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The Queen of My Self

Crisis? What midlife crisis? How women are seeing it as a rebirth
Forty was once the age we died. But middle age has been redefined for many women

By Alana Kirk in The Irish Times

Middle age is now being redefined by a new generation of women not ready to hang up their high heels or retreat to the background of society, demoted and desexualised.

We only have to look at the sudden sea change in TV and cinema to notice that middle-aged women are finally being given a place on the stage, albeit still too little.

The old-fashioned notion that women of a certain age retreat into the background, desexualised and irrelevant once the breeding years are done, is no longer borne out in real life.

In fact, for this generation of women, their middle years are some of their most productive.

In just four generations we have doubled our life expectancy. And while we think those extra years might naturally be given over to old age, it seems, in fact, that we have extended, and redefined middle age.

A century and a half ago, 40 was the age we died. Today, for many, 40 is the age we seem to start really living.  Middle age used to be the slow road to old age, but now it is more likely to be considered later youth, and we are seeing it as a freeing time to explore ourselves and our potential.

While my 40s have been the most difficult time of my life with young babies, parent-care and marriage break-up, they have also been my most prolific. I ran my first marathon at 44, wrote my first book at 45, and eat healthier than I have in the previous four decades. And I am not unusual.

Middle age is now being redefined by a new generation of women not ready to hang up their high heels or retreat to the background of society, demoted and desexualised.

So why have things changed so much, and how are we responding? While far from equal, huge strides have taken place to reduce domestic drudgery for women and open up options for them in careers, arts and lifestyle.

Society is slowly letting go of ageist attitudes that render older women irrelevant.  While we are likely to be covering up the grey roots, underneath, our silver years are enjoying a golden age.

I talked to three women who see their mid-age years as a new beginning.

Vanessa Fox-O’Loughlin, who is 47, has become a best-selling author in the last couple of years as the crime writer Sam Blake.

“I believe this is my age; I’m at my creative best. I couldn’t have written these books when I was younger because I think you need the life experience to feed into the books.”

“I had an ambition to write all my life, and I started writing years ago. But life and career took over, and it was only when family and work started to settle and function that I could get back to the writing and take it seriously.

“I just couldn’t have written the book when my kids were younger, but now that they can feed themselves, I finally had the space. I still have to work my day job as a literary scout, and have to find the time to write late into the evenings and all weekend.

“When I was starting to write, my youngest had a childminder and my eldest was at nursery school, but even then I didn’t have the space to keep at it. It’s only now that my children are in their teens that it happened for me.

I feel like I did when I was 23 when I got my first job and the world was my oyster and I have that feeling of youthful enthusiasm again

“But also I believe this is my age; I’m at my creative best. I couldn’t have written these books when I was younger because I think you need the life experience to feed into the books.

“I feel I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. In fact, I feel like I did when I was 23 when I got my first job and the world was my oyster and I have that feeling of youthful enthusiasm again.

“It’s so different from what I expected. I was really depressed coming up to my 40th birthday and I didn’t want a party or to celebrate because I felt I hadn’t achieved the things I had wanted to achieve, and really thought it was all downhill. But the exact reverse happened. Lots of things started to come together after that and I genuinely feel better, and look better and have more confidence than I did was I was younger.

“It’s great! I’m not thinking in terms of life expectancy at all. In fact the exact opposite: I believe it’s the start, and that my life is now full of opportunity and potential.

“The turning point was a car accident I had when I was 42, and it gave me that moment to take stock. Don’t be a victim and let stuff happen to you. You have to go out there make things happen. I feel out of sync with the traditional concept of middle age because that is not were I am now. We are redefining the culture.”

Frances Carter is 48 and is just finalising a PhD in contemporary Dubai-Irish migration. She hopes to continue a new career in academia.

Frances Carter: “Going back to college was challenging as I was the oldest student in our master’s group and being viewed as a mother and an older woman was sometimes difficult.”

“I could never have imaged my life now, when I was younger. I dropped out of college and worked as a secretary for many years. My husband’s job took us to Dubai and I think for a long number of years I just cruised with the children, not really engaged with life. The life I have now, though, it’s the most fulfilled I have ever been.

“When my last child went to school, I completed an undergraduate degree with the Open Education Unit at DCU and followed this with a master’s within the discipline of geography at NUIG.

“A fortunate chain of events meant that the opportunity arose for me to apply for a PhD scholarship, which I am currently working on.

I feel at 48 my life is stretching out with infinite choices that I can make

“At that time I was 44, right on the cusp of middle age. It was a combination of things that made me accept the challenge. I always knew I’d go back to work when the children settled in school and I wanted to do something different from my earlier life, and college seemed to give me the opportunity to reinvent myself.

“Going back to college was challenging as I was the oldest student in our master’s group and being viewed as a mother and an older woman was sometimes difficult. Some of my lecturers are younger than me! But I experience the same insecurities as other students, and having the extra layer of being a mum can make it stressful.

“I made some conscious decisions about combining motherhood with being a student and I was confident enough to use the supports that are available within NUIG and my student peer group, especially asking for help when I need it. I love the buzz and it makes me employable, gives me confidence as I am constantly challenged outside my comfort zone.

“I feel at 48 my life is stretching out with infinite choices that I can make. I feel very empowered. My life is my own, and apart from my children obviously, I don’t have to consider anyone else. It’s so liberating to know I can do whatever I want as long I can manage to make it work – and I always make it work.

“When I was younger, middle-aged women were invisible. But I don’t feel that now that I am here. I feel very visible in front of students and I know I am redefining their expectation of what a middle-aged woman can do. Our experience and wisdom is appreciated and opportunities are open now to women like me that may have not been there before.

“A lot of my work is building resilience in others, including students and my children, and I hope this builds a path for them to have a rewarding personal and professional life. There is no doubt that I am busy, but I have 24 hours a day like everyone else. I see the value for making time for my relationships and take ownership of my responsibilities to my children and other students.

“You owe it to yourself to live well, and I am grateful that I can have it all now that my priorities are better aligned in a way that has a positive effect on all around me.”

Niamh Sheeran Ennis, who is 49, left a 25-year career in fundraising to retrain and build a business as a change coach

Niamh Sheeran Ennis: “I began to strongly feel that I should be working more on myself. I wasn’t the same person who had made all those career decisions in my 20s. So I knew I needed to do something different.”

“My life changed in lots of ways in the last few years. After a series of close bereavements and getting married, I took stock of where I was at. In particular, my mum’s death made me realise I had been living on autopilot for several years.

“Despite having a wonderful career I really felt in myself I was no longer working from purpose. Much as I loved it, I realised work takes up so much of my life and I wanted something more fulfilling. I had a real sense of getting older, had lost both my parents, and that too many changes were happening to me and not enough by me.

“I began to strongly feel that I should be working more on myself. I wasn’t the same person who had made all those career decisions in my 20s. So I knew I needed to do something different, but had no idea what that was.

I feel like I’m on the edge of a whole new beginning with my career

“I’m not a risk taker at all, but at the age of 47 I decided to take a sabbatical from my job for a year. My husband and I moved to Spain and I spent that time working out what I felt I could give the most to and get the most out of.

“I had already started a certificate in counselling and psychotherapy, and that led me to executive coaching. And when I started that that, I realised immediately that this is what I should be doing. I could be a benefit to others and share my experiences.

“So next I had to work out what the business model could be so that I could make a decent living.

“I did look back and wonder why I went through all that grief of losing a partner and both my parents so close together, and if there was a reason, what was it?If I was to take anything good out of it, it helped me understand the experiences I went through and if I could share this and help others.

“That’s why I really honed in on the change aspect. There are two types of change – the change we select and the change that is forced on us. I had experienced both. I feel now that I’m at the start of something, and it was a conscious decision to put myself at this place at the start of something. I see clients in a similar age bracket weighted down with regret.

“I’m approaching my 50th birthday next year and I felt if I don’t do this now I will always wonder that’s what could have been. That is what propels me forward. I don’t want to be older and wished I’d done it.

“In my 20s it was so important to be seen and visible. Now in my late 40s I don’t have that stress, because that sense of presence comes from inside me.

“I don’t believe middle-age is when we stop and become invisible. And while that might happen to some, it won’t happen to me! I think what changes in your 40s is that your values change and the things that were important before just aren’t the same. You have to see the experiences you have been through, have learned from and know you are stronger, wiser, and even more resilient.

“I feel like I’m on the edge of a whole new beginning with my career and my own potential. I have a huge amount to offer, the world is at my feet, and my future is all finally within my control.”

 

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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 thequeenofmyself@aol.com.

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