Wednesday Bubble: Midlife is not a four-letter word!

Posted by on Oct 21, 2008 in women's health | 13 comments

“The cultural narrative provided for women at midlife is either medical and menopause oriented — hot flashes, osteoporosis, heart disease, the estrogen replacement therapy decision — or socially devaluing –“empty nest,” a fertility has-been, abandoned for a younger woman, depressed.”

Wow! I read this introduction to a study that was published in the journal Social Work in the late 90’s and it got me thinking: what’s wrong with this picture?

Is midlife truly nature’s death sentence, a curse, a crumbling foundation foretelling a  life well (or not so well) spent? When does this characterization become a self-fulfilling prophecy? And what can we do, as midlifers, to reverse this image? After all, change has to start somewhere, right?

A perfect place to initiate change is from a place within and a place outside of ourselves — by distinguishing ourselves from generations of women who came before us (for whom a self-view was often seen as selfish and whose opportunity to work outside the home was often trumped by the lack of quality positions) — and by asserting and reasserting our identities.

Are these steps in-line with the study findings?

The researchers, who investigated midlife experiences of 103 women between the ages of 40 and 59 reported the following:

  • Respondents expressed high degrees of well-being, with 72.5% indicating that they were “very happy” or “happy,” and 64.3%, that this time was “not very confusing” or “not confusing at all.” However, despite being happy, many women still found this time of their lives challenging.
  • Women who reported being most satisfied in their lives had a family income of at least $30,000 or more (which in today’s economy, is roughly equivalent to a little over $40,000), had good health, had at least one confidante or group of friends, had a high self-esteem, were not prone to self-denigration, and had a benign super ego.

One particular discovery that I find intriguing was that the groups scoring both the highest and lowest in midlife satisfaction unanimously agreed that what they liked best about midlife was increased independence and freedom, including freedom from worrying what others thought and freedom to develop a self-identity.

Not surprisingly, what women disliked the most about being middle-aged were physical changes, i.e. decreased energy, gray hair, wrinkles and extra weight.

Women scoring the highest in satisfaction and well-being also stated that they disliked the divide between how they saw themselves and how they imagined society saw them (positively and unattractive, respectively).  Also at odds was the fact that they felt that men of the same age were revered for gray hair and wrinkles and did not lose social value in the same way that women did.

So, what are the biggest take-away messages?

  • What matters most is not what women have but what they do with it
  • Women actively participating in their lives and looking forward to new opportunities were the most satisfied
  • Having a social world or at least one confidante with whom to speak freely and honestly about themselves, and feel understood, was critical
  • Three selfs were also essential to wellbeing: self-effectance, self-acceptance and self-esteem

I know that certain things have changed since this study was published, such as the fact that research dollars are now being diverted away from simply looking at midlife changes in men and broadly applying the results across the genders,  towards exploring midlife changes and how they specifically affect women’s health. What hasn’t changed, however, is the invisibility factor, that somehow, women over age 40 are no longer relevant.

So this is what I say:

Be relevant. Take the reins and effect change. Take a chance, a plunge. Value yourself. Embrace your friendships and your life. Grieve your former self and celebrate who are you are and who you will become.

Michelle Shocked once wrote “When I grow up, I want to be an old woman.”

When I grow up, I want to be. What about you?


  1. 10-22-2008

    great post liz.

    enough of this chronologically tied self worth nonsense. how you carry yourself is how you are perceived.

    at any age!

  2. 10-22-2008

    Very interesting post – and food for thought. When I grow up? I want to be happy with where I’ve been and where I’m going.

  3. 10-22-2008

    Wow! What a post! “Be relevant. Take the reins and effect change. Take a chance, a plunge. Value yourself. Embrace your friendships and your life. Grieve your former self and celebrate who are you are and who you will become.” Well said!

  4. 10-22-2008

    I needed to read this right now. Thank you, thank you!!

  5. 10-22-2008

    Liz, what an honest assessment of where women “of a certain age” see themselves and where we should be. We need more articles like these.

  6. 10-22-2008

    Amy and Ellen – thanks! I agree that a new attitude is definitely called for! And no better generation to do it, right!

    Wendy – love who you are and where you are going! You are an amazing role model.

    M – thank you!

    Mammaloves – I’m honoured that this fed your soul. And thank you for reading!

  7. 10-22-2008

    I think it is past time we gave up youth worship. They are not going to lead better lives than we did given the circumstances in the world today. There is nothing about them to envy.

    It would be nice if men were held has accountable for their physical aging as we are too. They do not really become more attractive. Gray and paunch is not attractive. Not really.

  8. 10-22-2008

    I had high hopes that our generation (boomers) would actually see aging a natural part of living but instead it seems the boomer generation is all about “appearing younger” whatever one has to go through (plastic surgery)…very discouraging! However, people like you Liz and those of you who commented on this entry give me great hope! I once tried to identify what the difference is between aging and other times of life and determined that aging simply makes what you normally do a bit more challenging — it doesn’t change that you want to do it! So, I agree with Liz… let’s just keep living our very interesting lives and set the example for others! Love you all!

  9. 10-23-2008

    I find my middle years (except for the bum knee) are much more satisfying than my younger years. These people who complain about it, I don’t understand. I wouldn’t give a red hot cent for the anxiety and bad choices I made when I was 20-something. Besides….growing old is a heckofa lot better than the alternative, don’t you think?

  10. 10-23-2008

    Anniegirl1138- couldn’t agree more withe regards to gray and paunch! LOL!
    Lori – beautiful sentiments. Societal pressure is something else, eh?
    Myrna – thanks for reading. I wouldn’t trade for then either, except my skin looked pretty darn good!

  11. 10-23-2008

    I embraced 40 and can’t wait to get to 50. Unlike 20 and 30, I know what I am and who I am and I’m good with that. I’m sure of myself and my values and am quick to voice my views on each without fear of unacceptance. At 40 I’m enjoying the journey far more than I did at 20. At 40 I don’t obsess over my past or present decisions — good or bad. I don’t grieve my past choices or missed opportunities. At 40 all of that just is and I let it be. At 40 and 50 my friends are interesting. The conversations are enlightening. The jokes are funnier. The loyalty stronger. The love truly unconditional. The wine better. The life sweeter. Yeah. I’m really happy to be here. Thanks Liz not just for being one of my dynamic friends but for letting the world in on our (women over 40) secret — the water’s fine JUMP IN and SPLASH AROUND.

  12. 10-23-2008

    Liz — funny thing about that skin. It may have been clearer at 20 but if fits a heckuva lot better now!

  13. 10-23-2008

    At 58 years and counting, I say: Well-done, Liz!


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