A new book on the menopause explores the impact of inequality at home on long-term relationships.
Today is International Men’s Day and it’s a good opportunity to look at the progress we’ve made on sharing the domestic load more equally.
Our surveys on workingdads.co.uk show dads are increasingly likely to want to share the childcare and even more so since Covid, yet a recent survey on workingmums.co.uk suggests women still feel they are shouldering most of the burden, regardless of the hours they work.
It’s a hugely important issue not just for women’s career progression, but for the long-term health of relationships. In The Shift, a new book on the menopause and mid-life issues for women, journalist Sam Baker Baker has a chapter on ‘the sexual shift and the mid-life split’. In it, she explores the reasons behind a spike in women leaving long-term relationships in their 50s.
Of the 50 other older women she consulted for the book, Baker says more than half said they were either dissatisfied in their relationship or had already left it. Their reasons were varied, but few involved boredom with being with the same person for years. “In the main,” she writes, “if these women left for anyone, it was for themselves.”
This was in part because they had reached a point in their lives where they could put themselves first after years of caring responsibilities. For Baker it is also due to the upheaval women have undergone during the menopause and their ability to adapt to that change and expand their horizons, if they have the financial ability to do so. She writes: “When I look around at the women I know in roughly my age group, most of them have spent years compromising themselves – what they want, who they are, their jobs – and more and more are reaching a point where they’ve had enough. This is particularly true of women with children. With some exceptions, I’ve watched women’s lives be transformed by having children, while the men’s have carried on more or less regardless.”
One woman asks simply: “Have you ever heard a man talk about ‘me-time’?”
Baker cites research showing the happiest and most sexually satisfied couples are those who divide housework and childcare the most equally. Couples where the woman does most of the housework report the highest levels of tension.
Things are changing with the younger generation, but it can take a determined and consistent effort to shift things. Baker cites one woman, Deborah Campbell who says: “About five years ago I became conscious of all the unpaid work I did in the home. I got very angry about it [hormone-fuelled] and began to speak differently about the work in the house. I started talking about it as work that needed to get done for the house to function and for all of us to benefit. The work was not for me, I needed nothing doing. It didn’t change overnight, but it has changed. I would say it’s more or less 50/50 now.”
Baker’s book describes her own experiences and those of over 50 other women when it comes to the menopause and ageist attitudes to women. It starts with all the various symptoms of menopause, from the hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia and the feeling of being constantly drained to the sense of confusion, falling confidence and the all round emotional and physical upheaval. She writes: “It’s like being 15 but with all the responsibilities of a 50 year old. Which is, after all, what it is: all the hormonal upheaval of puberty but in reverse.”
There is discussion of HRT and the right of women to make their own informed decisions about how they cope with the menopause, without being judged, based on their own experience of it. Baker discusses infertility painful periods, eating disorders, greying hair, outlandish claims about anti-ageing products, vaginal atrophy, sex and society’s attitude to attractiveness. She describes body changes such as putting on weight almost overnight and how this can lead to a sense that your whole identity is changing. Baker says at one point: “I looked in the mirror and no longer looked quite like me any more.”
Another big theme is ageist attitudes to older women, including in the workplace. The overall emphasis, though, is positive and uplifting – about how women can reinvent themselves after menopause and use their invisibility as a superpower as they escape, at last, the gaze of others. She describes the shift as “from being a person [OK, a woman] who is constantly asked about and judged on their ability to have children [whether or not you have or want them], to being just a person: you, but without the oestrogen, and consequently a lot more attitude, confidence and, quite possibly, rage”.
*The Shift by Sam Baker is published by Coronet, price £13.06. Check out workingdads.co.uk for our guide to homeworking dads can build back better after Covid.