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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Many feel that along the way, while they were getting their promotion or having their kids or managing their households, they set aside something important that they want to retrieve — their hiking boots, their screenplay, a law degree. "Everybody I know has a version of this," says Susan Reimer-Torn, now a life coach in New York City. "Phase I, you kind of put all the pieces together in your mid- or late 20s, and it almost always involves some kind of trade-off. You figure out what you absolutely must have and end up giving up something else." In Reimer-Torn's case, her priority was a good marriage and raising a family, so 26 years ago, she gave up living in New York City to follow her fiancé to Paris. But in Phase II, which generally occurs after 40, many women begin to review the terms of that original trade-off. "For me, my career and where I lived seemed to be a dispensable piece of the puzzle in the first phase," Reimer-Torn says. "But at Phase II, they were not." She and her family moved back from Paris just in time for her to take care of her ailing 84-year-old mother. Says Reimer-Torn: "My mother was ill for the first time in her life, and on a very deeply personal level, I wanted to be there for her, as I had not been for all those years."

If there's a Phase III, it may be taking your life in a whole new direction. Often a collision of the personal and professional triggers the reinvention. For Dr. Lisa Friedman, 52, it started when the internist had breast cancer diagnosed in September 2001. During the course of her treatment, she came to think about what she loved about being a doctor and what she hated. She loved spending time with her patients. She hated being sued by them (three malpractice suits, all of which she won). "It's a total, life-changing experience to go through a malpractice case. It's gut-wrenching," she recalls. So she thought about the possible escape routes, and now finds herself building a second career selling upscale women's clothing at trunk sales in her home in Madison, Wis., to other women like herself who couldn't find what they needed at the local mall. The hours are flexible. Eventually she may start selling clothes exclusively, but she isn't ready to give up her practice yet. "I thought, God, this is really fun," she says, "and no one is going to sue me because they didn't like the color of their skirt."

Women vs. Men: How Midlife Is Different
Maybe the male midlife crisis stereotypically took the form of nifty new wheels because most men didn't grow up idealizing work. It was a means of putting food on the table and showing who was boss; actual happiness and satisfaction usually had to come from someplace else. In contrast, professional women, having fought so hard to break into fields that were once closed to them, often expect more from their jobs. If they are unhappy at 45, disenchanted with corporate politics or discouraged because they are not making a contribution to some larger good, they are typically willing to think of trying something completely new in a search for greater flexibility or challenge or satisfaction.

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