If Not Now, When? Reclaiming Ourselves at Midlife (excerpt)


If Not Now, When?: Reclaiming Ourselves at Midlife by Stephanie Marston

Chapter 1


As life goes on it becomes tiring to keep up the character you invented for yourself, and so you relapse into individuality and become more like yourself every day. This is sometimes disconcerting for those around you, but a great relief to the person concerned.

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

Hail pelted my office window as Linda dashed in from the afternoon thunderstorm. She was dressed in an elegant suit, matching heels, and a periwinkle scarf. As she settled onto the couch, she held herself stiffly and seemed uneasy. Her short blond hair was tinged with gray, and there was only a trace of lipstick left on her thin, dry.lips. There were dark circles under her eyes. Fifty years old, Linda had been married to her second husband for twelve years. She had two children from her first marriage, both of whom were in college, and a stepdaughter, who was a senior in high school. Linda was the chief human resources officer at a national bank. She had a good marriage, a thriving career, and her children were flourishing. But despite all of her success, her voice sounded flat, and there was a deadness in her eyes.

I asked Linda what had brought her to see me. "Actually, I'm a bit embarrassed," she said. "I love my husband, I have great kids, and my career is going well. But lately I just feel like I'm stalled. I have more success than I ever could have imagined. I know I should be happy, but I have this unsettling feeling that something's missing. But I don't know what it is. I just walk around with this hollowness in the pit of my stomach. Except for my divorce, I've pretty much played by the rules of what a girl from Baton Rouge was expected to do. I went to college right after high school, got married, had my children in my twenties, and went into the corporate world, where I've done very well."

I asked Linda what felt empty. She sat silently for a moment. "So much of my life has revolved around my career," she said, letting out a sigh. "My job is incredibly demanding. I work in my car; I work at the office. My husband teases me about how my side of the bed looks more like a command center than a place to relax."

Linda had just been offered a promotion. While she would have jumped at the opportunity a year or two ago, she now felt conflicted and uncertain. "I should be thrilled," she said. Instead, she was having trouble sleeping and was plagued by anxiety. "We could really use the additional income, especially since we'll have another kid in college. But I just don't know if I can do it. No, let me correct that. I don't know if I want to do it. This is so unlike me. I usually do what's in front of me, but for some reason, I can't now. I'm afraid of doing something different. But I'm more afraid not to."

As I listened to Linda, I heard echoes of the voices of many of the women I have worked with in my private practice. So many had experienced a period of intense ques-tioning during midlife. I reassured Linda that she was not alone in her struggle. Dissatisfaction and self-examination are essential to navigating this passage of life successfully. After all, midlife is a time of tremendous change for women. Our ability to conceive and bear children comes to an end. We become less visible in our culture. And often we begin to feel an unease with many aspects of our lives, our relationships, our work.

From the vantage point of midlife, we can look back and take stock of where we have been, what we've done, and where we want to go from here. It's not uncommon for a woman to feel that she wants to step free of the scripted life and roles she has been living and search for who she is in the depth of her being.

Like Linda, many of us become impatient with what isn't working. During the first half of our lives, when our focus was on establishing a family and a career, we stifled our own voice, sublimating our needs to attend to those of husband, children, and work. With many of these external structures now in place, we discover that aspects of ourselves, which we had previously rejected, resurface. Midlife is a time when women long for a greater sense of wholeness.

Linda came in a week later. She had just learned that her oldest friend, whom she had known since second grade, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Although her friend lived one thousand miles away in New Orleans, the two women remained close. They talked on the phone at least once a month. Every summer for the past fifteen years, they had gone on a "Thelma and Louise getaway." As soon as she found out about her friend's illness, Linda went to see her.

Although the cancer had been detected early, it had been found in three lymph nodes. To be on the safe side, the oncologist had recommended that her friend have a mastectomy and begin chemotherapy. "When I arrived, Jen had just returned from the cancer center," Linda said. "She was terrified. She thought that her life might be over. I crawled into bed with her and held her while she cried. When she sat up, there was a clump of hair on the pillow. I didn't know what to do.

"Still, in the midst of all she was going through, Jen hadn't lost her sense of humor. She told me that she'd always wondered what she'd look like as a brunette, and finally she had gotten her chance. She asked me to bring her the wig her mother had bought her. When she put it on, we burst out laughing. ?Admit it. I look like Flip Wilson playing Geraldine on a bad day,' she roared. It was such a relief to see my friend, who was so frail and weak, act as irreverently as ever."

Linda was shaken by her friend's cancer. I could hear in her voice an uncertainty that I hadn't heard in our previous session. Suddenly, her own sense of mortality had become real. The awareness of death distinguishes midlife from other stages of development in a woman's life. Death becomes our adviser and shakes us out of the numbness and complacency that can mark so much of our lives. It can create a sense of urgency—an imperative of grow or die. It can inspire a woman to examine what is most meaningful for her, how she wants to invest her time and energy and enjoy the life that is to come.

Linda could have been speaking for countless other women who undergo a period of profound reevaluation during midlife. Most of us go blithely about our daily pre-occupations until a crisis or some vague internal stirring stops us long enough to focus our attention on the need to discover the deeper meaning in our lives. The uncertainty that Linda was experiencing was less about her career than about personal transformation. In her case, it was sparked by her friend's illness. But for other women, it can be triggered by a divorce, a parent's dying, a child's leaving home or needing our involvement far more or far less, a change in work, or a shift in the power balance of a ma-riage. Regardless of the cause, midlife is a time when we are ripe for significant change.

Since she'd learned of her friend's cancer, Linda had come to realize that having a comfortable home, a nice car, and a prestigious career were enjoyable, but they certainly weren't what was most important. Linda's friend was at the height of her career when doctors discovered the cancer. She had just been featured on the cover of New Orleans magazine. Her illness had caused Linda to think about what was most important to her; she realized that more work, longer hours, and increased stress were not what she wanted.

"I just hit the big five oh," Linda said. "It really struck me that time is moving on. I was playing the Bonnie Raitt song, "Nick of Time." I never listened to the words before, but she said, ?Life gets mighty precious when there's less of it to waste.' I realized how much of my life has been dominated by my work and caring for others. I started to think about my wish list. It was something that Jen actually thought of for her kids. Then she realized she wanted to make one for herself. While her children's list was made up of things they wanted her to buy, ours are about all the things we've dreamed of doing but haven't done."

I asked Linda what were some of the things on her list. "I've always wanted to go on an archaeological dig. Don't ask me why. But it's something I've dreamt about since I took a class in art history in college, about the pre-Hispanic Andes. Before Jen's cancer, I used to think that I had an unlimited amount of time to do the things that are important to me. Not anymore. I don't want to get to the end of my life and be filled with regrets. Really, I wonder what the heck I've been waiting for. There's this phrase that keeps echoing in my mind: If not now, when?"

In interviews with more than one hundred women from across the country, I heard this phrase over and over again. While it was often expressed in different words, they all echoed the same sentiment. One woman said, "It's now or never. Whatever it is I've been wanting in my life, now's the time." Another talked about "living more in the moment and not holding back anymore." Yet another woman expressed it as "not waiting for someone else's permission." Still another woman said, "Whatever I'm going to make of my life or myself, this is the time." In the end, it all came down to "If not now, when?"

Midlife is a time of inner work—a time to bring our lives under our own authority. It's a time when we shift our focus away from the practical concerns of the first half of our lives toward the search for deeper meaning.

Midlife is about remembering. Remembering who we truly are. Remembering our visions, hopes, and dreams. Remembering our deepest yearnings. It's about remembering what we've lost and about reclaiming it. Midlife is a time when we come fully into our own, reclaiming our strength, passion, vitality, wisdom, and compassion. It's a time from which every woman can emerge a new person.

As we question what we have sacrificed in order to be a devoted mother, a wife, a career woman, we also can now unearth the secret wishes that will take us back to our authentic selves. Regardless of whether we're still involved in raising children, midlife is when we bring ourselves back into the picture and begin to attend to our long-neglected or forgotten needs and longings.

Do You Believe It? We're the Grown-ups Now!

For many women of the baby-boom generation, the arrival of midlife is often unsettling. It seems like only yesterday that our parents were the responsible ones—the ones who held positions of power and authority. But you know you're a grown-up when someone says, "Excuse me, ma'am." You look around to see whom they're talking to, only to discover that they're talking to you. You think, Ma'am? Me "ma'am"? They must be kidding. How absurd. I'm no ma'am. Barbara Boxer, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Donna Shalala—These are women who should be addressed as ma'am. Women of power, authority, responsibility. Women of a certain age. But wait a minute. These women are our age. And the reality sets in that we have crossed the great divide. We're no longer the generation of hope and promise. While many of us feel years younger than the age on our driver's licenses, we aren't kids anymore. We're now the grown-ups, the older generation.

The irony is that while we may look like grown-ups, and even act like them, at least some of the time, in our heart of hearts there lives a free-spirited, raucous girl. There's a part of us that still longs to drive down the coast in a red Mustang convertible with the top down, that would like to turn on the ceiling sprinklers in an overly stuffy business meeting, that wants to have an anchovy pizza delivered to our ex-husband or boss, the way we did in junior high. Admit it, some of you still scream obscenities when you're cut off in traffic, and you don't even feel bad about doing it. You fill your water bottle with wine cooler so you can sneak it into the movies. You call the dentist and feign an illness to get out of your appointment. And they call us grown-ups! Well, we are. Just not all the time. Thank goodness, we don't have to be.

But the torch has been passed. After all, someone has to be the grown-up. Our time has come. Much to our surprise, we are prepared to meet the task at hand. If the truth be known, it's not half-bad. Many of us never imagined reaching forty. Forty once seemed ancient. The forties, though, provide a new beginning—a beginning that can lead us to the discovery of who we truly are. Now's the time when we come fully into our own. Most women I i-terviewed are happier now than when they were in their twenties or thirties. While they'd love to have the body they had then, they wouldn't trade where they are in their lives for anything.

Research conducted with the alumnae of Mills College, a women's college in northern California, corroborates my own findings. In a study of seven hundred women between the ages of twenty-six and eighty, the women who most often described their lives as "first-rate" were those in their fifties. Six years later, when the study was repeated, it was again women in their early fifties who were most fulfilled. The women cited a number of reasons: They were more self-confident and decisive; they felt that they were more their own person; and they had developed greater control over their lives.

This Is Not Our Mother's Midlife

Each generation is shaped by the social climate of its time. Our mothers' identities were formed by World War I and the Great Depression. They were taught that the key to a happy life was marrying a stable man and raising a family. The life of the suburban housewife was the fantasy of young American women. A 1955 New York Times article on women college students reported, "Girls feel hopeless, if they haven't a marriage at least in sight by commencement time." The primary goal of our mothers' generation was to be loved, chosen, and financially secure.

If a woman's mission was to maintain a marriage and raise a family, middle age posed a threat to her security; she lost her sex appeal, along with her fertility and, consequently, her power. Midlife threatened the very foundation of women's lives. In order for women to feel positive about midlife, they had to believe that they had something worthwhile to offer beyond their youthful appearance and capacity to bear children, and many of these women didn't. All they could see was loss—waning attractiveness, coping with rebellious teenagers, divorce, widowhood, caring for aging parents, menopause. From that perspective, midlife seemed like the beginning of the end.

Until recently, the idea of a midlife crisis was presumed to be the exclusive domain of men. If women experienced any turmoil at midlife, it was minimized—the result of the empty-nest syndrome, say, or being left for another woman, or menopausal malaise. But since the 1950s, women's expectations and prospects have been profoundly transformed. Women went to college, often chose to postpone marriage and motherhood, entered the workforce, ran for political office, and experimented sexually in a way that only men had previously. Women now include success in career, equality in relationships, and ongoing personal growth as issues central to their lives. In light of this dramatic change, the notion of a midlife crisis is now equally relevant for women.

Baby boomers are the first generation of women who have had control over their reproductive life (both birth control and fertility) and have built their identities on their value not only in relationships but also in the workplace. But while women of the baby-boom generation were prepared for "traditional feminine roles," by the time we came of age, many of us were questioning these conventional values. We wanted to break the mold that had trapped our mothers. While our mothers took pride in being homemakers, we realized that society held them in low esteem. With the overemphasis on women as nurturers and caretakers, their deeper sense of themselves was left acutely underdeveloped. As the daughters of these women, many of us felt compelled to find fulfillment not just within a marriage and family but in the larger world, as well.

Women of the baby boom are better informed and better educated than any previous generation; we've become executives, astronauts, and CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations; we have incomes, not to mention substantial independent incomes; we're more likely to divorce and raise children as a single parent; many of us postponed marriage, remained single, or are in same-sex relationships; and we have fewer children. Former Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder put it well when she said, "I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both."

During the 1960s and 1970s, when women of the baby-boom generation became more political, every aspect of our lives came under question. As a result of the civil rights and women's movements, the old gender roles are dead and buried, but no new roles have replaced them. As we have at every point in our lives, we baby-boom women are flying by the seat of our pants. 

No, this is not our mother's midlife. Women have worked to expand their identities, from June Cleaver to Hillary Clinton, from Jayne Mansfield to Diane Sawyer. As a result, our lives have grown increasingly complex as well as richer. Baby boomers have redefined marriage, motherhood, childbirth, work, and friendship. So why shouldn't we redefine midlife, as well?

The Crisis: The Call of the Authentic Self

While midlife is a natural stage in a woman's development, there's a good chance that somewhere between the ages of forty and fifty-five, a woman will be shaken to the core of her being. Suddenly, she is thrust into a period of heightened vulnerability—a midlife crisis. Although crisis has a negative connotation in our culture, suggesting failure, defectiveness, and weakness, the word is derived from the Greek word krinein, or krisis, which means "a sep-arating," or "a turning point." The root implies that a crisis is a time of letting go of old ways of being, a time when we can ask ourselves what we need to leave behind and what we can reclaim.

What many women face in midlife is a period of intense reevaluation. We begin to rethink our experiences, relationships, and choices and reconsider what lies ahead. Now we can ask, Who am I really? What do I love? What are my own needs and desires? The choices a woman makes as a result of this reevaluation will resonate throughout the rest of her life. While this crisis can seem overwhelming, it can lead to increased power and a stronger sense of self.

Very often, a woman's sense of self, established in her youth, no longer seems to hold her. The person she had been suddenly feels too confining. It's time to make room for a new adult identity. But this requires that she listen with great care to what is most relevant in her life now and for her future. She must recall the passions and dreams she had abandoned, and nourish the unused aspects of her personality. As in all periods of transition, something must be given up in order for something new to emerge. An author and authority in the field of death and dying, Stephen Levine writes, "Part of me is dying, maybe to let the rest of me come to life." Midlife is a period of chaos and confusion as well as a time of growth, a time from which every woman can emerge a new person.

When a woman realizes that she can no longer rely on the maps she had used during most of her life, she often experiences so much anxiety that she tries to brush aside the changes that are required to make this transition. She may wish to retreat to an earlier phase, in which her self-image and ways of being, though not fulfilling, are familiar at least. Virginia Satir, a pioneer in the field of family therapy, writes, "Most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty." So it's understandable that a woman may resist the demands of midlife. For most of us, midlife is a journey to an unknown land. We simply don't know what we're going to encounter there. We're desperate to know that things will work out, yet all we can see is the unknown. Whether because our sense of who we are doesn't correspond to our current reality or because we've begun to shed our earlier identity, many of us find ourselves in a state of limbo, feeling as though we've lost our bearings. It's no wonder so many of us resist this transition; midlife requires an immense leap of faith. Almost everything a woman once counted on comes into question, old coping mechanisms no longer work, and we are thrown into a period of psychological upheaval, a genuine identity crisis.

Adolescence: The Sequel

The early stage of midlife is a lot like the transition we go through at adolescence, except we're a lot wiser now. That's some consolation for the fact that where we once spent hours on the phone with our girlfriends talking about making out and dating, now our conversations revolve around which supplements we're taking, how to stop the drenching hot flashes, whether ginkgo will really prevent us from losing our minds, how the print in the newspaper has suddenly gotten infinitesimal, and whether to nip and tuck or not to nip and tuck. The times, they certainly are a-changing.

But just as in adolescence we withdrew from the tasks and attachments of childhood, in midlife we withdraw from the goals and priorities of our first adulthood.

It was only relatively recently that adult development was studied. With the work of psychologists Erik Erikson, Daniel Levinson, Roger Gould, and others, a new way of thinking about human growth was acknowledged by social scientists and psychologists. But most of the research was done by men who wanted to gain insight into their own psychological development. It wasn't until women entered the field of social psychology in large numbers that women's issues were studied. Harvard Professor Carol Gilligan was one of the pioneers in the study of women's development.

In the 1990 book Making the Connection, Gilligan discusses how "adolescence is a time of disconnection, sometimes of disassociation or repression in women's lives. [Women] tend to forget or cover over—what as girls they have experienced and known." According to Gilligan, a dramatic change occurs for girls when they enter adolescence. Girls fall asleep to themselves. The self-confident, competent, talented, exuberant, outgoing girl in middle childhood vanishes as she judges herself against an impossible feminine ideal—to please others, to be selfless, nice, pretty, and to make herself the object of someone else's life. To attain that culturally prescribed ideal, a girl stashes away a great many parts of herself. She silences parts of herself. She stops speaking out and expressing her feelings. Instead, she focuses on trying to please others, especially those of the opposite sex.

Adolescence is a time when girls succumb to the cultural riptides that carry them further away from their true selves. As author Mary Pipher observes in her bestselling book, Reviving Ophelia, as teenagers, girls desperately want to be accepted. They're faced with an impossible choice: either to remain true to themselves and risk rejection by their friends or to desert their authentic self and be socially acceptable. Unfortunately, the choice for most girls is obvious: to abandon a large part of themselves and sign on for the cruise of acceptability.

Reclaiming Our Authenticity

Midlife is the mirror image of adolescence. Throughout early adulthood, women strive to achieve the ideals they established in adolescence. They need the experience of living before they can confront the limiting accommodations they have made to others' expectations. Many young women sacrificed their gifts and dreams as they left the safety of family and home and entered the larger world, got married, and raised a family. Midlife gives a woman the opportunity to get out, not only from a job but from anything else she may have been doing unquestioningly for a long time.

It's often not until midlife that a woman fully takes possession of her psychological strength and assumes complete responsibility for her own fulfillment. Now that we're no longer dependent on our appearance to define us, now that we are less concerned about other people's opinions, we can recapture the freedom that many women experienced during middle childhood. We reenter a period when we were self-confident, followed our own instincts, and explored our many varied interests. Midlife is a time when women come full circle and reclaim the outspokenness, enthusiasm, adventurousness, and vitality that we once had. Midlife is often a time when we retrieve the girl in jeans, ponytails, and denim shirt from the lost and found.

In speaking to numerous women, both in my private practice as well as during interviews, it was clear that while each woman's longing is unique, there is a universal theme: They all want to be who they truly are and to reinstate themselves as the center of their own lives. The truth is that women actually blossom, rather than fade, at midlife.

Studies done by Ravenna Helson and Geraldine Moane of eighty-one women, initially when they were college graduates, next as young adults, and again in their early forties, discovered that in midlife traditional femininity decreased as confidence increased. Women in their early forties said they were "being my own person; feeling more confident; having a wider perspective; focusing on reality and meeting the needs of the day without being too emotional about them; having influence in my community or area of interest; feeling secure and committed; feeling a new level of productivity and effectiveness; feeling powerful; and having interests in things beyond my own family."

Why We Give Birth to Ourselves at Midlife

There are three essential factors that allow a woman to experience a sense of renewal and rebirth at midlife.

The first involves one of the central tasks of midlife— accepting one's mortality. As we realize that time is finite— we have an expiration date; this isn't a dress rehearsal—women often get more protective of their time. We begin to set clearer boundaries for ourselves, saying no more often. We are less interested in obligatory or unfulfilling relationships. We're more willing to say what we want and need, even when it inconveniences someone else. We're more likely to ask for support rather than assume unnecessary responsibility. If we're going to embody who we truly are, we must start now.

While puberty signals a girl's entrance into the sexual mainstream, menopause is the doorway that allows a woman to step free from our culture's definition of women as sex objects and childbearers. In many respects, menopause is the opposite of puberty. Just as women are coming into their own, they become invisible in our youth-worshiping culture. I know it's upsetting, especially since most of us still feel attractive. (This is when you wish you were living in Europe, where older women are still appreciated.) But while this lack of visibility can be difficult, it also brings good news. It allows us to redefine ourselves and our sexuality, not in terms of "youthfulness," but in terms of self-confidence, acceptance, and expressiveness.

As we shift away from the stereotypes of beauty, we discover the power to define ourselves in our own terms.

Women realize that losing their youthful looks doesn't mean losing power—quite the opposite. Their lives can be richer and fuller than ever. As we're no longer bound by society's constricting influences, we can become more self-directed. A new vitality emerges, what pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead called "pmz"—postmenopausal zest. We discover the freedom to write our lives based on our own vision for our future.

Our past, though, is essential to our future. And midlife, as novelist Joyce Carol Oates puts it, is a "looking back time." There's a direct connection between where we've been and where we're going. From the vantage point of midlife, we gain perspective on the successes we've achieved, the dreams we abandoned, and the themes that have run through our lives. With this new understanding comes an increased ability to focus on who we are and what we need.

One of the consistent themes that emerged from my talks with women was that of a greater sense of acceptance, based on an openness to all aspects of themselves. As we're able to take stock of the totality of our lives and to embrace all of our experiences, even those we would rather forget, we discover a more genuine life. Everything we have done, everyone we've loved, every mistake we've made, every obstacle overcome—all are part of the woman we are today.

Midlife is a time when we are aware of the many compromises we've made. If you chose to stay at home with your children, you may regret that you didn't try your competence in the larger world. If you worked, you may regret that you didn't spend more time with your kids. This awareness of where we have been and the choices we've made is the first step in implementing change..

The Journey Home

At midlife, women experience a longing for a connection with "something" that they can't quite describe but which they know they've been missing. "We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget," essayist and novelist Joan Didion writes. "We forget what we whipered and what we dreamed. We forget who we were."

There's a hunger to go deeper in our lives, to move beyond the outer trappings of the world, to connect with something larger—to return home.

Midlife is a rite of passage in which a woman will shift her focus inward and recommit herself to deeply held values and beliefs; a rite in which she will find her own voice and rediscover her strengths; a rite in which she can recognize a more authentic self beyond her roles as mother, wife, caretaker, career woman, daughter.

The only thing we can truly claim is ourselves. Not the self we constructed to ensure our survival as children, nor the facade we adopted to be socially acceptable. Not the woman who abandoned her dreams and made others the center of her life. Nor the woman who was continually trying to prove herself. Now is the time to step free of our false self. The effort to sustain it is both draining and self-defeating, and it requires too much energy to maintain.

At midlife, we feel a sense of relief that comes as we begin to peel away everything that's not essential, and discover a truer identity. This means risking other people's disapproval, expressing our thoughts and feelings, even those that are not socially acceptable. Midlife is a psychological search and rescue mission. We must comb back through our lives and recover our spontaneity, outspokenness, enthusiasm, self-confidence, knowledge—the threads of our true selves we lost along the way. We must weave them back into the tapestry of the woman who is emerging. If women can begin to accept the physical, psychological, and spiritual changes that occur during midlife as a natural phase in their development, then they can embark on this journey not with fear but with anticipation. They can experience midlife as a time of immense opportunity— as a time of growth and transformation, as a time to be celebrated.

By the sheer magnitude of our numbers—36 million women had reached midlife by 1999, and the numbers will increase by another 5 million by 2005—we are inventing a New Middle Age. Women of the baby-boom generation are going to change the notion that at middle age women become invisible, sexless, and powerless now that they're no longer pictures of youth. We're going to reverse the belief that midlife is a dead end, a time of loss and decline. The opposite is true. Midlife is a time of rebirth. No, we're not going to change popular opinion overnight. But we are going to change it. As we embrace this rite of passage, not only will we shape the second half of our own lives but we'll set an example for the generations of women to come.

Copyright 2001 by Stephanie Marston. All rights reserved. Printed with permission.

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