We all have an image of what a straight man going through a midlife crisis looks like. He is desperately trying to remember what it was like to be young as he drives his new sports car as fast as possible down the street. Shotgun might be a young woman he just acquired after deciding that his longtime wife made him look and feel too old. Even though this stereotype isn’t true for most middle-aged men, we know what it means. The time of his youth and virility is over, so he tries hard to bring it back, often using the money he didn’t have at 21.
Indeed, the middle years of life are a time of change for everyone. The body slowly but noticeably breaks down, and the person’s focus shifts from all the time and possibilities ahead to what has already happened, often with a less optimistic or whimsical view of what’s to come. But, as with so many other parts of life, the focus has been on how men deal with this time.
What about the women? What comes to mind when you think of a woman going through this part of her life? If there is a cliché, which is unlikely, it might be a woman having hot flashes and yelling at someone because of her yo-yo-ing hormones. Even though the menopause transition significantly affects women’s physical comfort and mental health, it is not the only or most important change for a woman in middle age. Science has finally taken an interest in this biological stage that more than 50% of middle-aged people will go through. This lets us learn more about what is happening to our bodies and how we can deal with it. But this social stage of life and how it affects our sense of self has been talked about much less.
“How lovely to be a woman and have one job to do, to pick out a boy and train him, and then when you are through, you’ve made him the man you want him to be. Life’s lovely when you’re a woman like me.” (1963).
Okay, I hope we all cringe a little when we read that quote in 2023. But for women of Gen X who are now entering middle age or are well into it, this is a song we may have learned in a high school musical and an idea that was anything but old-fashioned. For this generation, a woman’s happiness and value were still tied to men: how attractive they were to men, how easily they could “get” a man, and finally, how many children they could have with that man. Yes, women’s liberation in the 1970s provided greater rights, and women poured into the workforce in the 1980s, but the media didn’t show us this very often. We saw housewives on TV, like Carol Brady and Marge Simpson, dote on their families all day long while we were shown few women working a day job. And TV, movies, and music told us how to meet this family-centric expectation. Brook Shields, then 15 years old, instructed us on how to look hot in our Calvins, and Jane Fonda made sure we were thin enough to wear them. And Molly Ringwald showed us that it was worth it because she always ended up with the cutest boy by the movie’s end. Even though Madonna was seen as a counterculture rebel in the 1980s, her identity was all about how attractive she was to men, sporting a “boy toy” belt and impersonating an undulating virgin yearning for a man’s touch.
Even though these images and stories dominated TV, movies, and radio, more career-focused realities for women were starting to make appearances. Mary Tyler Moore was going to make it after all, but on her terms. Oprah blew the sides off the daytime hosts box, and Murphy Brown showed what was becoming more and more common: working single women who decided to become mothers. With these career women making their prime-time debut, it was promised that, despite the history of women in low-paying, narrowly defined jobs in the past, the 1970s and 1980s promised to break down these barriers, meaning that all it would take to get ahead in any field was hard work and courage.
So, Gen X women were told to make themselves attractive to men, get married, and have kids. The next priority was to join the workforce as professionals and use their smarts and determination to get ahead financially. If Clair Huxtable could do it, so could you. We were told, “you can have it all,” for the first time in history. What did we do with this promise? Do we have a midlife crisis like some men when we try to get back to what we were told to work for, or has something else happened?
Let’s go back for a moment to the middle-aged men who have been told the same things about what it means to be successful most of modern history. Simply put, a man is successful if he has money and can win the attention of beautiful women. Things like a good relationship and a family are socially acceptable, but they don’t make it easier for men to show they are in charge. Even though these criteria for a happy life are ineffective at best and harmful at worst, they are easy to understand, widely accepted, and, until recently (mostly among Millennials and perhaps even more so with Gen Z’ers), not seriously questioned. This is why the stereotype of a young woman dating a middle-aged man who drives a sports car has been so durable throughout the generations.
Now let’s go back to the women. Men could theoretically be rich and have beautiful women in their arms until they die, but the “be pretty, get a man, and have children to be complete” rule does not apply to women over 40. Most women in their mid-40s have already completed some or all these assignments. And if they haven’t, they’re not likely to take this track when they’re middle-aged. In short, those measurements don’t work for women in their 40s and 50s anymore, so there’s no going back, even if they wanted to. Can they just be happy having taken this socially recommended path to happiness?
Here’s the thing: if that trip was taken, it probably wasn’t anything like the happiness portrayed in 16 Candles or Father of the Bride. Most of the work of raising children fell on women, whether in a relationship or not. Even for women whose partners tried to help, moms were the ones who nursed, took care of sick kids, made plans, talked to schools, cooked, cleaned, and did all the other things that people assume moms do because that’s what they’ve always done. And if women didn’t work as many hours as their partners, this would have probably been a fair way to share the work. But women were working just as hard, if not harder in the workplace. When the weekend came, if mom took the cranky kids grocery shopping, she would be ignored at best and judged by other shoppers who didn’t like how she raised her kids at worst. If, on the other hand, dad took the kids to the playground on Sunday, he would be praised for being such an active parent and for giving mom a break (while she surely was doing other chores or work).
The double standard for how much work it takes to be a good parent was shocking. But that wasn’t the end of this generation’s hypocrisy. Remember how women could have successful careers if they just worked hard and were good at what they did? Even though more Gen X women than men went to college and entered the workforce in similar rates, women’s salaries and promotions lagged far behind men. Of course, just like with motherhood, we were told that any problems we had were because we weren’t working hard enough, weren’t “leaning in,” or weren’t doing it right. This must have been true since the men were doing so much better, proof that they were doing it right.
Even though women may have been good at solving problems and getting things done, they found that this was not an asset, as they had been told, but a liability. Women were like whirling dervishes at home, juggling school, after-school activities, PTA meetings, doctor and dentist appointments, babysitters, playdates, and all the other needs of our children, all while keeping the house running, getting food, paying bills, fixing things, etc. At the office, women were often just as busy and capable and were the go-to staff who could be counted on to show up, finish the project, and do it well. But instead of being admired, appreciated, and promoted (at work) for being good at many things, women’s skills were often treated like a reliable car engine that was only noticed when something went wrong. When it did, women were once again seen as the problem and not as the ones who had been working the whole time unrelentingly.
So, where does that leave the middle-aged woman from Gen X today? What does her “crisis,” if she even has one, look like? Though it’s impossible to say that all middle-aged women are tired, it’s safe to say that most of them are. It turned out that the promise of “having it all” was not the way to abundance but a curse of scarcity. While no universal proclamations can be made, it is safe to say that many of today’s middle-aged women are exhausted. Turns out the promise of “Having it all” was not the way to abundance but a curse of scarcity. For much of our adult life, we had no time. Running from one place to another to finish never-ending to-do lists at work and home made many women feel like they were always behind. We had no rest. These unrelenting demands meant there were always tasks to complete, leaving no time to rest either body or mind. Women got little praise and much criticism. Children wanted everything, while bosses wanted more time and work. As the primary source of these demands, orders that weren’t fulfilled were met with loud complaints, while satisfied requests were mainly ignored or discounted.
All of this has led many middle-aged women to a deep understanding not of what brings them happiness, joy, and peace but of what keeps them from having those things. It has shown in an obvious way how to feel worried, tired, and defeated. But there is value in knowing this; many women from Generation X are now looking for peace and happiness in places other than what they were told to do. They are not looking for young, handsome men to make them feel valued. They seek real and meaningful relationships with people who can see, understand, and care about them. They are seeking to take care of both their bodies and spirits, which were sidelined for so long out of a sense of duty to others. Eating and movement are no longer the means to a slim figure to attract men but a way to truly care for themselves and improve their feelings. They may be leaving careers that were serving management to their detriment and are trying to find work that values their talents and ideally, helps rather than hurts society. And finally, after decades of neglect, these women are tuning into what activities bring actual happiness. This may be something as simple as reading fiction each day or as ambitious as climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. But the goal is the same; to engage in the things that bring calm, presence, and a sense of being enough.
So, this is midlife for a lot of Gen X women today. It’s not a time of crisis but of change. A move away from what women were told they should want and toward what they need.
The term “midlife crisis” refers to the existential anxiety many feel when they reach their 40s and 50s. This time of change can be tough for women, who often have to manage the stress of multiple responsibilities, such as work, family, and caring for others, while trying to find a more peaceful internal life.
If you’re a woman from Generation X going through this “mid-life crisis,” you’re not alone. Here are some tips to help you navigate these changes and find a new sense of purpose and meaning.
Define what you value and what you want to do.
Midlife is a time to take stock of your life and consider what’s important to you, not just what you have been told is important. Ask yourself what brings you moments of presence and joy, and consider how you can add more of these things to your days. On the other side of this question, ask yourself what you dislike. Is there a way to outsource this or share the responsibilities with the family? Try to reduce at least a little of what brings you down. During this time of change, writing down your ideas and reviewing them regularly is a good idea.
Look at your job again.
As they get older, many women find that their career goals change. If you’re unhappy at your current job, think about what you want from your career. You might want to change jobs or return to school to get into a different field to feel more fulfilled.
Take care of your body and your mind.
In midlife, your physical and mental health are more important than ever. Make sure you care for yourself by eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. It’s basic, but it also tends to get neglected when your attention is focused on caring for others. And pay attention to how much stress and other mental health issues you are going through so you can nurture yourself when you need it.
Talk with other people.
Midlife can be a lonely time, especially if you’re going through a lot of change and don’t know what the future holds. It’s important to stay in touch with friends, family, and other people who can help and cheer you on. During this time of change, it can be especially helpful to join a group or find a support system of your peers who can understand what you are going through.
Pursue your passions.
It’s a great time to rediscover your passions and hobbies when you’re in your midlife. Whether it’s an old hobby or something new, doing things you enjoy can give your life a new sense of purpose and meaning.
Travel and look around.
Traveling and seeing new places can be a great way to learn more about the world and yourself. Whether you go on a trip with friends or by yourself, seeing new places can help you escape your normal routine and give you time to think about what’s important to you.
Get help from an expert.
Get professional help if you have trouble with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues during midlife. A therapist or counselor at Loving at Your Best can help you work through your feelings and give you support and direction during this time of change.
A midlife crisis can be hard for women, but it’s also a chance to think about what’s really important, reevaluate your priorities, and find a new sense of purpose and meaning. Remember that it’s okay to take some time for yourself and get help when you need it. With patience and hard work, you can get through this time of change and find happiness and fulfillment, maybe again, or perhaps for the first time.