Life is a cycle of seasons, and the transitions between seasons can be worrisome. Often there may be minor disruptions in life style, which are soon resolved. But when they persist, there is a crisis. Midlife is one such period which has been recognized as a period of potential crisis.
Midlife sets in somewhere between the end of the 30s and the late 40s. It is distinct from the premenopausal years that occur later. Up till the 1900s, only about 10% of women reached middle age. Their roles were well defined within the limited sphere of home and family, as wife, mother, domestic drudge. Midlife crisis was unheard of.
However, the 20th century has seen an incredible lengthening of the life span, with women living well into their 7th or 8th decade. So, around 40 years or thereabouts, when the business of child bearing is over, and children begin to assert their independence, there looms before women a stretch of life that appears to be like a vacuum.
Husbands may also be passing through their own midlife crisis, and are like irritable hedgehogs. Or in a reversal of roles, they become overly dependant on their wives. Women begin to feel trapped.
A woman may feel that life is passing her by. “Who am I?” she wonders. “Does my life count for anything?” An inexplicable loneliness overcomes her as though she has no real self identity. Conscious of her gradually fading beauty and energy, she sinks into depression. This feeling of worthlessness is compounded if there is marital dissatisfaction.
The 20th century saw revolutionary changes taking place in every aspect of life. Education, employment outside the home, collapse of the joint family system, migration to the impersonal atmosphere of cities, changing sex roles, women’s liberation movements, youth culture, and rapid advances in Science and technology – these have created a kind of insecurity in the traditional woman. As she tries to keep pace with changing times, stress becomes her portion.
It is against this background that Midlife Crisis assumes significance. Whether single, married or widowed, almost 2/3rds of women pass through this phase. A career oriented spinster high up in the Management hierarchy suddenly decided that she cannot live alone anymore. She conjures up pictures of being incarcerated in some Home for the Aged, and the prospect alarms her. So she frantically advertises in the newspapers for a suitable spouse, and may imprudently select an undesirable mate, or enter into a live-in relationship.
A sober middle aged widow may decide to give herself a new image. She may visit a beautician to have her hair styled, her eyebrows plucked, and her wrinkles ironed out with Botox. She may even begin to use heavy make-up and dress like a teenager. She may flirt outrageously with eligible men, or have an affair with someone younger than her son. People notice, gossip and snigger, but the woman throws propriety to the winds, and is brazen about her behavior.
A spinster with unfulfilled maternal desires may decide to have a baby out of wedlock or offer to ‘rent her womb.’ Some psychologists say that Midlife Crisis is just a convenient excuse for irresponsible behavior. But it can be argued that if this was the case, why wait till middle age to indulge one’s self? Middle Age is merely a transitory phase, and is not something to be feared but welcomed. Crisis usually occurs when there is a lack of preparation. E. M. Blaicklock says “Middle Age is the time when life’s fruits begin to ripen.”
It must be prepared for. It is a time to take stock of one’s self, and examine one’s life style. One needs to identify factors that can contribute to a crisis and address them individually. Is there fear of losing one’s youth, sex appeal and beauty? Do a few strands of grey, or sagging breasts or weight gain create panic?
One psychiatrist says, “Feeling good and looking good is related to a balance between mind and body.” And Longfellow assures us that “Age is no less an opportunity than youth itself, though in another dress.” Exercise, a balanced diet, relaxation, and a general interest in the world around, will put the radiance back into middle aged faces.
Has the marriage relationship become boring? Then one needs to put more effort into changing it. A little more loving, communication and caring can go a long way in setting things right. The husband may also be passing through midlife crisis and may be disinterested or unable to respond to her feelings. A woman must therefore verbalize her needs directly and specifically, making him understand that she is passing through a difficult phase and wants his understanding and love.
A good husband will not only be emotionally supportive of his wife, but also give her the space she needs to develop her sense of self worth. If a woman is suddenly widowed in middle age, her depression may increase. Or she might rush into an affair which is not a sensible thing to do while under stress.
For a woman who has spent the best years of her life being an exemplary mother, who has found identity and fulfillment in her children, the realization that they don’t need her anymore, and a wide generation gap is developing between them, makes her feel marginalized and useless.
Midlife is also a time when one becomes vulnerable healthwise. Diseases like obesity, hypertension, diabetes, the need for diet restriction, medication, exercise, make her conscious of her mortality. She begins to brood over her situation and gets bogged down in self pity. Dwindling money resources and stringencies brought on by retirement, also pose a threat to her peace of mind.
All these stress factors have a snowballing effect, which can undermine a woman’s self confidence and bring about altered behavior like, depression, irritability, irrational behavior, assertiveness or abnormal sexual interest. In fact, this phase is like passing through a ‘second emotional adolescence.’
Anticipating and preparing for middle age can make the transition smoother. Life doesn’t end at that stage. Floyd and Thatcher say, “Middle Age is a time for discovery, not stagnation. It is a time ripe for fresh beginnings – a threshold to a rich stimulating future. If approached with good humour and flexibility, and an openness to change, the middle years and beyond can be the best half of life.”
Life has many different seasons. At each season a woman needs to reassess her values from different perspectives. Whether single, married or widowed, she needs to bloom in her own identity, and not be a rubber stamp of her husband or a door mat for her children; nor should she let herself be exploited even by her own family. She too must be a decision maker and assert herself when necessary.
Hobbies and new interests make life interesting. “Unlock your creativity,” exhorts Ann Morrow Lindbergh. Music, reading, travel, painting are mood elevators.
Good friends are assets in difficult times. They act as confidantes or as sounding boards when one needs to get something off one’s chest. They lend support in times of stress and depression.
Groups like “Emotions Anonymous” help its members to open up and talk about their problems. They learn from each other’s experiences and help each other mutually, to redefine their ideas and values. They become happy and confident. Artificial props like drugs and alcohol are not the answer, neither is an extra marital affair a solution. It may only lead to guilt feelings that are hard to shake off.
Husbands and children must realize that their supportive love can work magic in overcoming midlife crisis. But unless a woman verbalizes her needs and fears, they cannot know.
Finding time for introspection, refusing to condemn one’s self for imaginary short comings, and an awareness of the temporary nature of such a crisis, is half way to overcoming it. People tend to put God last when faced with a crisis. Paul’s words in Philippians 3:13 are encouraging. “I am still not all I should be, but I am bringing all my energies to bear out one thing; forgetting the past, and looking to what lies ahead.” Prayer surmounts many a crisis.
Midlife is the pre- autumn season of one’s life. Autumn is sure to follow, and will light up one’s personality with the golden hues of maturity and peace. Life will begin again with a new vision for what is left of the future.
Eva Bell is a doctor of Medicine and also a freelance writer of articles, short stories, children stories. Published in Indian magazines and newspapers, anthologies and also on the web. Author of two novels, one non-fiction, two children’s books. Special interest – Travel and Women’s Issues.
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