Midlife Crisis: How Women Cope

A new generation of smart, successful women is grappling with midlife crisis — as Sue Shellenbarger found out when her own life unraveled.

By Nancy M. Better

A Complete Meltdown

Sue Shellenbarger was 49 when she had what she calls "a complete meltdown." Her marriage of 20 years ended, her father died, her children were entering their teens. "I also noticed that I was aging physically, slowing down," she recalls. Seeking new meaning in her life, she embarked on an adventure spree — hiking, skiing, riding ATVs. Not until she broke her collarbone and cracked a disk in her back did she realize that her midlife renaissance camouflaged what was, in fact, a midlife crisis.

The Wall Street Journal‘s "Work & Family" columnist, now 53, first wrote about her breakdown in the paper, and the volume of responses she received from female readers convinced her she wasn’t alone. Intrigued, Shellenbarger interviewed more than 50 women and analyzed major studies on the midlife experience for her new book, The Breaking Point (Henry Holt and Co., 2005). Now, she explains how midlife crises shake up our lives for better and worse — and why "the biggest mistake is not having one at all."

How do you define midlife crisis?

It’s a time of profound psychological turbulence that usually occurs between the ages of 38 and 55, and often results in dramatic life changes. It can last from 2 to 12 years; the defining symptom is a sense that the values that have guided you for many years no longer hold meaning. The next stage is identifying old parts of yourself that you’ve suppressed. Those needs and desires can become very important at midlife. They start to take on great power, and it’s easy to do damage to your existing relationships and career.

This used to be a man’s preserve. What changed?

No generation of women has been so well-educated or earned so much money — two indicators for midlife crisis. We have more job skills, giving us the flexibility to start out in new directions and the financial muscle to act on our midlife desires. We’re also in better health, which in some ways is a trigger. We enter our late 40s or 50s feeling just fine and look ahead to 80 or 90 and wonder, "What am I going to do with this time?"

But these seem like positive things. Why call it a crisis?

The initial stages may be difficult, but upheaval can lead women to renew their lives. One woman I interviewed, Leanne, hit bottom after she was divorced, her father died, and her ex-husband moved away with their two teenage sons. But she took an entry-level position at a mortgage company and worked her way up. Later she became a partner in a marketing firm and built it into a $3 million company. Had she not gone through that upheaval, Leanne says she wouldn’t have found the courage to make such huge strides in her life.

One of the main points of the book is that growth hurts, sometimes literally. I spoke with a woman named Clare who worked so intensely at a company she cofounded that she nearly ruined her health. She couldn’t sleep, and had chronic neck and back pain. Finally she quit and signed up to become a lay chaplain in her city’s major public hospital — she’d attended church for years and had long wanted to integrate her spiritual beliefs into her work. Months later, her health had improved, thanks to more time for rest and exercise. Now she works as managing director of a nonprofit that identifies socially responsible investments.

Make Your Crisis a Success

What’s the downside of a midlife crisis?

Some of the women I interviewed went through a period of selfish or even reckless behavior. More women are having affairs and initiating divorces in midlife. Anna, a woman in my book, was frustrated at age 53 over her stagnant marriage, her dead-end career, and the empty nest. She had loved music as a teen, so she started taking piano lessons. This led to an affair with her young instructor, which remains a secret. She is still married, but is trying to make the marriage work.

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