I am standing in the bathroom of the Martinhal Chiado Family Suites in Lisbon, Portugal, staring at the kids’ potty chair stashed under the sink. Next to it is a little tub for, I assume, bathing babies. There are even tiny white slippers tucked beside with it, sweetly and almost discreetly. Two weeks ago I would have simply made a note, as any decent travel journalist would, that this lovely little tableau is a wonderful gesture, one of many, to the families that stay here. Instead I hug my arms to my chest, open my mouth, and bawl out loud.

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Just a few days before I set toes on my TAP Air Portugal flight, my gynecologist made the pronouncement that I am now officially postmenopausal. I’m 51. I haven’t had a period in more than a year. I’ve never had kids, though I’ve had three emotionally devastating miscarriages. Now there is no chance, absolutely none, that I will ever have children.

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I’ve made peace over the last decade with the knowledge that children are something not meant for me, but it stings in a way I didn’t expect to receive this final confirmation. It stings even more to be processing it in a stunning suite, really more an apartment, dedicated to the thing I no longer have a chance at obtaining. The building the Martinhal Chiado Family Suites occupies is two centuries old, but inside everything is sleek and modern. The wall behind the bed is painted a red so luscious it’s indescribable — brighter than scarlet, sexier than cherry. When opened, tall shutters reveal French doors overlooking the narrow streets of the charming Old Town district.

But there’s a high chair stashed in the kitchen, and the corners of tables and chairs are rounded, should a toddler stumble into them. There’s even a cheery playroom downstairs, babysitting services available and a “baby concierge,” who I’m told can provide items from bottle sterilizers and warmers to cribs and safety gates. It’s difficult not to see all this as reminders of my now forever-barren state.

I live a good life, I tell myself, as I wander the apartment. I’ve made some of my dreams come true. I travel the world thanks to my job and I write for publications I’ve long loved reading. I’m most bothered by my currently single state, a result of the bad end to a worse relationship 18 months ago. I’ve purposely taken time to heal, to learn how to be strong on my own. But there’s that voice in my head, the one I suspect all women battle once they’re deemed to be past their prime by society: No one will ever want me. I’m getting wrinkles. My flesh is sagging. I am no longer young. I have just become “invisible.”

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Gleeson (left) enjoying wine with friends in Portugal.

COURTESY OF JILL GLEESON

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It’s a toxic word to me, at least in the context Frances McDormand used it in a New York Times Magazine article. The piece came out in October 2017, about five months before she won her second Best Actress Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I’ve long loved strong, smart, brilliant McDormand. But I felt betrayed when she was quoted as saying, “And what you gain after menopause is the power of invisibility. You become sexually invisible to both men and women. You gain the power of not giving a [expletive].”

What was McDormand, an outspoken feminist, doing publicly embracing this decidedly patriarchal viewpoint? As if sexuality were something older women not only must wave aside — itself a deeply damaging fallacy — but should want to? We’ve come farther than this. Think Helen Mirren rocking a bikini; Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin selling vibrators on their Netflix series Frankie and Grace; Madonna, who turned 60 in August, still singing some of the most erotic pop on the planet — and performing it in marathon concerts that would drop far younger performers to their knees with exhaustion.

These trail blazers are slowly normalizing what never should have been made aberrant. It’s way past time American women stop buying into the societal construct that men can remain forever carnal, taking lovers two or three decades younger, while we spend from middle age on locked in a sexless vacuum. Maybe we should learn from the French, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, is 25 years younger than his hotsy totsy 65-year-old wife.

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Gleeson with a hiking group before climbing up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Courtesy of Jill Gleeson

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At least this is what I tell myself when the doubts start to kick in, when I read statements like McDormand’s and start believing my sexuality has been erased postmenopause. I tell myself this as I wander Lisbon, stopping at the the Mercado da Ribeira, which dates back to the 13th century and has been of late transformed into a food hall. The Portuguese custard tarts I sample there are so good I briefly consider they might well substitute for sex should the worst come to pass and Frances McDormand prove correct.

Nah.

That night I dine at o Faia, renowned for presenting traditional Fado performances. The vocalist singing the mournful, gorgeous Portuguese music with perfect pitch is stunning in a black silk dress, her dark hair piled high on top of her head. Our guide whispers to me that this graceful, confident woman was famous for performing Fado in the 1960s. She must be 80 years old. And yet here she is, every eye in the room on her, a few gazing with clear desire.

It could be the Fado singer, or perhaps the sort-of shock therapy I’ve experienced as a just-pronounced-postmenopausal women staying amongst the happy families at the Martinhal Chiado. But after a couple days I’m grinning right back at the bobble-headed, bright-eyed babies smiling at me in the hotel’s restaurant, reveling in the elegant apartment, daubed with kiddie gear or not, in which I lay my head. On my last night in Lisbon I head out to Sol e Pesca, a charming little bar that was once a shop for fishermen.

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Jill with her friend and Mt. Kilimanjaro tour guide, Chunga.

Courtesy of Jill Gleeson

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I ask my waiter to bring me whatever cocktail he wants, as long as it’s strong. He serves me a Portuguese liqueur called Beirao, but soon he’s out from behind the bar, clutching a bottle of tequila and imploring me to have a drink with him. Moments later, a handsome man from across the room buys me a straw fedora from the street vendor who’s wandered inside, “because,” he says, “you are beautiful.” The waiter insists I drink another round with him, and the handsome man comes to my table to flirt. It occurs to me just how wrong McDormand is.

A couple months after I return from Portugal, in early 2018, Bloomberg publishes an opinion piece by Megan McArdle, After 45 Birthdays, Here are 12 Rules for Life. It’s a folksy bit of fluff, filled with advice like “Always make more dinner rolls than you can eat.” But there’s a section that rankles me, that I find distressing and irritating in equal measure. “You can no longer tell yourself that you might move to Lisbon, learn Portuguese, and take up the guitar,” McArdle writes. “You cannot learn Portuguese at your age. You can’t remember new words anymore; you can’t even remember where you have left your keys.”

McArdle’s cracking wise. But she’s also passing along a devastating message for middle-aged women: You can’t learn anything new. You can’t live anywhere new. You’re not just sexually inconsequential, from this day forward you will remain static. Because according to McArdle, “The building years of your life are over, and what you are now is pretty much what you are going to be. Soon it will be what you were.”

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If McArdle is so happy in her life she wants nothing more than to kick back and enjoy it, I say good for her. Good, too, for any woman who chooses the power “invisibility” might bring. I just hope that everyone understands that these are choices. No one sounds a horn and screams, “Come on, out of the pool!” when you hit 45, or 50, or whatever.

Voices like McArdle’s — there are so many, and they can be loud — would have you believe otherwise, would have you believe that you can’t wear your hair long, or your skirts short or even think about moving to Lisbon and learning Portuguese once you hit middle age. It’s a lie. I know it is because I spent a fine day in Lisbon seriously considering the possibility of doing just that.

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It’s August before I read another essay trumpeting The Gift of Menopause, this one in the New York Times. The gift, once again, is invisibility. “I like it,” declares the author, Margaret Renkl. Renkl writes well of the lyrical pleasures of old age, waking early and walking to a nearby lake at sunrise, “time spent with a book,” turning down invitations to events she doesn’t want to attend because “The days are running out, faster and faster, and I have learned that every yes I say to something I don’t want to do inevitably means saying no to something that matters to me far more.”

Renkl is all of 56.

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Jill and Matt celebrating their 6-month anniversary in Pittsburgh.

Courtesy of Jill Gleeson

I believe for many of us the postmenopausal “power of not giving a [expletive]” comes not from invisibility, but from strength. By the time you reach your 50s, you’ve lost people, people you loved, people you thought you couldn’t live without. Your heart’s been broken, probably badly and more than once. You’ve weathered lost jobs, financial problems, any number of illness and injuries. You’re battle-tested. You’re a survivor. You’re wiser than you ever were and far more resilient. And there is absolutely no reason why you have to accept anyone’s suggestion that you’ve become irrelevant.

I haven’t, and I’m not anything special. I don’t have much money. I live with my elderly parents, trying to care for them as best I can, which I worry is far too inadequately. I lost my younger brother four years ago to a heroin overdose, an event from which I’m still trying to recover. I battle depression and anxiety. But last year, at 51 and having never been an athlete, I climbed 19,341 feet to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’ve reached new heights in my career, too, and I’ve even found love again. Matt’s tall, handsome, brilliant, funny and deeply kind. He’s also 13 years younger than me.

I’d like to return to Lisbon someday. Stay again at the Martinhal Chiado, where I began to finally be grateful for what I have, rather than mourning what I don’t. I’d love to see the Fado singer, get another drink in Sol e Pesca and remind myself that no one — not men, society, or the media — has the right to determine who women are at any stage of our lives.

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https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/a23455641/menopause-middle-age/

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