Denise Paleothodoros is a PR executive based in the US with 20+ years consulting for some of the world’s largest companies on consumer marketing campaigns, corporate reputation, culture and women’s leadership. She advocates for midlife women in the US to protect their A-game in work and life, and end the menopause stigma.
“The story of my struggling entry into midlife is shockingly ordinary for many women,” says Denise Paleothodoros. “It doesn’t have to be this way. Not in the 21st Century. Throughout my early to mid-40s, I often put on a fake act. I opted for the “everything is awesome” vibe, filled with blue skies and pretty things and love that conquers all.
“There are many midlife women like me,” says Denise Paleothodoros, “desperate to protect a successful career and happy personal life. It’s amazing how well we all learn to master the art of faking it.”
Here, Denise Paleothodoros reveals how she moved from silence to speaking out.
When did your symptoms start?
I was in my early 40s when my journey to menopause began. I never got the memo about the ways menopause symptoms can disrupt life. It affects careers, relationships, confidence, even the strength to make a coffee. I was clueless.
Did you know what to expect in the perimenopause years?
When a doctor told me that I wasn’t yet in menopause but may be in the ‘perimenopause’ phase, I thought, “whatever the hell that is”. I was in denial for shallow reasons. The average age of menopause is 51 and I didn’t look like the white-haired models in the articles featured at the time. While I was experiencing a few of the 34+ potential symptoms, I settled for the doctor’s ‘maybe’ diagnosis – as in, maybe not.
What were your symptoms?
I endured all kinds of health symptoms that spoiled too many busy and fun days. Most of my ‘fun money’ went on doctors, tests, fancy vitamins and elixirs. I visited Dr. Ob-gyn, Dr. Brain, Dr. ER, Dr. Autoimmune, and Dr. Joint. Radiation screenings and cell scrapings would need to rule out cancers. Blood drawings would need to rule out other diseases. My brain was scanned for dementia. The home remodeling plans would have to wait.
When I discovered my struggle was with wild hormonal imbalances, I swept my pain and confusion under the magic carpet I was trying to ride on to avoid the stereotypes of menopause. I didn’t tell my work colleagues or the new love in my life. Self-preservation was the goal.
How did you get through it?
A few years after I was knocked way off my A-game, I created the space to explore why I was so naïve about menopause, and why the doctors I trusted were too. I traded my leather pants and city weekends for yoga pants and a season of moonlit research, fireside chats with women of every age, and other soul-filled rituals (kittens were involved).
I also made an appointment at Northwestern’s Center for Menopause in Chicago, a rare entity in the US. I finally received proper counsel and treatment that put an end to hot flashes, sleepless nights, constant anxiety, daily memory lapses and more spoils to my feminine energy.
What about dealing with menopause in the workplace?
My discoveries led me to self-publish my first menopause essay, Menopaused at Work: It Can be a Mind F*ck on my LinkedIn. I exposed my struggles with embarrassing symptoms at work to my global professional network. It was a bold move for my introversion, but I did it to end my contribution to the cycle of silence. Perhaps I’d save another busy career mom from losing herself and the car keys she didn’t realize she’d placed in the freezer.
My writings led me to personal discussions with hundreds of women and several dozen men. Sure, the women have all heard of the menopause. Like me, they had limited knowledge of it being the end of periods and fertility, yo-yo sex drives, and as a comical label for angry and crazy women. For the modern men, it’s an enigma, but I admired their care to learn more.
Why is menopause still a taboo?
The reasons why the menopause stigma in the US persists are layered and deep-rooted from even our most recent past generations. As you may have guessed, it’s influenced by the old-fashioned patriarchy. There are beliefs so dumb that “I literally can’t even”, as my teenage daughter says about things unworthy of repeating. The silent approach taken by women as a result is insidious, involving a mix of shame, fear, youth obsession, stereotypes, and concerns of ageism and sexism in the workplace. I’m over it.
Who inspires you?
I’m so impressed with the professional British women in business, media, and politics leading progressive actions to end the absurd silence around menopause in the UK. Their clever confidence is the bee’s knees and American women leaders would be wise to take note. I myself have begun to follow their lead.
How are you speaking out?
For two decades, I worked for a top global PR firm that is part of a Fortune 500 holding company of renowned marketing agencies around the world. In 2019, I pitched the company’s global diversity and inclusion (D&I) team the idea of hosting a ‘Menopause Declassified’ training event for its national Women’s Leadership Network (WLN). It wasn’t an easy sell, but I got the green light and partnered with Dr. Lauren Streicher, a renowned menopause expert. The event was webcast to every agency office in the US and was a great success.
I’ve also self-published several essays on LinkedIn, write for online media and blogs, and have taken part in a pilot documentary on menopause. Doing my part to raise women’s level of consciousness about menopause is important to me.
What do you say to employers?
This is one way forward. Corporates are committing to diversity, inclusion and gender equality at the top like never before. As such, it would be prudent for them to acknowledge and educate about the unique challenges perimenopause and menopause may present for midlife women – at work and in their private lives.
What is your message for other women?
My message for the next generation of midlife women is to protect your A-game when menopause symptoms appear. Help create the social acceptance I wish existed to make conversations easier with those nearest and dearest. As my own story shows, too much is at stake to fake your way through it.
Follow Denise Paleothodoros on LinkedIn to read more from her on changing attitudes to menopause in the workplace