SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Published Monday, April 25, 2005
Feeling the weight of the big 4-0, Tracy Reeve was tempted to be a wild child and get a tattoo, but she checked the impulse. Instead, she got her navel pierced with a beaded gold ring she wore for two years.
“I used to joke that that was my response to my midlife crisis,” said Reeve, 44, a University of Washington law school graduate living in Portland. She went on to find her true calling as a marathon runner, restoring challenge to a life that had already passed the major milestones of kids, career and dream home.
“Looking out on the horizon,” she said, “I always had some big project I was working on. So I felt, ‘Oh my goodness, is that all there is for the rest of my life?’ ”
If it sounds a bit like the turbulent teens, that’s no coincidence. Midlife is a developmental fork in the road, a time when many of us question who we are and where our happiness lies.
And boomer women are rewriting the midlife script just as, at an earlier age, they redefined work and family life. They’ve even climbed into the driver’s seat of the proverbial little red sports car — that male icon of midlife crisis. To researchers’ surprise, women now outnumber men (36 to 34 percent) in claiming they’ve experienced a midlife crisis by age 50.
“It’s a turbulent, emotional transition that can begin an entirely new stage of life,” said Portland journalist Sue Shellenbarger, who hit a nerve with readers of her Work & Family column in the Wall Street Journal when she detailed her own midlife meltdown. “People think it’s like a grease fire in a frying pan — you put it out and it’s over,” she said. “What I think is, it’s like an earthquake changing the terms of your life.”
Now 53 and four years into her own coming-of-age ferment, Shellenbarger takes the pulse of a generational trend in “The Breaking Point! How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today’s Women” (Henry Holt, 265 pages, $25). It draws from interviews, original polls and 80 studies, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “Midlife in the United States,” the largest-ever midlife study.
She’s not the only one to tap into the midlife zeitgeist. From different angles, a slew of new books explores the pressures and possibilities facing women over 40.
In “Time Off for Good Behavior,” former advertising CEO Mary Lou Quinlan describes her quest to reclaim a life that had grown wildly imbalanced as she hyperfocused on her hard-charging career. After taking five weeks off to regroup, Quinlan left advertising, stopped trying to live up to “good girl” standards and founded her own marketing company, Just Ask a Woman.
“But it’s the little things that I discovered that I treasure,” she writes, “like sleeping at night, walking my dog, enjoying a second cup of coffee and hanging out with friends.”
Hard-won experience led model Dayle Haddon to formulate her own prescription for midlife happiness. In “The 5 Principles of Ageless Living” (Atria Books, 346 pages, $16), she counsels wisdom, connection, spiritual nourishment, healthy living and inner-outer beauty.
Haddon became a single mother in her late 30s when her husband died, leaving her with few resources. Told she was too old for the beauty industry — at age 38 — she later helped launch an Estee Lauder product line for over-40 women. Now, in her 50s, she represents L’Oreal’s Age-Perfect Line.
“We are in the midst of what I call the Age Quake,” she writes. “Some 60 million women in the United States are over the age of 40. … And we are a force to be reckoned with.”
In a paean to that gathering force, a new photo-essay book titled “Fearless Women” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 112 pages, $27.50) captures the boldness and beauty of 50 notable women, through black-and-white portraits, essays and flashback photos from their callow youths. Joni Mitchell, Laraine Newman, Erin Brockovich and others pose proud and strong, each holding a Camelot-style sword to symbolize her hard-won strength.
“We wanted to honor those who are redefining midlife,” says the introduction by authors Nancy Alspaugh and Marilyn Kentz, who teamed with photographer Mary Ann Halpin.
Shellenbarger has found midlife reactions fall into six patterns, or achetypes — the Adventurer, the Lover, the Leader, the Artist, the Seeker and the Gardener (in a philosophical tend-your-own garden sense).
Market trends reflect those patterns, with midlife women increasingly buying motorcycles, returning to school, lifting weights and seeking thrills through travel adventure firms such as California-based Menopausal Tours.
Reeve, who used to say, “I can’t be a runner — I get side aches,” is even pondering a stay at Bikini Boot Camp in Tulum, Mexico, where women and men pursue jungle powerwalks, ab work, Pilates, meditation, snorkeling, massage and low-fat diets.
“Maybe I’ll get a girlfriend or go off by myself,” said Reeve, one of the women featured in Shellenbarger’s book under the pseudonym Alyson. “I don’t think I would have done that before.”
Ah, Reeve is an Adventurer, the archetype closest to Shellenbarger’s heart. In fact, the defining moment of Shellenbarger’s own hell-for-leather crisis was flying off an all-terrain vehicle in the Oregon Coastal Range and landing under her 375-pound Honda 400 EX. Her collarbone is now forever askew.
Looking back, she sees that as a “foolish first phase” of a crisis triggered by the end of her 20-year marriage, her father’s death and her children’s growing independence.
“I was like a pot ready to boil over,” Shellenbarger said, “after 20 years of being a working mother.”
She has moved into a more spiritual phase devoted to church, meditation and service to others — hallmarks of The Seeker.
“I’m much more content in myself, by myself,” she said. “I’m whole. I’m really at peace with my own thoughts now.”
She said women who cultivate self-awareness stand the best chance of spinning golden years from the tangle of midlife emotions. “The negatives,” she said, “were strongest among women who did not understand what was happening.”
Seattle counselor Lori Dwinell, who works with many clients in transition, agreed. She cited Jane Fonda, whose new memoir, “My Life So Far,” has become a talker, as an example of a woman who spent years misreading the source of her inner turmoil. Injured early by her mother’s suicide and her father’s coldness, Fonda developed a deep, vague hunger that even youthful beauty and fame couldn’t dispel.
“The source (of midlife unhappiness) may be never feeling good enough,” Dwinell said, “and not being able to embrace the good stuff going on in their lives.”
A huge source of anxiety is losing the babe factor as wrinkles and pounds pile on. “Women are now valued in this culture for their youthfulness and their attractiveness,” Dwinell said. “That has less shelf life than a Twinkie.”
Surprisingly, fewer than 1 percent of women cite menopause as the source of their midlife turmoil, Shellenbarger reports.
“Menopause,” she said, “is not the ghoulish monstrosity it’s been made out to be.”
Whether women carom through crisis or amble through a gently changing landscape, the quest for an authentic self is a common theme.
Madrona counselor and midlife coach Jane Palmer said women often are more willing to do the “internal work” that leads them to live by their own values, “whereas men seem to be more willing to do what the culture tells them to do.”
Dwinell said she has a good friend who did an abrupt 180 at midlife, left a comfortable marriage and circle of friends to go back to school and get a job — to stop living for others’ approval. Her icon was a medallion that said, “I’ve done that already.”
Twenty-five years later, Dwinell said, “I wouldn’t describe her as happy, but I would describe her as having a chance at happiness. She has herself.”
At the gentler end of the scale, Kit Hart, 52, was a dedicated Shoreline mom and school volunteer when she started pondering the far horizon three years ago, as her kids grew close to independence. “I didn’t picture myself staying home to clean or cook or bake,” she said.
She found new direction when her husband took a midlife sabbatical that inspired him to give up his Lake City mechanical contracting company and become a small developer.
At his urging, Hart earned her real estate license and now buys properties for her husband’s projects, advises on colors and other aesthetic issues and then sells the completed homes and townhouses. “I’m comfortable in my skin, definitely,” she said.
Though crisis-free, Capitol Hill lawyer Colleen McMonagle, nearly 49, also feels the pressures of time. It took her 4-year-old tap-dancing niece to jolt her onto the path to her bliss. After McMonagle confided she’d always wanted to take tap, her niece got “this really puzzled look on her face, like, ‘Well, Auntie Colleen, why don’t you?’ ”
“I said (to myself), ‘God, Colleen, if there’s something you really want to do in life, you’re 47, you better get going.”
She now takes four tap classes a week plus a private lesson. After a lifetime of analytical, left-brain living, she’s so jazzed by music and rhythm, she also has taken up piano. She now plays after dinner to her husband’s guitar accompaniment.
Suddenly, 50 — and beyond — look pretty good.
“I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” she said.
P-I reporter Cecelia Goodnow can be reached at 206-448-8353 or email@example.com.