Exploring what womanhood means after 50: 'The Middlepause'

At 49, Marina Benjamin had a hysterectomy, a procedure that shot her immediately into menopause. The physical change — cessation of menstrual periods, plummeting levels of estrogen — coincided with a nearly immediate feeling of emotional rupture.

“I felt myself displaced,” Benjamin writes, reflecting on an early post-surgical outing in her neighborhood. Still fragile from the operation, she’s also acutely aware of her new status: “I felt somehow bifurcated, as if I existed both in time and out of it, and the part of me that felt insubstantial, ghostly, and yet eternal stood slightly apart from the rest, as though separated from the hue and cry by a delicate membrane. … Barely visible in the shadowy murk, to one side of events, and alone, I grasped all at once what it meant to be no longer young.”

The author of two previous memoirs, in “The Middlepause” Benjamin deftly and brilliantly examines the losses and unexpected gains she experienced in menopause. She reached that milestone more suddenly, and surgically, than most women do — the process usually spreads out over many years — but the timing of her hysterectomy came close to the average age of menopause, 51.

Menopause is a mind and body shift as monumental and universal as puberty, yet far less often discussed, especially in public, which is what makes Benjamin’s work here — “to stand up against the prevailing culture around middle age, which encourages us to disguise it, deny it, and disown it” — so urgently necessary.

The role of being a nonreproductive woman feels crushingly like a “demotion,” Benjamin recognizes. Looked at from an evolutionary point of view, she points out, “[t]he no-longer fertile are surplus,” unnecessary. And yet she suspects, even in that first menopausal walk down the street, potential advantages to this stage of life, noting “a dawning sense of relief at having been recategorized among the nonvisible; after all, so much of one’s life as a woman hinges on being seen, with its attendant pressures of appearing attractive to others and constantly having to work at self-maintenance.”

“I stand at the cusp of fifty,” Benjamin states at the outset. “My body is the starting point for storytelling, for inducting younger women into the business of getting older.” What follows is a series of chapters, titled after body parts (Skin, Heart, Spine) that can be read as essays on everything from the physical fallout of menopause — hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, mood swings — to the way midlife nudges us to reexamine our emotional and psychological health. Along the way, she ponders the ill-fitting pop-culture guises of the menopausal woman — one can cultivate a midlife of “gardening, grandchildren, knitting, lots of sage nodding” or launch a full-scale attack against physical decrepitude, deploying hormones, skin creams, plastic surgery and a lot of yoga. No matter what, Benjamin quite logically points out, time will march on.

The inevitability of aging can be a shock. As we watch parents grow old and die, children grow up, career plans and personal goals suddenly reveal themselves to be unreached and unreachable, she writes, “the anxiety of mounting loss can feel tidal: it floods in and over you, then gnaws away at your sense of self, sucking out your life force.” For this journey, “The Middlepause” suggests, it’s good to have a few guides. Benjamin introduces us to hers — Carl Jung, for his example of letting go, burying the old selves that no longer serve us, and moving forward with less baggage; Erik Erikson for his idea of midlife as the generative stage, a time for giving back to the world, whether through “the production of art, the reproduction of children, the support offered to younger generations, a deeper engagement with society.”

Even more than these sage psychologists, Benjamin finds inspiration in Colette, the French writer who, “upon turning fifty, stoutly declared that henceforth she would devote herself to gluttony, malice, greed, gossip, and the love affairs of others.” It was a pledge Colette didn’t entirely keep — she had several love affairs of her own post-50 (younger men were her guilty pleasure) — but still, in Colette’s fiction Benjamin finds useful advice for those of us in the same boat. In “Break of Day,” published when Colette was 54, she describes a life of myriad pleasures, some newly and boldly acquired (“an age comes when the only thing that is left for her is to enrich her own self”), others found in her memories. After quoting Colette on her affection for her own scars, Benjamin writes, “A middle-aged woman is very much like a battle-scarred soldier. She has done her duty as a woman, and if she has done it well, she will have borne many wounds, for that is the nature of womanhood (very few of us get medals).”

Tuttle is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe.

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The Middlepause: On Life After Youth

By Marina Benjamin

(Catapult, 208 pages, $16.95)

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