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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Debra Engle, 48, and Diane Glass, 57, both high-powered corporate marketing executives in Des Moines, Iowa, had done focus groups with a financial-planning firm interested in offering workshops for midlifers struggling with retirement planning. On the basis of that research, Engle and Glass, having rounded their own midlife corners, ended up starting a new venture on their own. Engle had recently remarried, 16 years after a divorce. Glass got breast cancer, which triggered the re-evaluation that ended with a career change. In their focus groups, they had found that many midlifers didn't want to spend all their days working at something they disliked just so they could finance a 20-year vacation in their golden years. Plus, there was the "Oprah factor," as they call it, a growing emphasis on women nurturing themselves and helping others recharge and reinvent themselves, often by finding spirituality. "We realized that we were on to something, that we had a particular affinity for how women had made changes in midlife," says Engle. They decided to provide moral and practical support. Their plan is called Tending Your Inner Garden, "a program of spirituality and creativity just for women." They offer a yearlong course of workshops, dinners and retreats that costs $480. "Sitting around a table with a group of women is so much more than sharing a meal and nourishing our bodies," says Meredith Houle, 56, a satisfied customer. "I truly think it's nourishing our soul."

Though the initial impulse for many women seems to be to do something for themselves for once, the renewal that follows seems to draw them back toward caregiving. Four out of five women over 50 said having a job in which they help others is important to them, according to a joint study by the Simmons School of Management and Hewlett-Packard. "All the studies on spirituality and religion in America show women have a much higher rate of participation in religious and spiritual activities, and they rank service to community as more important than men do," Shellenbarger argues. "You're going to tell me that's really sexist, but I show that research has documented it. No one can exactly explain this, but religion and spirituality compel one to reach out to others in service."

Andree Bouty, 50, and Carolyn Morgan, 52, of Tucson, Ariz., both longtime hospice nurses, started Act Now RNs. Their mission: to make nursing available outside the hospital setting, to help families care for aging relatives by referring them to financial planners, assisted-living facilities, case managers and skilled nursing care. The staff, Bouty says, "is pretty much our age. It's all about getting in there and helping, doing something different and feeling good about what you're doing instead of just working for a paycheck." They knew their target audience was other midlife women: "We are historically and naturally the caregivers in our family ... the majority of our clients are the adult children trying to figure out what to do next."

There is no telling the impact this generation is going to have as it reinvents what it means to get older and applies its many blessings and ingenuity to the pursuit of health and happiness. "As we age, everything for our generation is going to be different," says Susan Johnson, 54, who quit her job as a Washington lobbyist to become a consultant to families with aging parents and complex medical problems. "We're staying in shape. We're eating healthier. We're Internet savvy. As we start to get into our golden years, we'll be on the Internet, investigating drugs and protocols. And we'll seek help when we need it. If we need a consultant, we hire one. If we need a coach to teach the latest exercise in Pilates or whatever, we hire people. We are a generation that will continue to invent. We won't just accept what's laid out ahead for us." Now that many Americans, according to a survey, think that full-fledged adulthood begins at 26, there is room for multiple midlife crises. There is the "quarter-life crisis" that hits at 25, the traditional one in your 40s and still another 20 years later. We are living too long and too well to stay settled even in a contented state for more than a few years at a time. And with experience, each new life-cycle crisis stands a better chance of looking like just another chance to start all over again.

With reporting by Melissa August / Washington; Amanda Bower and Deirdre van Dyk / New York; Jeanne McDowell / Los Angeles; Siobhan Morrissey / Boca Raton; Betsy Rubiner / Des Moines; and Leslie Whitaker / Chicago

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