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Midlife Women Need a Map

The road ahead is full of twists and turns.

Source: Shutterstock
What are the cultural narratives that frame and inform women in late midlife?
Source: Shutterstock

In 1933, Carl Jung asserted the following:

“Wholly unprepared [we] embark upon the second half of life... But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning: for what was great in the morning will be little at the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”

He wasn’t wrong. Many of us are surprised by the continuing challenges we face as our lives progress.

For women over 50, especially, the challenges can be unsettling. Faced with changes to the body, major life transitions, and shifts in values, women encounter a culture that does not provide clear direction.

The result? Women can feel uncertain, isolated, even invisible.

But at the same time, there can be a budding sense of transition and possibility, a new story trying to emerge in the psyche.

As a psychologist, I consider myself fairly self-aware. Up until age 50, I had a healthy sense of myself as a woman, a sexual being, and a viable person in the world. But one day in my mid-50s, while walking down the street, it occurred to me that I had the internal self-image of... a dumpling... a soft, comforting, ill-defined dumpling, rolling along unnoticed.

Many women share a similar experience. It is a lack of visibility that defines the experience of so many women over 50. Suddenly, we are not seen as potent. We are no longer threatening in an energetic, commanding, or erotic way. We are not viewed as vital, capable of leading.

We often see ourselves, like my dumpling self-image, as rounded, benign, and invisible.

But there is a far more serious side to the story.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that women aged 40 to 59 have the highest rate of depression of any age or gender in the U.S. More disturbing, the National Center for Health Statistics recently reported that the suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45-64, has increased by 63 percent since 1999.

Clearly, these findings flag the need for a deeper understanding of this complex stage in the life of women, for, despite midlife and late midlife spanning some 30 to 40 years, there is little research depicting it as an actual stage of progress in the overall lifespan.

This is a time when hormones fluctuate, and bodies change; children leave home, partners go missing, and job opportunities disappear; illness sets in, parents die, we lose friends and siblings.

Our values change. We feel different, and we care about different things. Goals we thought were solid become uncertain and blurred. New desires rumble beneath the surface. The impermanence of life breaks through to our consciousness, and it seems to get harder and less motivating to simply carry on.

But carry on to where?

Up to this point, we were following a map: school, marriage, children, career, caretaking. There were paths and rituals: graduations, weddings, baby showers, child-rearing.

But now the map leads... where?

Uncertainty is the new ground we stand on.

So what are we to do? Let’s start with the questions that need to be asked.

How do we understand the biological changes and their effects on women between the ages of 50 and 60?

How have the psychological demands and opportunities for midlife and late midlife women changed over the past decades?

What are the cultural narratives that frame and inform women in late midlife?

And how do we diversify these narratives?

A new conversation has to begin; a new consciousness has to emerge.

With conversation, research, visibility, and updated cultural maps, we can twist this living, breathing plot of late midlife to turn Jung’s lie of the evening into the new truth of our lives.

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