Does menopause cast such a big shadow that it provokes a female midlife crisis? Although menopause has had a really bad press, it seems that today’s baby boomer women who are now in their 40s, 50s and 60s have a very different approach to life than their mothers’ generation.
What do women really say?
Anthropologist Yewoubdar Beyene and colleagues interviewed 53 pre-menopausal American women aged between 40 and 48, from different ethnic groups(1). The group included 19 European Americans, 17 African Americans and 17 Mexican/Central Americans. The interviews took well over an hour, exploring a number of issues in depth and the women really had a chance to voice their opinions.
Matter of fact approach
Although menopause was on the horizon, it did not represent the potential cause of a female midlife crisis. On the contrary, for these women menopause was not something they were unduly worried about. In fact they were quite matter of fact, saying things like:
'"We deal with menopause as it comes; it is a natural process; an overall good riddance; if it becomes problematic, then seek a medical solution for it."'(1)
The women totally rejected the idea that biological menopause means women are no longer sexy. As one 43 year old woman said, this idea was ' "a bunch of junk." '
Sense of humour
Women in midlife nowadays, think that it's OK to talk about symptoms openly, but they also think that the whole issue of menopause should not be taken too seriously - it's not a female midlife crisis. As one 44 year old European American commented:
' "This group of women that I tap dance with on Mondays, since we’re all the same age now, now we kid each other, ´cause many times we´ll be very, very hot and it will be cold outside, and we’re saying “Oh, you know, it’s the Menopausal Mamas." '(1)
These 40-something women were reluctant to see themselves as "middle aged" – probably because that term has got itself rather a derogatory meaning in our culture.
Although most people say that middle age is chronologically between the ages of 40 and 60, women don’t want to classify themselves with the adjective "middle aged".
Perhaps this is because of all those connotations of frumpiness and thick stockings which we associate with our mothers' generation? One thing was the reality of the numbers and another was the meaning of the concept of a female midlife crisis – something which today’s women in this age bracket reject.
One woman said that as she gets older so does middle age – and now it’s nearer to 60!
A new honeymoon not a female life crisis
For the women interviewed in Beyene's study, their midlife experience was overwhelmingly positive. None of them wanted to return to their 20s and 30s which they viewed as being a time of emotional confusion and instability. So even though some rejected being called "middle-aged", these women were really quite happy with their lives now that they were more mature.
One 44 year old African American woman said:
'"I don’t mind being middle aged. And what that brings is that you reach a point in your life where you really have a lot of faith in your abilities. You have a lot of faith in yourself; you have self-confidence oozing out of your ears."' (1)
The idea of middle age as the prime of life, as a time to start new adventures, to study, to at last get the taste of freedom and follow your own dreams was the main message and one woman even said that it is the time: '"to be in one’s own honeymoon again"'.
A journey and transition to new opportunities
For our generation, midlife represents something rather different from what it did perhaps for our mothers' generation. Now women do not think menopause is the cause of a female midlife crisis.
It is said that the social movements and ideas that prevail when you are in late adolescence have a far-reaching effect on your life.
For baby boomer women, the women’s movement was in its hey day when we were going through adolescence. Now that we have reached midlife, the ethos of women’s rights and freedom to self-actualise is extremely important to us.
Many women, if they have had children, feel at last that they are free to pursue their own goals. Others, who perhaps held off childbearing to invest in a career, decide as they approach their late pre-menopause that they would like to bear or adopt children. And those who through choice or circumstance have remained child-free, find that their menopausal years bring a new maturity, confidence and opportunity for self-realisation.
For the women interviewed in Beyene’s study, there was a clear image of:
'"the ideal middle aged woman as the ultimate person in charge of her life, never complaining about physical ailments, a ‘get-up-and-go kind of person."'(1)
Clearly – a female midlife crisis is not on the agenda for today’s middle aged woman!
Avoiding the downward droop
Interestingly though the biological side of menopause is not really a concern, middle aged women do worry a lot about their physical appearance – and in particular their weight and the tendency for everything bodily to head downwards …!
Women want to remain youthful and vital even if they don’t actually want to be back in their twenties. For some women, keeping their weight under control has become almost an obsession. Women today are acutely aware that the view of popular culture is that they have or should have, control over their bodies.
Women worry constantly about how they are "seen" by the outside world and if they are unable to keep up with the media image of beauty and perfection, then this can harm their self-esteem.
The women interviewed in Beyene's study:
'"were defiant and resisting the aging process in every possible and available way"'
This defiance was common to all the women regardless of their ethnic group – though all had been living in the US since they were at least 16. For these women, middle age was represented less by a fixed chronological age and much more a state of health and physical well-being.
Obsessive popular culture might provoke a female midlife crisis!
But the aging female body, does not forever "obey" our endless efforts to try and control it. And this body perfection obsession of our popular culture places unreasonable expectations on middle aged and aging women.
If we are swept up by a feeling that we need to "keep up" with these expectations and if we give into the social pressure which
tends to make us invisible – then perhaps we are at risk of a female midlife crisis.
The arrival of menopause, heralds an unavoidable milestone in a woman's life cycle, but for most women today, our overall health and wellbeing is much more important. We believe in ourselves and we are confident about our potential.
It is time that popular culture reflected this reality instead of keeping on with its pointless obsession that only youth can be beautiful.
1. Beyene Y, Gilliss C, Lee K. " I take the good with the bad, and I moisturize": defying middle age in the new millennium. Menopause. 2007 Aug;14(4):734-741.
Published July 2010. Updated 3/7/2010
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