It's September, which means it's Menopause Awareness Month. But most of us aren't aware of this. Nothing comes up on a cursory search on Google News: no real news stories on menopause, despite the fact that this year, another 2 million women will reach menopause. These women will join approximately 50 million other women in America who are post-menopausal and 800 million women worldwide who have gone through a process that is 100 percent natural but, for many, feels 100 percent abnormal.
I'm really interested in learning more about menopause because it's something every woman goes through, no matter who they are. But most women don't know much about it.
And men? Forget it. We don't even bother learning or asking. There's no doubt in my mind that if men had to go through it, women would be fully aware of menopause, its symptoms and treatments.
My interest in women's health was initially sparked by the guilt I felt about the way I handled my mother's hysterectomy, which happened when she was in her early fifties (one that turned out to be unnecessary -- more on that later).
She had her surgery when I was fifteen and at the time, I was remote and unhelpful to her. My distance to her during and after her surgery was partially related to seeing, for the first time in my life, the woman who had always served as a source of strength for me become vulnerable and ask for help.
But my being unhelpful and remote with my mother was mainly tied to what I see as a major issue in the fight for gender equality: the way our society protects men from knowing or caring about women's reproductive health and, frankly, their health in general.
I can't tell you how many times my women friends will start to mention an issue they're dealing with on a reproductive level, stop themselves, and then say, "But you don't want to hear this."
Trust me, I do -- and all men should listen.
For some insane reason, men are taught to close themselves off from anything that goes on with respect to a woman's reproductive health. Men only want to see and understand that part of the body in sexual terms.
The issue of women's reproductive health remains an unacceptable social taboo that keeps many women from openly talking about it.
As a result, we men remain largely insensitive and uninformed to the struggle of menopause.
My friend Al once told his menopausal wife, "This is great, you don't have to deal with your period anymore." While I think he had every good intention, his effort at minimizing the issue of menopause clearly shows how far we as men have to go in terms of understanding what menopause really means for women, physically and emotionally.
A few years ago, my friend Michael was telling me about his reaction to his wife's frustrations with her hot flashes and night sweats: "I told her that she just has to turn up the air conditioning and get over it, what the hell does she expect?"
He was completely serious. I really wanted to say, "You insensitive asshole, do you think women would be as frustrated if it was as simple as being hot like we are on a summer day?"
But I didn't say anything, which I regret. Never again.
I've thought a lot about the conversation I had with Michael in deciding to write this piece. So, I asked a few of my menopausal and post-menopausal friends about their experiences.
My friend Suzanne described the feeling of hot flashes and night sweats (one of many symptoms of menopause) as similar in sensation to being smothered. For her, menopause meant exactly that, a "pause." She had new priorities. It was also a moment when she realized that she didn't need sex in the same way; it was no longer a child bearing "tool." Sex now served one primary purpose: pleasure.
I had another friend describe her frustration with menopause as wanting nothing more than to go sleeveless when she was facing the worst of her hot flashes. But she felt too embarrassed to do so because she saw her arms as too fat -- a nice dose of societal pressure thrown in with the menopause mix.
I have a Republican friend who vows she would rather see President Obama re-elected than face menopause again.
My friend Angela's mom had no sense of what she was going to face, "I was never told a thing about menopause and what it would be like." She felt well-prepared and well-informed about her period, childbirth, all the phases of life women traditionally educate girls about. But no one talked to her about what she would experience during menopause. It was an incredibly lonely and frightening time for her.
My friend Lisa echoed those sentiments, saying, "We only find out and learn about it when it starts happening to us."
This absence of knowledge seems strange to me, given that menopause is something to be experienced by every woman. So, why aren't they finding out about it and preparing for it beforehand? Why does it have to come as a shock?
My friend Lena, who reached menopause a few months ago, joked with me, "If you know a menopausal woman, just run in the other direction."
I know the last thing she wanted was for anyone to run in the opposite direction, but she made the joke as a strategy of self-protection, probably because people did run from her instead of towards her. Lena was just preempting the possibility of having her feelings hurt.
Some of us would like to think women handle menopause surrounded by great friends: like something out of Nancy Meyer's film Something's Gotta Give, where they all sit in a fabulous living room, drink wine, eat pistachios, and laugh until 3 am about menopause symptoms and how to treat them. But the reality is that most women don't even talk about it with other women, much less talk about it with men; they just sort of live with it. I really can't imagine a man "just living with" something as emotionally and physically traumatizing as menopause.
And no matter how many books have been written about menopause, it's still treated as a fringe issue by our society at large, as if menopause is some rare tropical disease instead of something that every woman will face in her life.
I'm going to write a whole lot more about menopause (Hear that sound? It's the three remaining male readers I have, leaving), because I think too many women are left unsupported, especially by men, in a really difficult, frustrating time in their lives. I also see it as a chance to educate myself, because while I may know more than most men, I still really know nothing.
In the meantime, there's something that men can do for Menopause Awareness Month (and beyond) that doesn't take much effort: listen, learn, and acknowledge.
The power to be acknowledged is something afforded to most men as a sort of birthright. But for too many women, it's a luxury that has never been provided to them.
And that, certainly, should give us pause.
This piece originally appeared on The Current Conscience.