Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life

Over the summer, we had an illuminating conversation with Darcey Steinke, the acclaimed novelist and author of the recent Flash Count Diary, a groundbreaking examination of menopause through personal, historical, and cultural lenses. At the kitchen table of her cozy home in a historic Brooklyn neighborhood, we discussed evolving views on menopause and her emotional and physical experiences of this widely misunderstood natural process, alternatives to traditional hormone replacement therapy (HRT), single parenthood, depression and the benefits of therapy, and more.

In an eerie moment mid-interview—while we were chatting about Darcey’s close relationship with her 23-year-old daughter—her daughter Abby came home and joined us for a bit in the kitchen.

Penina Roth: Were you at all surprised by the warm response to the book? You mentioned that young women are very interested in it—what was your daughter’s reaction?

Darcey Steinke: Well, it was really interesting, because I was worried, of course. My daughter is a feminist herself, and she knew how hard I’d worked on it—I basically worked on it the whole time she was in college. Before she read the book, I was worried, because I was on All Things Considered, for a series called “Talking About Sex,” and they interviewed me for two hours and only used these ten minutes that were extremely sexual—I talk about lube and everything. I was fine with it—I feel like this is the whole point, to get it out there—but I was worried that she was embarrassed or horrified, and I wanted to make a place for her to express that. I didn’t want her to feel weird, and I asked her what she thought about it, and she said, “You spoke your truth, you tell the truth about where your body is right now.” I was blown away by that!

PR: She sounds incredible.

DS: I mean, it’s partly me, but it’s partly Millennials. Some of them are just amazing, they’re so open about everything. I gave her the book, saying, read it if you want. But she came back very strong, said she loved it. She said a really fascinating thing to me, it’s amazing, that “I had so many preconceived ideas about menopause I just got from the culture, but I didn’t realize until I read it.” It really shocked me, but I felt the same way. She was very cool about it. And all her friends, when they come over, they’re very much like, “Thank you, we would never have known about this.” And they’re actually getting on me, saying, “Let’s have a Millennial Darcey forum, like a menopause forum, where you tell us everything and then we can record.” And I said, “Alright, let’s do it!” But I would never have thought, in a million years, how the book is being driven a lot by younger women, too. Women in their 20s and 30s, and women right before menopause, like in their 40s. But with some menopausal women, there’s a shame thing that makes it hard for them to completely accept some of the ideas in the book, while the younger women are more just, like, bring it on. So that’s been kind of fascinating to me, too.

PR: So women in their 40s …

DS: Well, they’ve been very interested. I feel like there’s been a lot of interest in the perimenopausal, that’s been a huge group I’ve been hearing from on social media and stuff. But, actually, when I go around to bookstores—I was at all the bookstores in NY—a 25-year-old woman will pull me aside and say, first of all, “it’s selling well,” which thrills me. Then they’ll just say, “I can’t believe it, this is so amazing, thank you so much, I would never have known about these things.”

PR: These are booksellers?

DS: Yeah, booksellers. But a young, 25-year-old bookseller—that’s not a crowd that I thought I would get. I guess I’m not completely surprised because of my daughter, but I think they see it as a feminist text more than a memoir, like a book about menopause.

PR: I’m really curious about the older women—you said they’re kind of insecure, about discussing it? Are you talking about women over 45?

DS: Yes. I mean, I’ve heard from 40, 50, 60-year-old women, but I worry a bit that the culture itself has a lot of negative and shameful ideas about menopause so, the older you are, the more you will have incorporated those things. So I feel like the women who have incorporated the culture’s ideas about the negativity and disease quality of menopause are less open to the book itself. Sure, there’s the cool open ladies, but there’s definitely been some pushback. I think that’s partly about hormone therapy, which is a whole gigantic question that we’ll never solve—whether it’s good to go on it. To me, is it the most important question? There are so many other more important questions now. But if you feel ashamed of it, you’re not going to want a book that celebrates it.

There’s no wrong way to go through menopause—whatever works for you, is my feeling.       I’m not against HRT (hormone replacement therapy), it’s just that menopause is not a disease. The weirdness is, do people try to shut down menstruation, do people try to shut down birth, with hormonal cures? No—people really only try to shut down menopause. I think we need to look at that. I’m not saying that hormones don’t help some women, but we need to look at the way the culture looks at it, like it’s something that’s wrong and bad. I mean, are we going to be more docile and compliant if we take hormones, more in line with male ideals of femininity? Those are all really problematic ideas. It’s hard to talk about because if a woman is really struggling and it’s helped her, I don’t want to denigrate that. But I also want to push a little. My dad is a minister and I always remember him saying you could have a devoted congregation, but you should always kind of push them a little—they could be completely in your pocket, but you should always try to poke a little to see if they could get to someplace new.

PR: So what do you recommend? I have a friend, actually, who’s perimenopausal now and is very depressed.

DS: Yeah, it’s real, it’s real. I think she should talk to her doctor, talk to her friends, talk to her mother, talk to a lot of different people in her life. Would it be the worst thing in the world to go on hormones for a while to see if it helped her? I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world.

I suffer from depression, but I did not feel a need to go on either hormones or antidepressants. I moved up my exercise a little bit, definitely ate better. And, not that I ever drank that much wine, but I drank even less, maybe only on the weekends. You need to try and get sleep. Therapy is kind of amazing, and I’m not against hormones, I just think it shouldn’t be that secure a treatment. I wouldn’t say to your friend go get HRT and that will solve your problems, because I don’t actually think that’s true. I think it’s more like you may have to exercise a little more, meditation really works well.

PR: Does the meditation help a lot?

DS: Yeah. I’ve always meditated, but I kind of stepped it up. There’ve been clinical trials that show that meditation works for menopausal women. But I think the “take a pill culture” is a problem here, because if I had gone on HRT I wouldn’t have written this book, right? Believe me, I was having, like, 20 hot flashes a day, I couldn’t sleep – I was suffering. But there are ways in which I decided I was going to face it head-on. I did get a little bit of a sleep thing from my doctor, it’s called dozapine. I got a low dosage, as a sleep aid, because once I could sleep I could do everything else. Because if you can’t sleep, then you’re messed up…

PR: I think she needs a different doctor.

DS: Maybe she does. If he pushes the same thing over and over again. But it’s hard to say one thing, because every woman goes through it in her own way. Everyone is going to have different ideas—some women have no symptoms and don’t need anything, some women want more help. It’s a wide spectrum of potential symptoms, and there’s no one cure. For me it was more like, you go to school, you get a degree, and then you get knowledgeable about something. So that’s how I felt about menopause— I will learn something from this, and then I’ll be different. Maybe I’ll be a little messed-up and broken, but I’ll have learned from it. I’m not saying that it’s right for everybody, but that was my decision.

PR: I think it’s good to gather knowledge.

DS: The body is complicated, right? Also, not everything has to be perfect all the time. So maybe you have ten hot flashes a day. That’s life—life is not that comfortable, you know? I’m at the end now, which is so great, and it’s good. The problem with going on hormones is when you choose to go off, you’re going to have your menopause then.

PR: Eventually you have to…

DS: Whenever you go off, you will have your menopause. That’s the part that confuses people, because it’s not like you get out from under it, it’s that you push it further on. Maybe people want to do that, since they’re so freaked out, I totally understand that. I’m just saying there’s no way to really outrun it—so my feeling was, I just might not. I also had the thing of my mom having breast cancer. My mom was on hormone therapy and she also  had the kind of breast cancer that’s attached to estrogen, so there’s no way I could have done it. Even though the connection is slight, I know I would have been so worried, the anxiety wouldn’t have been worth it. Maybe I would have tried it if not. I mean, I’m not here to judge.

PR: Did you try anything homeopathic?

DS: Yeah, I definitely did all the yam cream and all that stuff. I took all the vitamins, the black cohosh, I don’t know, did it help? Maybe a little, I’m not sure. To me, the main thing was consistent exercise. I was always a big exerciser, but maybe I went from three to five days a week to full-on seven days a week, with maybe the occasional day missing. I became a really fierce exerciser. I swam and joined Planet Fitness over here. If I couldn’t swim, I did Planet Fitness, a walk in the park, yoga. That was the most helpful thing to me of all, knowing that every day I would have that release. That, and I also think, just be a little gentle with yourself—do you have to really do every single thing that you thought you had to do? I think stress is a big thing—maybe take a few things off the to-do list.

PR: I think people aren’t really aware that that’s going to be a problem.

DS: Right. Not everything, but a few things. I think self-care is gooped out, but it’s not about that, it’s more just about making yourself strong, so when the revolution comes, you’ll be able to resist. It’s not laying around, getting your nails done—no, you’re doing self-care so that you can be a fully engaged human. Like, in a political sense, a literary sense.

PR: Like, it’s about being selfish.

DS: I have to say—I’ve never gotten my nails done. But a little bit of caring for yourself is positive. I worked on it really hard with my daughter because no one worked on it with me. My mom didn’t, because she just worked herself to death. But I was, like, you need to care for yourself—eat well, sleep well. In menopause, you actually are going to collapse if you don’t do it. The level of self-care needs to kick in there, or you’re going to wear yourself out.

PR: I kind of feel, at 40, you just have to slow down.

DS: It’s similar—you realize, I can’t do this anymore at this point. I’m going to have to do more care for myself.

PR: That’s good, and it’s good you shared that with your daughter. Back when she was born—did you have any post-partum issues?

DS: Not really. I really wanted to have her. Though I know a lot of people who really want to get pregnant are the worst people for post-partum. I was 34 when I had her, which was earlier than all my friends. My friends were all just like, “Are you crazy? Why would you have a baby so early?”

I thought I might have a second one, but that didn’t work out. But I do remember—I was very lucky, I had a midwife and natural childbirth and all that. For me, it was a very beautiful experience, and I was lucky in that I swam and did my Kegels and everything beforehand. I really tried to get ready—like, this creature’s coming. I didn’t have another child, so I had enough time to do all that.

I remember that the midwife in the hospital came to me and said, that was amazing, you pushed her out without any drugs, it’s incredible, but you are going to crash, like there’s no doubt about it, you need to be aware that that is going to happen. It was hard for me then, since I was still kind of high off of it, but I remember going home, and then slowly—like, I would say, after 24, 48 hours, starting to come down from it, and it was really hard. I remember thinking, wow, I brought this creature into the world, she’s so beautiful, but why did I do that, the world’s suffering. I remember really having dark feelings. Lucky for me, they didn’t last so long, just about a day. The high kind of went off, and I had to think about the reality of taking care of her. But I got into a routine, and I didn’t actually have an active post-partum depression. I was very worried, because my mom had a terrible one. My mom had to be institutionalized after she had my little brother. 

PR: Oh no, that’s awful.

DS: Yeah, it was hard. And she couldn’t pull herself out of it. There’d been a lot of depression in our family, but she could not pull herself out of it and had to have electroshock therapy. Now they say it’s not that bad—I think now it’s come back—but at that time it just seemed like a crazy, scary thing. I was three years old or something, and I remember her crying, not being able to take care of my brother, and my dad coming home early from work and being angry. I can remember, even as a tiny child, some of that. So I was worried about having that. But I was also really aware of it, and had gone to therapists. I wasn’t on antidepressants then, but I have been—I jump on them if I need to. I really take of my mental health, I’m very open about all that, and would have jumped on if I had to, but it wasn’t necessary for me. I feel grateful. It could happen to anyone—you don’t ever know how it’s going to work out for you.

PR: Yeah, I totally agree.

DS: Like, how the chemicals are going to work—it’s so open.

PR: People who’ve never experienced depression…

DS: They have no idea of what it’s like. I think about all the women—all the people, but it’s hard for me not to take out women—who had to go through these things without any antidepressants. How scary was that?

PR: And the depression you had during menopause, would you say that was more serious than what you experienced when you had your daughter, after that crash?

DS: Yeah, for sure. That kind of righted itself fairly quickly, I got into the thing of being a young mother and I felt pretty good during those years. I loved being a mother, and I was able to work, and write, too. At the end of my 40s, especially 45-50, perimenopausal, I’d kind of crash. I don’t think I understood what it was then, until I wrote this book and did research. I found myself crying a lot in the morning. I mostly don’t like to be on antidepressants—I’ve probably been on antidepressants three different times, for two or three year chunks, but when I can cycle off, I do. I’m not a person who needs to be on all the time. But if I’m in a hole, it’s hard to climb out. Luckily, I hope that with my life now I can recognize it close enough so that I never get quite that low.

But I do remember crying in the morning and having a lot of trouble, and I was a single mother at that point, too, that was stressful. I went into my GP, crying, and she was just, like, “You know, honey, you just need a little help. This is not any big shame thing.” That was so helpful to me, so I went on antidepressants then for two or three years. If I’m not in and I need it, I jump back into therapy, and then, usually within two to four years I can resolve things and feel more stable. And then I can slowly cycle off.

PR: So you’re not in regular therapy.

DS: No, I actually just when back. I have a really cool Millennial therapist, who I really like, she seems so positive. I can tell she thinks that anything is possible, and it’s amazing.

PR: I love their positivity.

DS: I love that! Nobody my age feels that. I mean not that we’re not positive, but she really, really feels that…it’s really good. I’m kind of enjoying her. It would be hard for to be in therapy all the time—I get bored, eventually. But I feel like there are periods of between six months and three years that it’s really helped me. Probably for a total of only ten years over my entire 57- year-old life. Still, in those periods it’s been super helpful, and I feel really grateful for it. I thought, when my daughter was a teenager, I should try and get her into therapy, just to get her used to what therapy is, so she wouldn’t have to be afraid of it. Like, just talk on a Saturday to somebody, it’s no big deal, just to completely normalize it. And here she is! (Her daughter makes a brief appearance.) We were just talking about you!

This is Abby, she just got back from her PA gig, doing a movie. 

PR: That’s exciting.

DS: Yeah, it’s cool. It’s a lot of lugging (laughs), lugging crap everywhere.

PR: That’s impressive. Strong woman!

DS: Exactly. Abby and her friends—I feel like they work harder than I did. I’m confused by this idea that they’re lazy, I’m confused by where it comes from. They’re so amazing. Also the hustle—it’s so much harder now. I’ve never seen such impressive hustling.

PR: Because of the economy?

DS: Maybe. I don’t know why they’re forced to work so hard. I worked hard, too, I guess. But it was easier not to have any money. Now I think that’s harder.

PR: It is hard now. So back then, you were a working mother.

DS: Yes, and I was a single mom for ten years. Moving out of a certain kind of life into a different kind was tricky, but I think we liked it. There was a lot of worry and stress and anxiety, but a lot of joy, too.  It was just us and that was fun, and there was a lot of love and spontaneity. We didn’t have a lot of things—I always think about this one summer when we first bought this house, and this house cost nothing when we bought it, but even then it was hard to make the mortgage. And that first summer there was no way to take a vacation. But we went to her friends’ parents’ places. We had moved from Brooklyn Heights, where’d she’d gone to school at Plymouth Church, with very fancy families, and she was still friendly with some of them, so we went around to their summer places in the Hamptons. It was really a funny kind of tour, because we would take the bus to one place, then they would drive us to the next one. It went for a full week, two-night places. All the kids were so happy to see Abby, and I remember the mothers were also kind of happy to see me, but kind of confused about who I was and what I was doing with my life outside of a financially lucrative marriage. But they all seemed really sad to me, and while I was flying by the seat of my pants, I was still free.

I’ve been married to my second husband for a little more than 10 years, so that’s been a positive thing too. He’s the head of investigative reporting at the AP.

PR: You mentioned him in interviews, and he seems very open-minded.

DS: He really is. I was worried, because, like everyone, he’s sensitive, and I totally acknowledged that. But as a journalist, he could be upset, but he couldn’t actually argue with the factual within it. As an investigative reporter, he encouraged me to  burrow into some of the ideas about hormones and all that stuff. But I also burrowed into my own life, so he knew, if you’re going to burrow into your own intimate life, things are going to come out. He was weirdly open—I felt really surprised when he read it and said it’s fine. It was a little bit uncomfortable for him, but he also loved it. He let that paradox kind of live, which I think some guys wouldn’t have., and I feel grateful for that.

PR: What’s next for you?

DS: After this, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have to regroup a little bit, read and think. I would really like to write something about Prospect Park—I love Prospect Park. I’m obsessed with Frederick Law Olmstead, the park designer, I think he is fascinating. The times I’m the happiest to be a New Yorker are when I go on the back side of the park and see the multicultural communityjust the beautiful diversity of what New York could be. I would like to honor that, somehow, and write about some place really close to me.

PR: I think there’d be an audience for that.

DS: Also, about going down into yourself and your local place rather than just being on social media all the time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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