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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Among the growing ranks of female entrepreneurs are many who have sensed a massive Midlife Marketing Opportunity. Women are natural marketers, even of their worst fears. Their instinct when they get in trouble is to talk about it with other women. So once they have weathered the crisis, they are ready to become crisis managers. The hospice nurse opens a consulting firm to help women handle their aging parents. The escrow officer becomes a personal trainer specializing in older women. The Harvard M.B.A. with three kids opens a temp agency specializing in placing part-time manager moms. Or in the Extreme Makeover version, Martha Stewart emerges from prison kinder, gentler and declaring, "Our passion is and always should be to make life better." More and more people see not a crisis but a challenge — even an opportunity, observes Deborah Carr, a sociology professor at Rutgers University. "How are they going to spend the second half of their life? They know they're going to have lots of healthy years, so I think it's a period of making choices to live out one's dreams that got put on the shelf during younger years."

When Canadian psychoanalyst Elliot Jacques coined the term midlife crisis back in 1965, he was not talking about a man who, upon turning 40, wakes up the next morning afraid he is going to die, goes in for hair plugs, buys a Porsche and runs off with a cupcake. He was studying creative genius and found that for many artists productivity began to decline as they reached middle age and wrestled with their own mortality. Never a legitimate clinical diagnosis, it was more like a handy way of describing the perfectly predictable process whereby every so often people looked around at their lives and asked, often in loud and expensive ways, "Is this it?"

Or at least, men did. That was around the time that Betty Friedan was writing about "the problem that has no name," after she surveyed several hundred of her Smith classmates and found that most of them were unhappy in middle age. "If they had a midlife crisis, they didn't talk about it," says Jane Glenn Haas, founder of WomanSage, a nonprofit group that supports midlife women. "Women today realize that their mothers never had a sense of their options." Haas, now 67, shocked her family when she left her first husband 27 years ago. "They said to me, 'Why are you doing this?' I said, 'I'm not happy.' My mother said, 'Who told you you were entitled to be happy?' "

The present generation of women tend to bring different expectations to their middle passage. "To the extent there is any midlife crisis, to women it does not come as an enormous surprise," says Tace Hedrick, a University of Florida associate professor of women's studies. "Men wake up at 45 and realize, 'I'm not 18 anymore.' But women, their biological clock is ticking. They are constantly reminded that they are aging." The regular reminders of fertility are replaced by the insistent signals of menopause. Anthropologists say male status is typically tied to money and power, which explains why the standard male midlife crisis is triggered by a career crack-up. Women's turmoil often reflects events in their personal lives as well as the accumulated stress of years of ladder climbing, multitasking and barrier breaking. Nearly three-quarters of women from 40 to 54 in a Yankelovich Monitor study said life is "much too complicated."

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