The Midlife Confidence Surge

Can science confirm what so many of us have figured out on our own — that passing 40 kicks women’s confidence into high gear?

By Thea Singer

More Confident Than EverIt’s a bright summer day; I squeeze into a snappy (in every sense of the word) new stretch ensemble and enter a dance studio, ready for my first class in 17 years. It’s an advanced modern-dance class taught by a renowned choreographer, and nearly everyone else in the room is young enough to be my child. What had possessed me, at 54, to turn in my dance-critic’s notebook and head for the boards?In a word, confidence: a surprising surge of it that began in my early 40s and continues to gather steam. It brought to mind my sensations when I first danced onstage some 30 years ago: I became aware not only of the space opening up around me but also of my right to push through it, unrestrained. "I can do…I use my powers; I! I!" — these lines from Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio rang in my head. You know what I’m talking about.Searching for ProofRavenna Helson, 83, may be the mother of all women’s confidence researchers. "I’m glad you are feeling that middle age is a good thing!" she e-mailed me when I set out to learn whether there was scientific evidence of women’s burgeoning confidence at midlife. Currently an adjunct professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Helson was also the original director of the Mills Longitudinal Study, which she launched in 1958, when I was just 6 and considered my 32-year-old mother over the hill.Mills College is a small women’s private school in Oakland, California; Helson’s groundbreaking study has been tracking the social, psychological, and emotional development of 123 of its graduates for the past five decades. "The Mills women certainly had a surge of confidence in early middle age," Helson told me by e-mail. In the early 1980s, when the women were in their early 40s, their feelings of independence, confidence, and competence were particularly high — in sharp contrast to the way insecurities gripped them when they were younger. In her 30s, for example, the typical respondent worried that "I will never get myself together" and reported "feeling weak, incompetent, or not as strong as other people." But in their 40s — ah, the Mills women were "feeling powerful," "having a sense of being my own person," and "feeling a new level of productivity."Helson and I cyber-chatted a few more times; I couldn’t wait to hop on a plane so I could learn more and cement what felt by now like a transcontinental bond. But when I tried to set up a meeting, she declined: "I am very busy."I’d been ditched! Twenty-five years ago, her "no" would have stung like a slap. But now I just turned the other cheek — this time eastward, toward Helson’s disciples, those carrying her research into the next generation.See Them SoarMargie E. Lachman’s office at Brandeis University, where she is professor and chair of the psychology department, is large and sunlit. A cheerful 55-year-old with rectangular glasses and dark hair swept up in a silver barrette, Lachman was one of the original researchers on the massive Midlife in the United States study, which began in 1994. Through surveys and phone interviews, MIDUS assessed the health and well-being of a nationally representative sample of more than 7,000 Americans ages 25 to 74. Data collection for the 10-year MIDUS II follow-up study, which examines how the original participants have changed, was completed in 2006. "We do find evidence that the sense of mastery peaks in midlife," Lachman says. "There is definitely a surge in confidence for women."These results are supported by a series of research studies by Abigail J. Stewart, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, where she also headed the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. "I do think women experience an increase in ‘confident power’ in middle age," Stewart, 58, wrote me after I contacted her. She attached several of her research papers.My path had first crossed with Stewart’s in the late 1970s, when I was faking being a knowledgeable editor at the Radcliffe Quarterly (impostor syndrome hit hard in my 20s) and she was the founding director of the Henry A. Murray Research Archive at Radcliffe College, which archives social science research.

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