Through my work with women in my individual counseling practice in Newport Beach, it has become clear to me that “midlife” isn’t a popular term anymore. After all, “40” is the new “30” and “50” is the new “40” and so on, right? Midlife tends to speak a little too directly to the process of aging (a little denial, please?) and calls up images of “midlife crisis” as an explanation for adults reliving their youth (sometimes with destructive consequences). What do we call it then? What happens during those middle years for women somewhere between the late thirties and early fifties? As a therapist who provides individual counseling to women, I see many women grappling with what we might call a “transition” during these years. It is a transition that seems to sneak up on them. Women in transition find themselves struggling with their identity, sense of purpose, or their relationships as never before. It is a time when a woman evaluates her life. She wonders who she is and how her life counts. During these years, a woman may feel that her life is passing her by. In my individual counseling practice with women in transition, I am aware that the feeling many women experience during these years is an inexplicable sense of loneliness.
During her 20’s and 30’s a woman’s life is full of relational and career possibilities. Her life is before her and she has the notion that she can dream and fulfill her dreams. During the transition years, a woman comes face to face with loss: the ending of a marriage, the death of her parents, cancer, not having children, or giving up a career to raise children. Many women find that their lives have been colored in ways that they weren’t able to anticipate. A woman is faced with dreams that have been interrupted or that will never be fulfilled. In my counseling practice with women in transition, women often talk about their struggles with their marriages or with their singleness. Women share about their struggles to find authentic friendship. I am struck by how depleted women are as they try to do it all- care for their husbands, children, parents, and maintain their career, home, and physical appearance. In their depletion, some women find themselves turning to alcohol, overeating, or an affair. Other women experience bouts of depression and confusion.
Women see themselves through the lens of their relationships. At midlife, women evaluate their lives through their performance as a wife or mother, even if they have had a lifelong career. Women in transition who have never married or never had children process their experience of the absence of these roles. No matter what a woman’s circumstances, it is often a time of painful awareness of unfulfilled dreams or unanticipated stressors. A friend of mine with three small children sent me a handwritten letter at Christmas time telling me about how energetic her three young children are. One small sentence noted, “I’m thankful for all I’ve been given, I just sometimes wish I’d been given it 10 years earlier.” As we tend to our relationships during these years, we often feel stretched to our full capacity, with little left for ourselves.
In my individual counseling practice with women, I see a theme in these transition years. Women in transition are seeking to rediscover who they are and find meaning in their lives. They wish, more than anything, for a sense of wholeness and authenticity. Many women find themselves confronting the losses in their lives and redefining their priorities. They realize that the choices they make now will largely impact their fulfillment in later life. Midlife is truly a time of transition, a time to think about life and next steps. The question, “Now what?” can be seen as an opportunity rather than a burden. Taking the time to re-define who you are and who you are becoming are critical to having direction, character, and a sense of wholeness in the next chapter of your life.
It is critical to slow down during this time. Midlife is a good time to watch and listen, rather than just numbly “carrying on”. Most women struggle with “doing it all” and trying to do it all simultaneously. Creating “space” is the necessary pre-requisite for creating a sense of awareness about one’s life. Perhaps children and husbands need to pitch in more at home. Can more tasks be delegated at work? Maybe others can share in taking care of an ailing parent. This is no small step. Most women in transition find slowing down and simplifying to be incredibly difficult.
In my individual counseling with women, a common theme is that of creating more “space” for themselves in their own lives. The counseling sessions become a “space” in which women grapple with the question of “What now?” Some women answer the question of “What now?” with something tangible that they would like to pursue. A woman may desire to take a cake decorating class, pursue a second career, follow a spiritual yearning, or take up a cause. For other women in my individual counseling practice, our work focuses on clarifying their sense of themselves. In the counseling process, a woman gains a direction, sense of meaning, and purpose. Are you at a mid-point in your life? Remember, life transition is the “new” midlife crisis. No longer does midlife have to be a crisis. Instead, it is an opportunity for you to look at your wish list and set a course toward who, what, and where you want to be in the next stage in your life.