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How Women Are Using Midlife Angst to Pursue New Opportunities


Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods,
the right road lost.
– Dante, The Divine Comedy

Marilyn Shawn got restless at age 50. After her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she began to feel like something was missing in her life.

Elizabeth Dawson felt the beginning rumbles of change around 46, after her youngest daughter left for university.

Men and women are both susceptible to the angst of Dante’s midlife journey. The difference lies in what they do about it.

Women facing uncertainty and restlessness at midlife are turning it into an opportunity to overhaul, to revitalize and to re-invigorate their lives.

“Women are doing things that allow them to show off their aptitudes, their skills or even their personalities,” says Deborah Carr, professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

More than any generation of women before them, women today have the money, the education, and the confidence to turn a midlife sense of disorientation into a daring second act.

“It’s as if women at midlife start looking for ‘the missing piece’,” says Sue Shellenbarger, author of The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis is Transforming Today’s Women. The search is usually triggered by a loss of some sort – The death of a parent, the end of a relationship, a career that has stalled. The piece is different for each woman, as is the path each takes in its pursuit.

Women typically choose one of the following pathways:

Adventure/trave: The catharsis of bold travel or physical adventure can help a woman “uproot a crippling anxiety, fear, or a shame that blocks her from connecting with her potential,” Shellenbarger says. Some women may find the courage to make difficult decisions in other facets of their lives, as a result.

Love: Some women seek a soul mate at midlife – a lover who promises a chance of attaining psychological intimacy. But this path can prove more complex and hazardous than first expected, Shellenbarger notes.

Leadership: Others seek to make their mark on the world at midlife – perhaps by setting up a business or establishing a charitable foundation. They want “to get past others’ rules and their own people-pleasing behaviour to create something new and uniquely their own,” Shellenbarger says.

Artistic pursuits: Still others retrieve an artistic dream, put aside earlier on. A woman decides, “to give number-one priority to her drama, music, writing, sculpture, painting, filmmaking, or acting,” says Shellenbarger. From hereon, her primary joy arises from growing in creativity, manifesting her vision, and sharing her work with others.

Gardening: Some midlife women dream of spending long hours in quiet pursuits – gardening, for example. The path of the Gardener “motivates a woman to live in the moment and to savour all that her senses can absorb from the world around her,” says Shellenbarger. “Instead of ripping her life apart to pursue some new prize, adventure, or endeavour, the Gardener focuses inward and on her immediate surroundings.” She nurtures existing relationships, invests in home projects or hobbies, and volunteerism.

Spirituality: For still others, the missing part of themselves is the spiritual side. A significant minority of women in Shellenbarger’s study described being deeply affected at some point by some kind of religious or spiritual experience.

Women: who under-use their talents and abilities in the first half of life often have midlife regrets. But today, women are creating opportunities to revitalize and re-invigorate their lives during the middle years.

As Shellenbarger suggests: “Some are seeking love, leadership, or a spiritual mission or meaning, while others want nothing more than artistic self-expression or adventure. Many want a combination of these experiences.”

The Breaking Point is published by Henry Holt and Company.

The heart has reasons which Reason knows not.
– Blaise Pascal