Kathleen Holmes is a well-regarded artist who, for many years, has focused her work on the experience of women.
Jokey or poignant, Kathleen often uses visual puns to make her point. Some of her characters are larger than life, some stand easily on a tabletop. The impact is always there: how will her imagination spark yours?
To see more of her art, visit her website: Kathleen Holmes
My name is Kathleen and I’m 61.
I don’t believe menopause was ever discussed in my family, at least around the children—we were one of those families who essentially didn’t talk about personal issues. My mother passed away at the age of 44, so I don’t have direct experiences with her in menopause. She’d had a total hysterectomy a few years prior to that, so I assume she did go through a kind of menopause, but once she recovered from that surgery her problems seem to have resolved.
My first real symptoms were migraine headaches, which I’d never had before. My doctor diagnosed them as a manifestation of shifting hormones, specifically that progesterone levels were dropping and estrogen levels rising as a result, and when this happens some people become prone to migraines. I went through that experience for almost ten years and they would put me in a fetal position, I was utterly miserable. Ultimately, I went on low-dose estrogen birth control pills, and that helped, that did the trick.
I didn’t really suffer with PMS. I had light periods and was very regular as a teenager, and to the best of my knowledge I didn’t have the sorts of emotional swings that other girls would laugh or joke about. It was kind of business-as-usual for me.
My first reaction when I went into menopause was okay, here we go—this’ll be interesting. I remember about five years before I started having regular symptoms, like the migraines, I was sitting around a table with my husband and our best friend at the time and all of a sudden I got really hot. It was my first hot flash, and I was only in my early-40s—around 43 or 44—because I thought, did it just get warmer in here? And when they both told me that it hadn’t, I said well then, I had a hot flash! They both said, oh no you didn’t—you’re too young. And I said, well something happened! It wasn’t upsetting—it was like okay, next chapter, new adventure.
I didn’t notice that any of my relationships between when I was 40 and 50 actually changed directly because of menopause. I had, at age 51, Lyme’s disease for a year, and that altered things a great deal. And then also throughout my late-40s and early-50s I was caretaking my father, who we thought had dementia that turned out to be psychosis—it was very difficult and dragged on and on, and that changed relationships quite a lot. During that period I was extremely stressed and tired all the time, and I became very reluctant to be available to friends in ways I had been before—I took any opportunity I could to be alone or just take a nap. And so for friends whose neediness was not compatible, those relationships ended; for friends who said wow, I’m really sorry for what you’re going through, if you need anything let me know, those relationships remained the same. But again, it would be hard for me to distinguish how much of that was due to menopause, because there were so many other external things going on. My libido definitely suffered, but again was it exhaustion, was it stress, was it hormones—I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Any kind of personal contact became simply one more thing I had to do, and that was a stress as well. It could have been hormonal, but it’s hard to say. For the most part the kinds of things that came up had to do with my relationship with my father and other family issues, and looking back I don’t recall referencing being in menopause, though perhaps it wasn’t that noticeable in the context of everything else happening at the time.
As far as menopause affecting my work, well, yes it did. My sculptures were all dresses and exclusively referenced women, and I became more outspoken in my work around women’s issues. I was feeling more grown-up, and that I had reached a certain age and could and should be more outspoken about that in my work. I did a number of pieces that directly incorporated writing as a decorative element, and that was about women speaking out—elements of women’s voices in the pattern and texture as part of the design. And I did a series of famous women’s dresses—everyone from Georgette Berger, Rene Magritte’s wife, to fictional characters from literature and women throughout history. When I began doing them it was around the dress as a shape, as a form, but the pieces evolved to pertain more to the women themselves
The Ark Wife March 2008 18 x 10 x 10 inches Ceramic & mixed media
The Ark Wife
18 x 10 x 10 inches
Ceramic & mixed media
I grew up as a very polite, rather timid Southern girl, where you never spoke your mind—certainly not in my family, and certainly not socially. But as you get older you realize you don’t have to live that way and you become more assertive. I think achieving the status of being in menopause is empowering psychologically—I survived this long, I got here. And I’m socially invisible now. There’s a saying that women over 50 are invisible, and I loved that, because it kept coming up. I was meeting a friend once for lunch, and I was standing inside the door of this little diner and he came in and walked right past me and got a table. And I went over and he said, oh, I didn’t see you—and I thought there it is—women over 50 are invisible. He said no, no, no—I was just thinking about something else. But it happens so much—not only to women over 50, but to women in general. There’s a certain feeling of I’ve earned the right to be outspoken and to go for it—acknowledging that we’re all on the downhill side, and how much time do we have left and let’s use it.
Being a professional in the art world, and also in home renovation—my own and some others as investment properties—and working around men all day, I noticed how, as a younger woman, my opinion about something was completely ignored or dismissed. And I find now— either because I’m more confident, or as a woman with white hair— people are naturally somewhat more respectful, and men listen to me a little more. I don’t know if they credit me with anything, but they seem to listen, which they didn’t always do. And you notice it with dogs too, older dogs listen, they instinctively socially know to be more respectful. I’m aware viscerally of how I feel when I approach someone older, it’s automatically deferential, and I don’t know if that’s nature or nurture. In my experience—working with and around men—they are less quick to contradict me than they were when I was younger, and I feel the power inherent in that. Even if I’m wrong about something, at least they don’t contradict me right off the bat—they listen, they hear what I have to say, and that’s pretty cool.
My body has started thickening, and I understand that’s because your spine compresses which causes your ribcage to expand a little bit– it’s not as if you’re gaining weight per se, you’re just getting rounder. And I see everybody going through that in my age group—men and women—a sort of rounding out. So that svelte little figure that we all had when we were young—gone! And of course the white hair. But I started having a white streak when I was about 20, and it kept getting bigger and bigger, so I eased into it from an early age—I didn’t go salt-and-pepper like my sisters, who found that much harder to accept. I bleached my hair white and wore it that way for years, because it was kind of a trend at the time. And then when I stopped doing that it had gotten considerably whiter and I said good, okay, I’m done, I don’t have to do that any more.
A few years ago my hot flashes became truly annoying—very frequent and very disruptive—so I went on hormone replacement therapy. And I have recently almost eliminated the hormone replacement, and though I’m still having hot flashes they’ve lessened, and I’m going to tolerate that. I’ve found being off hormones makes me feel more present– my senses are more acute because I’m not preventing my body from doing what it really wants to do. It reminds me of when we all used to take birth-control pills, we felt different, and not always good, as if we were suppressing our body’s natural physiology.
I knew pretty much nothing about menopause going in to it, aside from the occasional anecdotes I’d heard. Of course I knew about hot flashes because comedians joked about that. Then as I aged and was around older women they would talk about that. I was always worried about flooding– I had heard about flooding, but that never happened to me. I had a friend who was fifteen years older who had been on hormone replacement and stopped when she was about 70 and began to get her period again. That was scary– I thought oh, I don’t want to go there. I did read some books so I’d know what to expect, but I remember nothing from those books. I was thinking about that—what did I learn from those books, other than the basics? Hot flashes, mood effects, skin changes. And I have osteoarthritis, and I understand that gets worse as your hormones dry up, and certainly it has. But in the beginning all I knew was the jokey offhand anecdotal stuff. And about sex-drive, what I knew was, again, from women making fun of the fact that they couldn’t be bothered any more—and I understand that now! But in anything I read there was always a ‘fix’– this is how you fix that—and I did, at one point, try some testosterone, but I don’t sense that made any difference. I have to say that since I’ve been tapering off hormones I’ve felt more sexual than I did when I was on the hormones that were supposed to preserve my libido, and I think that was another case of taking my body in an opposite direction from where it wanted to go.
The Girl I Left Behind January 2008, 17″x 10″ x 9″ Ceramic & mixed media
The Girl I Left Behind
17″x 10″ x 9″
Ceramic & mixed media
From my experience, my advice to other women entering or experiencing menopause would be to be as physically in shape as you can in order to optimize your body’s passage through this change. The aging process in general is hard on the body, so I always gave myself as much support as possible by eating well, exercising, and taking supplements when they seemed appropriate or helpful. And then wait and see what happens—because everybody experiences menopause so differently, and it’s sound advice in general to be as healthy as you can be.
I told my husband, when I found out why I was having migraines, why I was trying hormone replacement, but he was not particularly interested, like most men. Because they don’t get it. He’s sympathetic—he reaches over in the middle of the night because I’ve thrown the covers off and I’m all sweaty and he’ll say oh, I’m so sorry, and I say thank you—I mean, what can you do? But it wasn’t a scenario where we sat down and discussed what was happening, because I didn’t really know and I still don’t, and you never know what’s around the corner. Maybe that’s why women seem to have a hard time discussing it, because there are so many unknowns in the continuum until it’s already happened. Unless the symptoms are really disruptive you don’t have to ‘fix’ them—your body is in the process of fixing itself and you should support that. I guess this would be my main advice—try to go with it as much as you can.
I think a function of getting older is that you determine to self-resolve your own issues. Or you let things go– some yes, some no. I wish that women felt less shame talking about menopause amongst themselves, and even more so in the presence of men. We had two women over the other night for a post-nuptial dinner. They came in the front door and we were standing there hugging and greeting, and as we walked into the house I guess I had a hot flash because all of a sudden I felt really, really hot, but I didn’t know if it was because we were moving into a part of the house that was warmer. And so I stopped by the thermostat and said okay, is it warm in here or is it me? And one of our friends said well, it feels okay to me; and the girls said well, we just came in from outside and we’re fine and so I thought well, okay, then it’s me. And then one of our guests said to my husband watch out, you’ve got these three hot-flashing women here tonight! And it was a joke, but I thought she didn’t need to make apologies for us—she said it almost like an excuse, as if we might be problematic or challenging to be around. I’m unhappy with the fact we’re conditioned to feel and think that way. It would be tremendous if culturally menopause got the reputation of being the beginning of a kick-ass part of women’s lives, that now that their bodies aren’t busy trying to reproduce all their energies are freed up to just go out and be amazing. I would love it if that were the societal attitude about menopause, and not that it’s still this sort of laughable and shameful thing. And you can see it on the other end too, because it’s a very common phenomena with young girls who are assertive and intelligent when they hit puberty to close in—so maybe the smartest girl in the class doesn’t raise her hand anymore. And it would be nice if attitudes about menopause were more towards seeing it as a time of growth and liberation, of getting back to business. For example, my energy level compared to two years ago is amazing. I couldn’t get through the day without a nap, and now I’m doing renovations and working in the heat all day, and when I finally get to bed I can’t even fall asleep. I’m still revved up and I’ve got all this energy I didn’t have before, and intellectual energy, too. It’s astonishing, and you have to celebrate that every day.
I had a roommate in high school who said when she got her first period her family threw a party, and really honored her transition into womanhood, and of course she was mortified about it. But I always remembered that. My mother didn’t even talk to me about it. I saw a film at school when I was in 5th grade and came home and said mom, I saw this film today, and what was all that about, and that generated a very perfunctory response from her, like, well, did they give you a book– just read the book.”