The man’s accent – a strain of broad Scots indecipherable to many – baffles us at first.
We’re sitting in a coffee shop in Edinburgh, recording our interview, when he approaches from the next table, arms outstretched. “Did wan o’ yous write a book about menopause, aye?”, he enquires. Swallowing bemusement, we nod. What’s coming next?
The man produces a tiny notebook from his tracksuit pocket. “Whit’s it called?”, he asks. “Could ya write it doon for me? My wife’s struggling wi’ the menopause like. It’s awfy hard…”
Scribbling done, Sam Baker settles back in her chair, eyebrow raised. “Well,” she laughs, ever the journalist. “You’ve got your colour.”
For all its unexpected interruptions, Baker loves Edinburgh. She moved here two months ago, a fresh start to mark the conclusion of a tough few years, now documented in her latest book, the intensely revealing, part-menopause memoir, part-manifesto for over-40s womanhood, The Shift.
We’re speaking a month before publication, but coffee shop man isn’t the first male to declare an early interest in its teachings. “I’m in the middle of recording the audio book and the producer is in his late 50s,” Baker explains. “He’s like ‘Oh my God, this is fascinating. I don’t think I’d be divorced if I’d read this book.’ So, I don’t think we’ll be repackaging it for blokes, but I’d love to think that it had a longevity that would creep outwards…”
Change of scene
Baker was 46 when she began to display the symptoms of perimenopause – though she didn’t initially think that’s what was happening. Having recently left her prestigious editorship of Red in order to set up The Pool, both her mind and her body appeared to be turning on her.
“Menopause hit me and I truly didn’t know what was happening, which sounds really stupid. But it didn’t start with hot flushes, and the mental health issues around menopause are so undiscussed, for want of a better way of putting it.
“When your confidence is through the floor and you’re having anxiety and panic attacks and, in some cases, such bad forgetfulness that some of the women I spoke to thought they had early onset dementia, you don’t know that’s menopause. Those things are not talked about. I didn’t feel there was anywhere to turn.”
Eight years on, Baker is seeking to rectify that. The Shift, which she describes as “a manifesto for the second half of your life”, tackles menopause, but also so much more. The invisibility that knocks so many women for six post-40. The societal expectations on us throughout our ‘fertile’ years. The pressure of deciding whether to have children or not, if the decision is ours to make. And optimistically, the astonishing confidence to be harnessed on the other side of the shift, the “invisibility cloak” that she insists can empower women onto living a life freed from box-checking and fear.
“Our society values youth so much that we are taught to dread ageing. We’re shamed over ageing and we’re ignored as we age. And so, arguably, the natural inclination is to try to pretend you’re not.
“Once I started to unpick it, I realised that menopause is kind of a symptom, not a cause. I don’t want to bang on about patriarchy, misogyny, the male gaze and all of that, but the reality is if you’re attractive, if you’re what so many of the women I spoke to called a ‘head turner’, that becomes a currency and you’re expected to pay it.
“But I think part of the menopausal superpower, if you like, is that, ironically, when society stops putting a value on you, you start to see more value in yourself. You’re thinking, ‘Is this it?’ And menopause gives a lot of women the power to go, ‘No. This isn’t it.’ When you stop being shackled by what you think you’re allowed to do, it’s kind of surprising what you are allowed to do.”
Breaking new ground
For the softly spoken Baker, who admits battling with imposter syndrome throughout her illustrious career telling other people’s stories, turning the focus onto herself was an unnerving experience. And yet, the book is intensely personal, both on a physical level (the treatise on lube made me howl) and an autobiographical one.
From the fertility chapter, exploring her own childlessness, to the bravery essay, which describes in searing detail the impact of an early relationship dominated by violence and coercive control, we see more of Baker here than we have in her thirty-odd years in the public eye. That must have been scary, I suggest.
“I didn’t plan to write the bravery chapter the way I did. But then it all just spewed out. I’d been coming up to that point for a few years and, really, I couldn’t write the book without including that stuff because that was the pivotal shift perimenopause provided for me. It gave me something that enabled me to deal with things that I hadn’t dealt with, the things I wish I’d dealt with sooner.
“I think shame is so ingrained in women’s lives. I mean, we talk all the time now about victim shaming, but when I was growing up in the 70s, 80s and 90s, it was part and parcel. No matter what a good job your parents try to do, you still develop this idea that, if I hadn’t done this or that, it might not have happened, so it’s my fault. And it took me until I was 50 to realise it wasn’t my fault.”
Expectation, and the pressure it puts on women, runs as a constant thread throughout the book, Baker gamely pulling at it time and again to unpick just why so many of us are so damn hard on ourselves. Does she, as many critics today do, believe the women’s media she’s spent her career in to be part of the problem?
“I’m actually really proud of the magazines I edited, but I do feel that I was editing magazines in a time where you were blocked at every turn,” she says, thoughtfully. “I remember putting a model of colour on the cover of Cosmopolitan and my boss was like, ‘What are you doing?’
“The whole lot gets trotted out – only white women sell, all of that. It wasn’t true then and it’s certainly not true now. But then, maybe the reason magazines are in such bad trouble now is that they’ve been out of touch for a very long time.”
What she loved most about her job, she says, was the connection it afforded her with readers. “When you got those letters, emails and Tweets where people said, ‘How did you know I was thinking that?’ That’s what I loved. And I loved the campaigns. I think, even then, it was about using your platform for good, but the world was very blinkered then.
“I love now, watching what Edward Enninful is doing on Vogue and just going, ‘Fuck you, I’m going to put loads of women of colour on the cover. This is what we need to be doing.’ I think he’s amazing and I’m a bit jealous, to be honest.”
Baker’s tale of why she left traditional publishing and set out in the digital space, detailed for the first time in The Shift, is a shocker. But while The Pool’s eventual closure was “devastating”, Baker’s time at its helm is something she still feels a deep and enduring pride in. “In terms of product and the women we reached, I’m really, really proud of it. I wouldn’t want my experience to put anyone off because if you look at the statistics, women are more likely to lead a successful start-up than men. People over 50 are more likely to lead a successful start-up than people under 50. Women of colour in the States run an enormous percentage of successful start-ups. And that’s because they’ve always had to think outside the box. They’ve always had to find another way.
“If you look at a wall, a white middle-aged woman or certainly a Black middle-aged woman will see a wall, where a white middle-aged man might see a door. We have to build our own doors. Yes, things will go wrong. But if you change the parameters and you look at women who are being very successful outside what we perceive as the success hierarchy, then it changes exponentially.
“What I did didn’t work out, but it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t try again, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Because for every business that doesn’t work, there are two that do.”
The Shift is very, very funny. It is comforting in places, confronting in others. It is also, in a controlled, harnessed way, angry. Angry about the lack of representation. Angry about the slights women have been expected to just accept in life. Angry at continuing pay disparities. With a second lockdown looming, the first having catapulted so many working women back to the 1950s, the anger feels as crucial as it does current.
“One of the things that really struck me when I looked back over my life was how much we had taken lying down because we thought we had to. Or because we thought we should be grateful. Or we thought it was the way it should be. And I do think it’s significant today that everybody is shouting about it. I think that’s really important.”
The emergence of Kamala Harris into the fray of the US election has also had Baker punching the air with glee. “It’s like, pray they win. But even if they don’t, that’s a massive thing that has changed. A 55-year-old black woman’s on a Democratic presidential ticket and that’s amazing.”
As The Shift hits book shelves this week, Baker is trepidatious. She’s far more comfortable asking the questions than answering them – that’s why, she explains, there are so very many women’s stories contained within its pages.
Nonetheless, she’s hopeful that her honesty will help other women to skip the confusion she felt when menopause first hit. “Forearmed is forewarned. If somebody had ever said to me, ‘There’ll be a point where you’re screaming and crying in the kitchen because you left your job and you’re about to start a business, but don’t worry about that, because that’s just menopause.’ That would have been a massive eyeopener.
“Also, if someone had said to me, ‘It won’t last. And when it’s gone, you’re just going to feel completely different.’ Then there would have been a light at the end of the tunnel.
“The main thing I feel I’ve learnt is to ignore all the shit. It took me way too long, and I can’t even begin to imagine how much easier, or more pleasant, or more enjoyable the last 30 years of my life might have been if I’d spent less time worrying about whether someone thought I was a bitch, or difficult, or all of those things women get called.
“Now, if they want to stick ‘old’ on the front of that? Well, be my guest.”
The Shift: How I (Lost and) Found Myself After 40 – and You Can Too by Sam Baker is published by Coronet (£16.99). Buy your copy here. The accompanying podcast, The Shift (On Life After 40), hosted by Sam and featuring guests including Tasmina Perry and Marian Keyes, is available here.