Is this it? Women and the modern mid-life crisis
The 45-60 age bracket is a time in life when women are often at their most vulnerable
Question: if you’re a woman of a certain age, what was the point where you realised, almost as if it had happened overnight and when you weren’t looking, you had moved from young to not-so-young?
Mine was when I realised that the Strokes had formed two whole decades ago, in 1998. In another disconcerting moment, I noticed an actress, who ostensibly played a character of my age in a teenage soap in the 1990s, resurface in an ad for incontinence pads. Elsewhere, I’ve observed friends talk excitedly about college exam results . . . their children’s, that is.
For author Pamela Druckerman, a sobering moment prompted her to write a whole book on the midlife coming-of-age story, There Are No Grown-Ups.
One afternoon, she walked into a cafe in Paris and was addressed by a waiter as “Madame”, effectively drawing a line under her more youthful “Mademoiselle” years.
“If they were to use ‘Mademoiselle’ now, I would think they were mocking me,” she says. “At the time I thought there must have been some mistake. My whole identity, before that, had been around looking young and somehow cheating time. I was born early in the year so I was used to being the baby (in my class). I felt I had an extra year on everyone else. When you hit your 40s, there are a lot of people, often more skilled people, in your field who are 10 years younger, or more.”
Druckerman pinpoints the other moments with which women in their 40s are no doubt familiar. Among her chapter headings are “How To Choose A Partner,” “How To Have Sex” and ‘How To Salvage Your Self Esteem.”
Getting older, writes Druckerman, means becoming impatient when scrolling down to your year of birth online, chin hair, arm cellulite, hangovers when you’ve had nothing to drink but, ultimately, the 40s are the age in which you become you.
“I realised that the best way to grow older is to become more and more myself,” Druckerman says in a phonecall from Paris, where she lives with her young family.
“I’m ageing in France, and I looked around to see if anything could be learned from the French and I found a few interesting techniques. One was the idea that instead of striving to look much younger than you are, you should try to look the best version of the age that you are. It’s a small shift, but a really critical one.
Trying to look young is the fastest way to grow old
“The reason I walked around probably looking a bit agitated was because I felt a disconnect to what I looked like and who I was. Was I going to be one of those women who was 55, but still felt 32? I could see the pain and stress that goes with that. Being comfortable with your own age is really calming and more realistic than trying to look 32 for the rest of my life. As someone said, ‘trying to look young is the fastest way to grow old’.”
For her part, Druckerman reckons that the age-old tenet that women start to become socially “invisible” in their 40s is more complex than it seems.
“I still have moments in the street where men are still checking me out, but I call this stage the ‘I wouldn’t turn her down’ stage,” she admits. “I don’t think though, as I entered this period, that I was at ease with my own body and age.”
What is new-ish to the current generation of women in their 40s is the idea that 40 is certainly not what it once was. Decades ago, 40 might have been seen as a more soporific stage in life. Yet when I was growing up, women in their 40s and 50s were depicted in pop culture as being on the verge of oblivion (and HRT), all hot flushes and tussles with technology. They were mumsy, doddery and, in some cases, ebbing away in their own lives.
Once upon a time, the adage “life begins at 40” meant that fortysomethings could take their foot off the pedal after rearing families and climbing the career ladder, and enjoy some downtime.
But that was then and this is now. Many of today’s fortysomethings are nowhere near the “honour lap” part of their lives, whether by accident or design. They’re still raising young children and grappling with career insecurity. Or, if some women indeed no longer feel the need to prove themselves as they move to the middle of the career ladder, it only serves to kickstart a whole new quest for self-identity.
“Nora Ephron says that the big difference is hair dye,” quips Druckerman. “It’s true, the percentage of women in their early 40s having babies has doubled not only because of assisted procreation, but because people in their early 40s are more fertile than thought. You’re not having a miracle pregnancy; you’re having a normal pregnancy.”
In some ways, Druckerman was a late starter in life. A foreign reporter for the Wall Street Journal in her 20s and 30s, she met Simon Kuper, a British sports writer, while on assignment in Buenos Aires. She moved to France to be with him, and the pair married in their late 30s. The couple were, she writes, “in a hurry to procreate” and, within a few years, they had a daughter and twin boys.
“I was a little panicked about being late to the procreation game, but it turns out that people I know who had met their partners in college only now have kids the same ages as mine,” Druckerman admits.
“This happens for all kinds of structural reasons – you tend to be in a healthier and more stable relationship in your 40s. There are all kinds of psychological changes that happen throughout one’s life span, and you probably become less neurotic as a person. This is a positive quality for parenting. I’m not saying that all parents in their 40s are fantastic, but these are factors that are fairly positive.”
The proliferation of women who become new parents in their 40s runs tandem with an age-old reality: that the menopause, which often happens to women in their mid-40s, is a psychologically and physically difficult time. The menopause is often used to explain away the loss of desire or sex drive in forty- and fiftysomething women: a conceit with which Druckerman has no truck.
Sexual function declines around menopause, but desire does not decline with it
“It turns out that this is a very powerful cultural notion,” muses Druckerman. “As women lose the ability to procreate, it makes sense in some Darwinian way that you’d lose your sexual desire, but it turns out that this isn’t proven by science. Sexual function declines around menopause, but desire does not decline with it.
“Yet if you are told that at 55 your body is no longer attractive and you’re not as firm and, therefore, no longer deserve sex, it’s likely to have an impact on your sexual desire. We live in a culture where we hear that all the time, but it’s worth pointing out that it’s not by any stretch an inevitability.”
But the question does beg to be answered. Does the female midlife crisis still exist? More precisely, does it exist for Irish women?
The midlife crisis, as we know it, has always looked like a moment of chaos and derailment. Granted, we are relying on how pop culture has told the male experience, all Porsches and new jackets and scenes of loud, almost comical derailment.
Yet once women reach a certain age, they just seem to, well, get on with things.
And in Ireland, women have been particularly good at this: you don’t need the cultural conceit of the stoic Irish mammy to prove it.
“As women compete alongside men for greater status in the workplace, while in some cases also juggling managing the family home, the reality of reaching middle age can be daunting for some, and the emotion experienced is not gender specific,” she says.
Is this all I have achieved in my life, and am I truly happy?
“Yet the midlife crisis, I believe, hits when we women are faced with mortality, that may be as simple as greying hair, recurring physical ailments, loss of libido, empty nest syndrome or those nasty little laughter lines that just aren’t funny any more. And let’s not even mention the menopause.
“Couple this with the fact that we may have hit the glass ceiling in our workplace, it’s no wonder a sense of panic sets in as we look back and ask ourselves, ‘Is this it? Is this all I have achieved in my life, and am I truly happy?’
“For some, the moment results in a pivotal life change; a career switch, a return to higher education, or a lifestyle reboot. It’s perhaps no coincidence, too, that as of 2016, 53 is the average age at which people get divorced in Ireland. On a darker note, the highest rate of suicide for Irish women is to be found in the 45-60 age bracket; proof positive that it’s a time in life when women are arguably at their most vulnerable.
Psychotherapist and coach Delphine O’Keeffe (Embodymytruth.com) has noticed in her professional practice a proliferation of women who are either facing into challenging times, or experiencing a sort of burnout.
“One thing I see is women facing expectations around gendered care roles,” she says. “That’s still a thing – women trying to become primary caregivers for children, while also being called into elder care roles.
“I think existential questions come up for both women and men, but there are gendered aspects to this for women,” she adds. “I see how much women have been made to doubt themselves. A lot of women in survival mode are expected to push through, without expressing their own needs, or to support others while trying to achieve their own goals.
“There’s a high level of depletion, especially around high-functioning, creative women. The first 30 or 40 years of your life is about your place in the world, constructing your foundations and your finances,” O’Keeffe adds. “Then, there’s a transition into more of a connection with the idea that life is not forever.
“There are also many social constructs about being in your 40s. There’s this idea of what women should have achieved by this stage that causes my clients a lot of pain.”
Forty is a fearsome age. It’s the age when we become who we are
According to Druckerman: “I think it’s partly a socialisation about the age-old anxiety about moving into middle age. We’re taught to believe we should accomplish thing at certain points, and there are huge cultural ideas about where we should be at certain times. It leads to infinite possibilities for self-doubt.”
Yet what can feel like a period of uncertainty or crisis can pave the way for a much-needed reappraisal of everything. Or, as the French poet Charles Péguy said, “Forty is a fearsome age. It’s the age when we become who we are.”
O’Keeffe says: “In my experience, there are times in a woman’s life where a transition feels like a crisis, but it can be a real opportunity for growth, or a move into a more authentic life.
“Often what happens in my work, a woman’s feelings are finally being given some space, and then they realise there’s so much potential there. It’s like a gift.”
“There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming Of Age Story,” by Pamela Druckerman is out now via Doubleday Books.
‘Women tend to be collaborative; I guess that’s how we deal with crises’
Liberty Henwick, blogger, 46
“From a personal point of view, I went to university, studied and got a job, then gave it up and had a family. You get to your 40s and your family starts to not need you. My youngest is nine, and I started investigating going back to work. That’s when I hit a crisis. I didn’t have the skills anymore that I used to have, and I couldn’t imagine being a housewife for the rest of my life.
“The couple of years before I turned 40 – 37 and 38 – were actually the worst for me. For those few birthdays I became almost emotional. I think it was the realisation that 40 is a big milestone.
“The menopause or peri-menopause was a real area of confusion and I didn’t know anything about it at all. It’s also an age where there are a lot of procedures like the mammograms or the hysteroscopy, and nothing prepares you for the physical disruption to your body.
“On the one hand, it’s a good thing to be busy and occupied with something that gives your life meaning or value, whether it’s in the home, community, workplace or family. I’ve seen women take up community work or hobbies and do things in groups. I’m in an adult dance class; in times of crisis I think women tend to seek solace and comfort with each other. Men might be a little more competitive, but women tend to be collaborative. I guess that’s how we deal with crises.”
Liberty’s blog can be found at libertyonthelighterside.com
‘The good thing about getting older is the benefit of hindsight’
Darryl Bannon, business consultant, 42
“For a lot of women it’s actually the beginning of a new chapter. Being in one’s 40s is actually life reaffirming. We have spent enough time worrying about what others think and have the belief in oneself to get on with it. You kind of grow a pair. Previously, there was a sense of you must do this or you must get that done by a certain age, but instead you take stock and say well, I did do all those other things. We need to stop putting pressure on ourselves to get married or have children. Things happen when they happen. We just need to tell people to stop getting into other people’s business and being so competitive with each other.
“Have I started to worry about looking older? It hasn’t hit me yet. Maybe when I’m in my 50s it might, but it can be a doubled-edged sword when you’re baby-faced like me. Maybe when I do start to lose my looks more, I’ll be taken more seriously in business. That said, I do meet a lot of men and women younger than me and see that they face a different type of pressure than us. I think a lot of younger girls feel invisible, too. The good thing about getting older is the benefit of hindsight. You don’t have to put up with a lot of stuff.”
Darryl Bannon’s consultancy can be found at darrylbannon.com.
‘The luxury of this age is the security it brings’
Claire Ronan, Ocean FM broadcaster, 52
“The truth is, I was so scared of the empty nest and how it would affect me – my last child leaves for college in September – that I made a decision to prepare myself. I’m dreading September in many ways, but I am definitely having a more exciting life than a couple of years ago. I have my work, and I made a determined effort to spend more time with family, friends and kids.
“My experience of mid-life crises is that rather than it being a crisis, it’s more of a blessing. I got to the stage where I thought, right, I’m going to rock the rest of this life. As Victor Hugo said, ‘Forty is the old age of youth, but 50 is the youth of old age.’ I decided once it finally came upon me, to embrace my mid-life rather than fear it.
“Having spent so many years performing caring duties, minding and rearing five kids, supporting my husband and helping to care for my parents, it was now time for me. The beauty of this age is that your need for approval is not important, as you know yourself very well. My friendships are long-standing, stable and secure, and the people I love know me and love me back. I really don’t care about the rest. The luxury of this age is the security it brings.
“I think you can lament your ageing looks, your figure and indulge yourself by focusing on what you haven’t done, or you can get off your a** and have new adventures.”
Claire Ronan can be heard on Ocean FM on “Up And Running”, Saturdays at 9.30pm.