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Mind

Women go through mid-life crises too

Midlife crisis can hit with cyclone force, especially if we misread the signs. NEXT talks to women who have hit rock bottom, but come out stronger and wiser.

By Sharon Stephenson
Let's play a word association game: I say midlife crisis and you probably think of a 40-something bloke who leaves his wife for his secretary, buys a Porsche and acquires a dodgy ponytail, earring, fake tan or all of the above.
As cliched as it sounds, the midlife crisis is a reality, with research showing one in four adults aged between 40 and 59 experience it. But, and here's the kicker, did you know slightly more women than men go through a midlife crisis? What's more, research shows women tend to experience it earlier – between 35 and 44.
Psychologist Robyn Vickers-Willis is surprised more women don't recognise or understand that midlife crises cross gender boundaries. In her book Navigating Midlife: Women Becoming Themselves, the Australian psychologist says it's common for women in their mid-to-late 30s and 40s to feel untethered by feelings of depress-ion, emptiness, confusion and a sudden desire for change.
"But they may have no idea where those feelings are coming from," Robyn says.
"During this midlife transition our psyche encourages us to move from having a sense of identity based on how we are conditioned to see ourselves – ie on how others expect us to be – to more of how we truly are. And then to create a life around that."
The term 'midlife crisis' was coined by psychologist Elliott Jaques in 1965 but even today, the triggers for male and female midlife crises are markedly different. Men, says Robyn, are more likely to feel unstabilised by career issues, whereas family or personal dissatisfaction is often what rocks the boat for women.
"Women tend to look inwards, to find out what is missing from their lives, whereas men tend to look outwards," she says. "With women it's about finding a sense of self, about putting themselves first."
But women also come up against stronger societal pressure than men to do just that.
"Women have long been discouraged from throwing off others' expectations of who they should be and embracing how they truly want to live their lives," Robyn says. "This growth can threaten the traditional status quo of a woman as a nurturer who puts others first."
Plus, we're just too damn busy to do so, according to research from the University of Newcastle. Women, the 2012 study found, were too busy taking care of other people to explore their own needs and desires and afford themselves the luxury of a midlife crisis.
But, warns writer Sue Shellenbarger in her book The Breaking Point: How Today's Women are Navigating Midlife Crisis, the price women can pay if they don't discover their true path can be high.
"When we ignore the signs that we need to re-evaluate our lives, this can lead to reckless or damaging behaviours," writes Shellenbarger. They can include risky hobbies such as skydiving, unhealthy obsessions with extreme exercise, addict-ive behaviours such as shopping to the point of bankruptcy, or even affairs.
"Acting out in these ways can be a sign that you're trapped in a life you don't want."
It's something Sarah* knows a lot about. The 46-year-old from Christchurch is telling me about her life pre-meltdown.
"On paper, I had everything – a loving husband, two teenage kids, friends, a beautiful house and the family business which kept me in designer handbags and two overseas holidays a year. It should have been more than enough."
And for a long time it was. But when Sarah turned 40, the slow drip of resentment turned into a flood.
"I'd had a niggling feeling for a while that something was missing. I got a therapist and spent hours trying to figure out why I wasn't happy. When I told my mother she said to join the club, that she'd been unhappy most of her life but was of the grin-and-bear-it-brigade. Her advice was to stop whingeing and get on with it."
Sarah, who helps run her husband's accounting firm, says she tried to but the death of her grandmother tipped her over the edge.
"My husband found me one night sobbing on the bathroom floor, unable to stop. He put me to bed and I pretty much stayed there for a month."
At one stage, Sarah started to write a suicide note.
"When I was bed-bound I would obsess about dying, and how much better everyone would be if I just disappeared. I knew I'd never go through with it but the fact I was even thinking about killing myself showed how low I'd sunk."
When Sarah received $50K from her grandmother's estate, her thoughts instead turned to leaving.
"I felt like I couldn't breathe, that being a mother and a wife had eroded who I was. Even though it hurt to leave my kids, I bought a one-way ticket to New York and ran away."
The next four months were, admits Sarah, a blur. She moved in with the one person she knew in the Big Apple – a friend from Otago University – and spent her days partying and ploughing through her inheritance.
"I'm not proud of it but I did drugs, had unprotected sex with strangers and basically became someone I no longer recognised in the mirror," she says, wincing at the memory.
"But there was something inside me that pushed me to do more and more risky and stupid things. I think part of me wanted to get hurt just so I could fill the emptiness."
One morning, Sarah woke up next to a man half her age whose name she couldn't remember. Her money was almost gone and winter was setting in.
"I walked back to my apartment in the slushy snow and my daughter rang crying and asking me to come home. That day I felt a strange kind of calm; for once in my life, I'd put myself first and battled my demons. I knew it was time to go home."
On her return she was honest with her husband about what she'd done and although he was upset, the pair attended counselling and, almost five years on, have a strong and healthy marriage.
"When I look back on it now, running off to New York was crazy and I certainly wish I hadn't wasted all that money! But in some ways, my midlife crisis helped me realise the life I had was the one I really wanted. I came back passionate about being the best wife, mother and human being that I can be."
Sue Shellenbarger would no doubt approve. As the American writer sees it, the female midlife crisis isn't something to be feared but, rather, embraced.
"We gain a new understanding of our limits," she writes about women who come out the other side after a midlife crisis. "And we develop a new sense of meaning and direction to guide us through the rest of our lives."
Of course, not all midlife crises involve moving to New York and having sex with inappropriate men. For former policy manager Lisa*, 50, the crunch happened when she realised she was no longer in a job she loved.
"I had worked my way up from being a filing clerk to working in government management roles," says Lisa. "I had an MBA and a well paying job but it wasn't a good fit for my strengths. I was stressed the whole time and my confidence dwindled."
It didn't help that her husband Mike had been made redundant and was struggling to find another job. "I felt completely trapped because for 15 months I was the sole income earner."
The Wellingtonian knew she needed to make a change but wasn't sure what to do. During Christmas 2015, while visiting friends on their Wairarapa lifestyle block, the penny dropped.
"I realised owning land which could generate an income was the solution."
It took six months to sell their city home and buy seven acres near Masterton which came with a small orchard. After a few weeks of commuting to her government job, Lisa realised she wanted to be more involved, so found an admin job closer to home. "It was the best decision I've ever made. I wish I'd done it years ago," she says.
Although some were surprised at her decision ("They suggested I should stay in government for 10 years to save for my retirement"), her three adult stepchildren say it's the most relaxed they have ever seen her.
"I wake up to the sound of birds every morning and have no anxiety about what the day will bring."
Lisa admits a midlife crisis isn't the most fun a girl can ever have.
"Just before I resigned from my job, I was probably the lowest I've ever been in my life. I wasn't sleeping well so was constantly tired and grumpy with my poor husband. I dreaded going to work each day and although I've never previously had a problem relaxing, I found I couldn't switch off from work, even during evenings and weekends."
The temptation was strong to hide her unhappiness with shopping sprees and lavish holidays.
"But because Mike wasn't working, I thought it was irresponsible to waste money. Instead, I toughed it out for more than a year, making myself even more miserable."
It took some time to get herself "into a good head space to figure out what to do". The trick, she says now, is to work human being that I can beout what makes you happy and go for it.
"I'm proof you can survive a midlife crisis and end up with an even better life."
Lucy Sanderson-Gammon hears that a lot. The director of Wellington career coaching business Luminous Consulting sees many women in their 40s and 50s having career crises.
"Often their jobs aren't fulfilling, or they no longer have the same tolerance levels for dysfunctional bosses or workplaces," says Lucy, who went through something similar seven years ago when she swapped corporate communications for career coaching.
"I've had clients whose confidence is at absolute rock bottom, who struggle with making a career transition. They can end up in a job they don't want to be in."
Women having midlife crises, she says, have a lot of hoops to jump through.
"Some believe it's selfish to change careers or try self-employment if it involves re-training or taking a pay cut. They have a job and a pay cheque and they don't know if they have the right to ask for more."
But the midlife crisis doesn't have to be a crisis, says Lucy. "It comes with a sliver lining, whereby people get curious about what else might be out there. The key is to work out where you are now and where you want to be and use that to transition into work that you care about."

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