We’re well acquainted with the image of the gray-haired man trading in his spouse for a younger model. But what does the upheaval of middle age look like for women?
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The midlife crisis has long been the territory of men, with the cliché-rich images of shiny sports cars and affairs with younger models. But don’t women have midlife crises too? Research says yes, but it tends to play out differently. For one, many women prefer words like “opportunity” and “breakthrough” to crisis. Because, for some women, midlife, beginning as early as 40 and well into the 50s, can be a renaissance: With children grown, it can be a time when we can finally realize our unfulfilled creative desires and plans. Or it might also be a time of forced change: marriages that end in divorce or early death, or financial burdens of caring for ailing parents may push us to make major life changes, including reentering the workforce or picking up new careers. Or our feelings might change sparked by the profound physical and physiological upheaval brought on by menopause.
No matter how changes come about, few women get through life without at least one serious jag at midlife. While an article about the roots of midlife crisis in The Atlantic shared research that suggests most people—male or female (and even chimpanzees, no joke)—become happier over the age of 50, that happiness often comes on the other side of great change.
“A lot of what we know about women at midlife is still yet to be learned,” says Dawn Carr, Ph.D., a research scientist on aging for Stanford University. That is in large part because much of midlife research, largely founded on psychologist Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development from the 1950s, has been and continues to be, conducted on men. Carr says that women didn’t really reenter the workforce until the 1980s, barring a vigorous period in the 1920s. “Women are trailblazers of sorts.”
One thing is certain: Midlife for women today is markedly different than it was for our grandmothers.
“While we’re very clear about our kids having developmental stages,” explains Vicki Minerva, a marriage and family therapist in California, “we don’t necessarily recognize that adults have developmental stages too. A twentysomething is going to have different challenges as they try to navigate life than a fortysomething. She has noticed that among her clients, an “agitation” does eventually kick in for women over 40. “There’s a point we all start to be aware that it’s not just open road ahead. We measure time differently. Part of what happens is that as people don’t deal with the tasks of earlier developmental stages, they snowball.”
This snowballing is often one of the catalysts for “crisis” which tends to manifest in women as an often-urgent need to listen to suppressed aspects of themselves.
Six years ago, *Pamela, now a 48-year-old nurse manager, discovered she was a lesbian. Being raised Catholic, marrying young, and raising three children didn’t allow her enough room for introspection she said, but when her job promotion to a time-intensive leadership role required her to work more hours, she soon found her decades-long marriage crumbling. “My new job put me around a lot of lesbians, by chance. I began developing a close friendship with a woman, and had feelings for her that I had never had for my husband.”
She opted to leave her marriage first and then come out, so as not to complicate her divorce, and did so publicly at 46. What followed were two vulnerable years. “I truly was afraid I would lose everything,” she says. Now, she feels that she is more “loving and kind”, and experiences a “sense of peace.” Though, she still struggles. “I’m trying to fit into a world of couples as a lesbian and a Christian. There’s still loneliness that goes along with it, but it’s not so deep and dark.”
It is not uncommon for women to leave stifling or stagnating relationships, or seek more equal partnerships to fit an evolving self. Litsa Dremousis, age 48, the author of the memoir Altitude Sickness, is a unique case: Her partner of 21 years died suddenly in a climbing accident. Grief and physical challenges related to her autoimmune illness left her shattered and in doubt as to whether she’d ever find love again. But after three solid years of celibacy, she took a risk and signed up for Match.com. “I thought, I can do anything for four months.” Indeed, her third date is now her fiancé. “I’m a feminist and have always had misgivings about marriage, but with Trent, I get to be myself all the time.”
She didn’t plan for this future, but she’s happy with it. “Women have fewer role models for middle age because it was very late in history that women have been allowed to do more than conceiving children. We’re still inventing this as we go.”
While some finally find true love, Sukey Forbes of California hit age 45, only six years into grieving the death of her daughter, with the realization that “ending my marriage was not an if, but a when.” Feeling stifled by having made a “silent contract as a 1950s subservient wife that I willingly signed up for” divorce was her pathway to freedom.
Forbes, now 50, says, “I was coming out of a long emotional tunnel and getting my bearings on life again. Putting my marriage under the microscope made me focus on what I wanted life to look like in the next 60 or so years.” Though she has no regrets about the choice for herself, she does feel sorry for the challenges the divorce added to her children’s lives and the “lost innocence of the fairy tale.”
No discussion of female midlife changes would be complete without addressing menopause. While men also experience hormonal shifts— jokingly referred to as “man-o-pause”—for women, “change of life” is not just a euphemism. Menopause can bring deep emotional changes as well, particularly since women’s identities are culturally entangled with our looks. Menopause can provoke identity crisis about our relevance in society, reinforced by entertainment and fitness industries—not to mention any number of hot-headed arrogant actors making disparaging comments about his female peers.
Kelly Thompson, a 60-year-old Colorado therapist and writer, who has been sober for more than 30 years, says that menopause caused significant change in her identity, beginning in her 40s. “Your sexual power, if that’s what you’ve relied upon, changes without you even knowing it,” Thompson says. “And everything you’ve done up until that point in your life begins to no longer work.” At age 46 when she and her husband moved from California to Alaska, Thompson was further unprepared for seasonal affective disorder which sent her into “an almost psychotic depression.”
“There’s a Jungian concept about how whatever you haven’t realized in the first half of your life, or expressed, will demand to be expressed later on. I had to make a complete transition into the second half of my life. Now, my voice will absolutely be heard or I will die.”
Sue Ann Gleason, 58, left a 30-year teaching career after a health crisis at age 52. “I literally drove off the road one day, after ignoring a soul-crushing exhaustion for years. It turned out I had three different health issues that converged into a meltdown.” She launched a three-pronged nutrition, health, and lifestyle design business, Conscious Bites Nutrition, to help others heal themselves through diet and lifestyle. “I grew up at a time when you worked until you retired and got your pension. Life is different now, but I feel like I’ve joined the younger troops in this entrepreneurial path.”
Though the most common catalysts for midlife crisis happen for women who put their aspirations on hold to raise a family, for some women, midlife crisis can come in reverse. Estelle Erasmus of New Jersey says, “having a baby was my midlife crisis. I didn’t have a maternal bone in my body. I wanted to travel the world, eat at every nice restaurant, and build a career.”
She also built a hugely successful career as a magazine editor who made regular media appearances in television and print. When she was in her 40s, she married a man she thought would make a wonderful father, and she knew, “I could be a mother with him.” She now has a 5-year-old daughter and is resurrecting her career. “If I could have known in my 20s how close I came to never feeling the love I have for my daughter, I’d have been devastated.”
For some women, the crisis part of the equation is more evident than for others.
“Midlife is a time when a lot of regrets pop up,” says Sherry Amatenstein, a New York City therapist. “Now you’re at a crossroads, your parents are getting sick and dying or your kids are grown, or you see that life is so short and you want to find meaning. It’s a big time for women to want to figure out who they want to be.”
And yet, not all women have the luxury of becoming who they want to be.
Selina, a 56-year-old California businesswoman and self-described “control freak,” finds herself in shaky new territory since the recent death of her mother and an early retirement from her job in the tech industry. Still married to her husband of 34 years in which “the passion is long gone” she regrets marrying young and takes pleasure in the memory of a brief affair she had in her late 30s. “I am peeking around the corners of possibilities to see what may be in my future,” she says.
Nearly 20 years ago, Amanda, now 61, divorced her husband of 22 years when she was in her mid-40s. She expected her post-divorce years to be full of writing, gardening, and enjoying her grown children’s company. Instead, finances were tight, her subsequent relationships proved challenging, and depression led her to take medication. She retrained, obtained a teaching certification and now works such long hours teaching she is often too tired to do much else. She’s hoping to be able to afford to retire in a couple of years. “It’s scary to have no money when one is old,” she says.
In fact, we can’t look past the harsh reality that women with financial struggles, or in poverty, may not have the luxury of such crises to “find themselves.” Midlife crises don’t come cheap, which is why they’re predominantly a middle-class phenomenon.
At its best, however, midlife can be the beginning of a time of “generativity” redefined by psychologist John Kotre as “a desire to invest one’s substance in forms of life and work that will outlive the self.”
Dawn Carr, of Stanford, adds, “At some point you’re going to say I only have so much time remaining in my life, I’m not going to waste my energy. I want to make an impact or give back.”
This desire to forge a legacy of sorts became relevant for Jane Hodges, a 45 year-old Seattle-based journalist and author, who has always worked alone, when she found herself with a sudden inheritance after the death of her father and uncle. She bought a former elementary school in a small lake town near Mt. Rainier, Washington and is turning it into a thriving artists’ residency called The Mineral School. “I think part of the midlife thing is, you have to ask: ‘Have I taken the risks necessary to be the person I respect?’” she says.
What is clear is that nobody, male or female, lucky enough to make it to midlife without terminal illness, is likely to do so on the same path as they started out. And those who make the transition with the least fallout may be the ones who can effectively shift from “what about me” to “now how can I give back.”
*Some of the names have been changed.
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