The notion that fifty years of age could be considered a “halfway” mark is unprecedented. For most of human existence, life expectancy hovered at around twenty to thirty years, and it was only by 1800 that folks commonly began to live to be forty. American women now enjoy a mean life expectancy of eighty-four years, a stunning rise from only forty-eight years for a woman born in 1900.
In general, women live about eight years longer than men, whose average life expectancy today is seventy-six years. It was once thought that when large numbers of women entered previously male dominated professions, they, too, would start dropping dead of heart attacks and strokes on the stock exchange floor. Not only did that not happen, but women now outlive men by an even greater margin than before. Today, a woman is likely to live thirty-five to forty years following her menopause.
If a woman reaches fifty without a chronic illness, notes Dr. Christiane Northrup, the well-known obstetrician-gynecologist, in The Wisdom of Menopause, she has every expectation of living into her mid eighties at least. Our chance these days of living to one hundred is one in fifty, an astronomical increase over the millennia from one in twenty million.
This means that at midlife, we can typically expect two, three, four dynamic, active, productive decades before we consider ourselves old enough to claim the right to be called Crones. We do not look or feel or act our age because our age is no longer perceived to be old. Or, as the caption of a New Yorker cartoon put it, “Good news, honey – seventy is the new fifty.” In Dr. Northup’s words, menopause is the “springtime of the second half of life.”
But if we are blessed with this inestimable gift of many more years of life than anyone who ever lived on Earth before us could ever have imagined, it is crucial that we wend our way with great concentration and care through the crises of our midlife passage, so that we can learn how to turn our losses into the very lessons that will help us to achieve the life that we want for ourselves as we age.
If we ignore our unresolved problems, chronic irritants and resentments, we can be sure that they will surface as toxic stress that can cause cancer, heart attacks, substance abuse, depression and other debilitating and life-threatening problems. How successfully we handle our changes now will determine the quality of our health and well-being for all of our future years. Our life literally depends on it.
Midlife women today are anxious to work through the debilitating panic of aging and its negative, derogatory cultural connotations with at least some measure of good grace. We want assurance that the difficult transitions we are experiencing might bring about a period of positive growth and transformation for ourselves as individuals, for our relationships, and for society as a whole. We are determined to redefine the parameters and archetypes of middle age.
Possessing both the vital stamina of youth and the experienced wisdom of age, our pioneering generation is especially suited to such a task. Unique in history for our unprecedented freedom, education, individuality, worldliness, health, wealth and longevity, we now hold positions of hard-earned authority, responsibility and influence in ever-wider realms.
Though certainly not perfect, nor perfectly safe, our power is unparalleled. Moreover, weaned on freethinking, idealism and independence, we have been prescribing the parameters of our lives, inventing and reinventing our culture and ourselves for decades.
Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™
The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to email@example.com.