As of writing this, it has been 8,583 days since my mother took her last breath. In 1998, she was 68 years old, and had been married, widowed, remarried and divorced. She had also parented children she birthed and children who would come to call her mother through a blending of families. I was 31 when she died.
The smell of White Shoulders or Charlie was ever-present in our home. Jean Naté was a close third. It’s the little things you always seem to remember, like her laugh or perfume. The way she would hum a random tune while cooking something so simple like a pot of pinto beans. That hum and the power in her dark brown fingers repeatedly created magic in that pot. The time she bragged about being her neighborhood “JUMP ROPE CHAMPION!” and then fell squarely on her butt in the driveway after losing her footing between the double dutch ropes. We laughed so hard that tears streamed down our faces.
I miss that laugh, that hum. I miss her. Now that I am 55, divorced with one adult son and another navigating the Gen Z terrain, I realize that there is also a connection between our unique mothering journeys. The throughline between us is more than parent and child. It is also the ties between how our identities — our sense of self, families and work — were transformed by being menopausal people.
My first period and Mom's last
I’ve recently been reconsidering my menopausal origin story, which I now think of as having begun with the onset of my first period in 1979 in Mr. Barne’s math class in Prince George’s County, Maryland. As a registered nurse, my mother did her best to prepare my younger sister and me for the transition from childhood into our teen years. She also shared with us the story of her first cycle when she was 15. I realize now that when my cycle first began, my mother was likely menopausal, her period ending when mine was starting.
Back when I first got my period, we had books and even comics to provide information about our growing bodies and first periods. And by 1979, we had made tremendous strides around women’s health because of the women’s movement and the fight for reproductive rights and justice. My mother, born in 1930 in the Jim Crow South, was indeed a beneficiary of this movement's work. But there was not a proliferation of menopause books in our home, and there wasn’t much social commentary or education or public conversations for menopausal people at all 43 years ago.
Adding to everyone's discomfort with the topic, talking about our bodies and the changes that happen as people with uteruses age carried (and still carries) a different level of taboo or shame amplified by race and generation. Black women’s bodies have been problematized and pathologized throughout our existence in the country. The impact of racism, patriarchy and misogyny on Black women and our understanding and ownership of our bodies is profound. From the moment of our arrival in this country to modern times, these forces have shaped the way many of us see ourselves, understand our inherent value and have often muted our voices.
A menopausal community of support
While my mom didn’t have any comic books about menopause like we had for our first periods, what she did have was a community. We tend to find safety and solace in the people who we trust the most and those folks who likely look like us and have similar shared lived experiences. As little girls, my sister and I watched my mother with her three best friends, who I now call the “holy trinity,” and my aunts model friendship and care. They were the sisters she never had, and they were ever-present in our lives. It was not uncommon to smell delicious food in the kitchen or hear music, raucous laughter and soft tears when they visited or made our way to their homes. My younger sister and I notoriously “ear hustled” these interactions and soaked up all the love flowing through these exchanges. I believe my mother and her circle of women friends and family held intimate space for each other in ways illegible to my adolescent eyes at that time. They nurtured and protected each other through menopause, midlife, triumphs, death, and grief. As a post-menopausal person with deep sisterhood bonds with my tight circle of friends, I can reflect on this with new regard and understanding.
But, of course, I never got to talk about this transition with my mother. Still, in the 24 years since she passed, I have had many conversations with her in my mind. In the menopausal multiverse where my mother is still alive, we would be preparing for her 92nd birthday in July. We would have many conversations over food, coffee, wine and sometimes bourbon. There would be discussions about her beloved grandchildren, including my boys.
But there are other things I can only wonder about. What insights would she reveal to me as a registered nurse and as a woman who has walked her unique path of menopause and aging? I am curious what she would say about the gray hairs on my head that look so much like hers — I look more like her now than I ever did when she was alive. I wonder what knowing she would offer me around the changes to my body as I get older — my softer belly and my tender open heart. One of the reasons I created the Black Girl’s Guide to Surviving Menopause was to bend time and connect where I am now as a post-menopausal person to my mother in the ancestral realm. I created a space where the wildly diverse stories of different types of Black people could be held as sacred, including my own. I firmly believe that she has had a hand in the work I do to normalize menopause and aging through the centering of stories of women, women-identified and gender expansive people who look like my mother and like me.
I have done my best to make peace that I will never fully know how my mother experienced the menopause phase of her life. But in some small but potent way, I feel my mother’s spirit as a co-conspirator. As she did when she was living, she encourages me to tell the truth and make space for the most marginalized voices. Her impact on me humbles me, and I am grateful.
Omisade Burney-Scott is the creator and curator of the Black Girl’s Guide to Surviving Menopause, a multimedia project focused on culture and narrative shift around menopause and aging by centering the stories of Black women, women-identified and gender-expansive people.