Positive thinking about the 'pause'

October 07, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Damn, what did I do with that T-shirt? The one that says "These aren't hot flashes, they're power surges." Where is it now that I've finally found just the right occasion?

Ever since the boomers started hitting 50, the cutting edge of this ever vigilant, ever youthful generation has been trying to get us to think positively about the pause.

A fleet of pop (or rather, mom) psychologists reminds us that the reproductive finale doesn't mean the productive end. A choir of HTC gender spinmeisters (or rather, spinmistresses) insists that midlife begins when fertility ends.

This is a marketeer's dream. There are 37 million post-menopausal women in America already. In another dozen years there'll be 50 million. It's no wonder that there are workshops offered on how to embrace the inner crone, videos on sex in the post-ovum era, and power T-shirts.

Frankly though, it's been a tough sell. With hormones to the right of us and trophy wives to the left, the basic messages about the value of post-menopausal women still give me night sweats. We may have post-menopausal pregnancy poster gals. But the culture is still haunted by witches and the ancient specters of genetically useless old hens.

Too many of us facing "the change" were raised on anthropologists of the Lionel Tiger stripe and evolutionists of the survivalist school who have never figured out whether there is a biological purpose to post-ovum living.

Female humans are the only primates that survive long beyond their last pregnancy. Some assumed that older women were an evolutionary accident. Fifty-, sixty- and seventysomething women were dismissed as modern medicine's little luxuries, creatures irrelevant to survival of the species. Nature's leftovers.

I doubt that many of us stayed up at night worrying about our role in evolution. I never put all my eggs in the biological basket. Still, I'm aglow at a recent piece of anthropological revisionism.

I feel a power surge coming on.

A group of anthropologists studying the Hadza hunter-gatherers of northern Tanzania reports in Current Anthropology that post-menopausal women are the serious breadwinners in that community. They work longer and harder out in the bushes. They bring home the berries and tubers.

The children provided for by these senior women, their grandmothers and great aunts are the children most likely to survive. When the nursing mothers are attuned to the youngest, it's the senior women who make sure the older kids are fed well.

Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah offers a Grandmother Hypothesis. She goes so far to suggest that post-menopausal zest may account for the runaway success of our kind of primates.

In the great Darwinian scheme of things, it isn't just the number of offspring but their fitness that spells survival. Here Grandma makes the best provider.

I know no Hadzas, though I'm delighted that the gatherers are getting their due along with the hunters. When I took anthropology, it sounded like the men went out for the woolly mammoth bacon while the women waited at home with blueberry garnishes.

Frankly, most of the grandmothers I know do their gathering at Baby Gap. And the fiftysomething women who have re-entered the workplace to support their families make the Hadzas' pace of tuber-gathering look leisurely.

Still it's good for the modern woman's soul to contemplate a new image of their senior foremothers. If the Hadza are any indication, ancestral sisterhood was powerful. Older women were programmed into the big picture.

We were meant to be older and wiser. When childbearing ends, gear up to the job of making life better for the whole clan.

Meno is just the pause that refreshes.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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