Midlife Crisis? Bring It On!

How women of this generation are seizing that stressful, pivotal moment in their lives to reinvent themselves

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What does a female midlife crisis look like, anyway? A big face-lift, a little red car, an overdose, an affair, an escape to the Galápagos Islands? Or none of the above?

It is both a stable truth and an unsettling one that our lives loop and twist from age to age. The baby toddles into childhood, the child erupts into a teen, then a woman, who by the time she has passed 40 is long overdue to shed her skin again. That shedding can be traumatic, treacherous, born of sorrow or stress; but to hear the prophets of personal reinvention tell it, it may also be an unexpected gift. With that endearing sense of discovery that baby boomers bring to the most enduring experiences — like growing up or finding God or burning out — women are confronting the obstacles of middle age and figuring out how to turn them into opportunities. Thanks to higher incomes, better education and long experience at juggling multiple roles, women may actually discover that there has never been a better time to have a midlife crisis than now.

Sue Shellenbarger was 49, living in Oregon and writing her "Work & Family" column for the Wall Street Journal, when in the space of two years she got divorced, lost her father, drained her bank account and developed a taste for wilderness camping and ATV riding that left her crumpled up on an emergency-room gurney. "People around me thought I'd taken leave of my senses," she says. A few months later, "I was in a sling, trying to type with my broken collarbone, on the phone with one of my editors, and we were laughing about it." At that point, she says, "I realized a midlife crisis is a cliché until you have one."

Fast-forward two years: this spring she published The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today's Women, which suggests that the national conversation is about to have a hot flash. The passage through middle age of so large a clump of women — there are roughly 43 million American women ages 40 to 60 — guarantees that some rules may have to be rewritten and boundaries moved to accommodate them. That was part of the inspiration for Shellenbarger's book. "I thought I could help other women see this coming in their lives," Shellenbarger says, "and not only avoid doing damage to others but capitalize on it."

In fact, the very word crisis, while suitably dramatic, seems somehow wrong for this generation's experience. Unlike their mothers and unlike the men in their lives, this cohort of women is creating a new model for what midlife might look like. Researchers have found that the most profound difference in attitude between men and women at middle age is that women are twice as likely to be hopeful about the future. Women get to wrestle their hormones through a Change of Life; but however disruptive menopause may be for some women, the changes that matter most are often more psychic and spiritual than physical. Talk to women about what happens when they hit midlife hurdles — whether divorce or disease, an empty nest, the loss of a parent — and very often the response is a surprise even to them. They may first turn inward, ask the cosmic questions or retrieve some passion they put aside to make room for a career and family and adult responsibilities. Take a trip. Write a novel. Go back to school. Learn to kiteboard. But then, having done something to help themselves, they have a powerful urge to help others. Best of all is when they can do both at once.

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