatever happens in between them are matters of taste, preference, luck, judgement, biology, geography, skill and cunning. Puberty and menopause are givens. The start line and the finish line of the hormone marathon. Of a woman’s fertility.
Being done with fertility can be a liberation. No more worries about periods, about leaking, flooding, pain and cramps, hormonal mood swings and migraines. Gone are 30 years of resentment over over-priced sanitary products.
No more worries about getting pregnant or not getting pregnant. No more staring at your diary trying to work out how late is your period, or blowing out birthday candles while wondering how long your fertility will hang in there? Gone are worries about how many children, if any, do we want? Too many and you may be seen as having them for religious reasons, or for benefits. Too few and perhaps you can’t, poor thing. Gone is the stress of suitable mating, years of ruthless sexual auditioning, as our DNA seeks out suitable DNA from the available males of the species, questing for stronger, faster, smarter, richer, more handsome inseminators and providers. (And we end up with our husbands anyway.)
Women are the only known species except for Killer Whales who go through menopause. (Some of the higher primates do, too, but only in captivity, not in the wild.) This makes women the only females who hit the second half of our lives without being driven by the biological imperative to reproduce. We can have sex for fun and intimacy. We can mate simply to find a mate. Woohoo!
And that’s the fertility marathon run. In theory. As for the details, it is remarkable that fertility and infertility have only been explored so very recently.
This is because a woman’s fertility and her reproductive system have for millennia been subjects of superstition, prejudice, fear and shame, and mystery. None of which stimulates much medical or scientific curiosity. Just over a hundred years ago, it was widely believed that womanhood caused illness. You could be given a hysterectomy for anything from vision loss to sore feet. Indeed, Bill Bryson tells us: “In 1878, the British Medical Journal ran a spirited and protracted correspondence on whether a menstruating woman’s touch could spoil ham.”
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Many experts with side-whiskers thought there was a link between the womb and a woman’s sanity, especially during menopause. Women going through menopause and peri-menopause who displayed anger, wilfulness, irritability, depression, anxiety, fatigue, women who gave their kids the burnt chop, could be diagnosed with climacteric insanity, carted off to asylums, and have electric rods inserted into their vaginas to stop the bleeding, followed by oophorectomies (removal of the ovaries) and hysterectomies (removal of the womb) and cold baths and shaved heads and leeches and opium by the bucketful (which they not only needed by then, they’d earned it). Well into the 1900s they were often given massive doses of radium to kill the ovaries.
This was for menopause! This was for women who were suddenly irritable and wilful. This did not happen to men of a certain age who became irritable and wilful. They were elected to parliament.
Finally, in the 1930’s, a link was made between ovaries and hormones. About the time the first jet engines were tested. Just one generation ago.
Let me fast-track 85 years of discovery for you. There are two related and important facts about fertility that I only found out researching my book on menopause, but which every woman should know.
Firstly, just how finite your fertility is. The most important fact to store in your personal digital diary, with a couple of reminders and a siren, is that your fertility gently declines from puberty until you reach 36 when it suddenly plummets, and then at around 41 it plummets more, and planning babies with plummeting fertility levels is stressful. Not impossible. But enormously stressful. And expensive. Be reminded but not alarmed.
Secondly, there is the discovery of peri-menopause. The what?
Well, sometimes you will have menstrual cycles in which your ovaries don't release an egg. You do not ovulate! I didn’t know you could have a period without an egg. Perhaps it’s something I just forgot, like the workings of a Kombi van distributor, which I once knew well.
The reason it happens is that your hormones need to rise to certain levels to mature the egg and to actually ovulate. This process doesn’t always happen at the beginning of fertility, at puberty, or at the second last lap of fertility, during peri-menopause.
Peri-menopause is the transition to menopause. Who knew? You think menopause is it, but who talks about peri-menopause? Who uses ‘peri-menopause’ in a sentence?
It usually starts in your 40s, however, for some women it may start in their mid-30s. This can be inconvenient.
Nowadays, with the average life expectancy for women being 84 or so, you do feel young in your 40s, particularly if you haven’t had children. You feel really young and vital and healthy and so physically and mentally able to give birth. My god, you go to the gym twice a week, you could pop babies out like ping pong balls. It’s just a shame that our ovaries have not shared this bonus lifespan.
And there is a lot of misinformation to give women false hope. Stories “come along,” like the woman who went through menopause, she was 59 or something, and she fell pregnant and had a baby naturally. Perhaps we get this last hurrah, a final ovulation, a massive dose of oestrogen just before the end of menopause? Short answer? No. I mean, NO! What the hell? Where do these stories come from? Same place as the lizards on the moon stories. We need to know the facts. Information is power.
And here’s a bonus fact about a woman’s fertility that has only recently been explored.
Females are fertile when we ovulate. This fertile phase of a female cycle is called the oestrus phase. In nearly all species, during the oestrus phase, the female exhibits outward signals to the dim male that it is time to hop on board. Some animals, such as wolves and bears, are mono-oestrous, meaning they are on heat once a year. Other, busier, animals such as cats, cows and elk, are poly-oestrous and will be on heat several times a year. Rabbits are more or less permanently in oestrus phase.
Until recently, it was thought that human females had evolved out of the oestrous phase, and that our fertile phase had no outward signs. That we are non-oestrous. This is because we have sex whenever we like. Or not. (‘We’ meaning ‘we women’ because, as Jerry Seinfeld reminds us, ‘Women need a reason to have sex. Men only need a place.’ The reason and the place do not coincide as often as males might wish. More often than for the male elk, however.)
But now it has been discovered that we do not have an ostereous phase. Scientists did not discover this by rolling up their sleeves and examining female biochemistry at the molecular level. They examined the monthly earnings of lap dancers. Of course.
Eighteen dancers recorded their menstrual periods, work shifts, and tip earnings for 60 days on a study website. A mixed-model analysis of 296 work shifts (representing about 5,300 lap dances) showed an interaction between cycle phase and hormonal contraception use and earnings. Normally cycling participants earned about US$335 per five-hour shift during oestrus, US$260 per shift during the luteal phase, and US$185 per shift during menstruation. By contrast, participants using contraceptive pills showed no oestrous earnings peak. “These results constitute the first direct economic evidence for the existence and importance of oestrus in contemporary human females in a real-world work setting.”
The first question is:”‘Who exactly thinks lap dancing is a real world work setting? Are these lechers on a government payroll?” Ha, ha, ha. Of course they are.
The next question is: “Are they talking about ‘on heat’?” Yes, they are. So for all those women wanting to get pregnant and who are taking their temperatures trying to work out scientifically exactly when they are ovulating and most fertile, why not chuck away the thermometer and get in touch instead with your inner fantasies? If you feel like growling and posing against the furniture and putting red on your lips and wearing those ‘Lordosis reflex’ killer heels, it may mean it is peak time to make babies. This is both useful information for making babies, and to avoid making babies.
And in the context of menopause, if you are menopausal and you no longer feel like staggering about on the Jimmy Choos or adding that touch of Orangutan Red to your lips, it may not be a response to bunions and a newfound appreciate of beige. It may simply be a response to a very ancient evolutionary urge.
A final word on fertility. We are not women because we are fertile and our womanhood does not disappear with our fertility.
Menopause is not the end of femaleness. It is not the end of attractiveness. Goodbye siren, hello matron. We should not carbon date ourselves by our hormones.
With menopause, everything still works for us, only differently and because we are living so much longer, in evolutionary terms, this is a very new concept. We are also working longer. We still have half our lives to live and, consequently, what it means to go through menopause is being redefined.
By the time menopause arrives, you will be your own personal CEO. This well-deserved authority will come with some passing discomfort, but the reward is great. You have a thriving and growing enterprise; yourself. Advertise it to the world.
Find out more about Jean Kittson's book 'You're still hot to me - the joys of menopause' here.