Is This It? Women And The Modern Midlife Crisis

Welcome to midlife. Says a voice assured that what was and what is to come all collide in unsuspecting moments – in a glimpse, a gesture, a wave of the hand. Being stunned would be a reasonable response but that this collision has been heading this way for some time.

And so begins the reckoning between ‘young adult’ and some other stage that culture tells us is a downhill slide. We are besieged with messages about personal growth, the need to take stock of our health and wellbeing before it’s too late, and a rampant ‘forever young’ narrative that seems a lot like a re-run on popular culture’s preference for youth.

In midlife, you’re seeing the future and the past in one glance. It can stir a bunch of confusion, loss, and urgency.

Defining Midlife and Why Doing So Matters

Midlife is loosely defined as the ages between 40 and 60. It tends to be a transition time of the body, and of roles and relationships. Historically, the question of ‘what is a midlife crisis for a woman?’ meant menopause, empty-nesting, caring for aging parents, career changes, partnership changes. It’s not that these changes are not true today.

It’s that what we’ve come to expect of midlife is changing. And it’s not uncommon for women to have children at 40 and grandmas to enter grad school. Which begs the question: What – not when – is midlife?

Midlife is not so much an age range as it is an inner feeling.

Perhaps it’s the loss of a loved one that sparks this inner recognition. Maybe it’s a dream that longs for expression and can’t bear to wait another year – no more tolerance for “I’ll get to that someday.” It could be a brush with mortality through illness or injury. It could be the fear of aging or dying that signals midlife transition. For some women, menopause signals midlife change.


Research on the subject agrees that whatever brings close an inner urgency that time matters in a lifetime seems to be what launches us into a second phase of adulthood.

Midlife takes on a whole new meaning when viewed through the lens of what not when. It’s a time not only about feeling a loss of youth, though that inevitably comes into play. It’s also a truth-seeking time with ourselves. We’re face-to-face with what matters most. The mirror of the soul won’t let that go.

Who are you, and what do you want? asks the woman peering out from your soul as you haplessly stand there, brushing your teeth, combing your hair, smoothing on skin repair serum.

The midlife mirror is a portal into that inner landscape that permits coming home to the whole self we were born to be. We take ownership of our lives during the midlife transition and begin giving ourselves the right to a life – valuing and caring for our own existence as much as we do others.

Women’s Experience of Midlife

We often say that menopause is the gateway to the second half of life. We are convinced that it’s the mirror – not the menopause transition – that captures our quiet realization that we’ve moved into a new phase.

Please do not misunderstand. We are not concerned with appearances deemed beautiful by popular culture. We are pointing to how we stand before our own image, conditioned to square up with the world’s preference for youth and at the same time refuse it.

The mirror we’re pointing to looks back at us through world-perceived flaws and insists that we look beyond and deeply inward. It’s through the eyes of change that we see the soul.

We’re making sense of our life and who we are and how who we are measures up to that image of the self we long ago learned to act the part of.

We’re gazing upon a new landscape that’s coming our way. And something inside insists on letting go of edifice. But it’s not easy.

What we’ve lived is written all over our faces. We’ve earned the depth of a few lines, the blossoming lucidity shining forth from strands of silver hair.

We won’t lie to you and say there’s no yearning or sorrow here. At the same time, there is an inner quickening about who your whole self longs to become. There’s tension in middle age between letting go and letting come. We’re invited to lean into that tension and let it transform us.

The stigma around seeking professional support or going to therapy has waned since many of us were young. But we still live in a tough-it-out, grin-and-bear-it, don’t-let-the-bastards-get-you-down kind of mindset. The truth is none of us are without the need for a helping hand from time to time. That need never goes away.

But we want to flesh out the midlife crisis. It’s a relatively new idea in the span of human history. Likely, your grandmother’s grandmother never heard of such a thing.

A History of Midlife Crisis

Some say the midlife crisis was invented. That it came about with the advent of self-actualization – realizing your personal potential. That before the 1950s, you would not have thought the likes of I must be having a midlife crisis. This is not to say that you wouldn’t have slipped into emotional turmoil or even depression. It’s that the idea of a midlife crisis wasn’t there.

A physician and psychoanalyst by the name of Elliott Jaques coined the term in 1957 at an academic conference in London. He said that people in midlife – which, at the time, was considered mid-thirties – often experience an emotional crisis, an identity crisis or period of depression lasting several years. It might take the form of a sudden inability to enjoy life, obsessive concern and anxiety about health or appearance, compulsive efforts to stay young, promiscuity, but also spiritual awakenings.

open arms

Jaques thought the realization that we’re closer to death than to birth is what sparks this life crisis. Thus, the endeavor to stay forever young, or at least pretend so.

Jaques wasn’t writing specifically about women. The journalist Gail Sheehy put some flesh on the bones of women’s midlife transition as a kind of liberation transition. Which came about in lock-step with the women’s movement and loosening rules about divorce. It followed a new motto that if you don’t love your life, you can change it.

Women of earlier generations might have continued the same ole same ole. But does that mean they didn’t have the doldrums, depression, and even despair? If you’ve our article about how menopause became medicalized, you may wonder, recalling that doctors were keen to deal with the “troublesome” menopausal woman by administering hormone therapy.

Ideas come and go. They are attempts to explain experiences and phenomena. Sometimes they have teeth. Sometimes they don’t. The question is: What is true for you?

Let’s flesh this out a bit. We often hear about children’s psychological development – what to expect at what ages. It’s easy to forget that adults develop, too. Feeling shaky is par for the course when entering unfamiliar territory. But some people feel more than shaky. They feel downright depressed, feeling they are in crisis mode.

Does Everyone Have a Midlife Crisis?

The statistics are mixed about what percentage of women experience a crisis in midlife. Studies show it’s anywhere from 26-35%, with more reporting so in hindsight. In other words, after the fact, they may be inclined to look back and say, “Yea, I definitely had an emotional crisis in midlife.”

It’s fair to say that we have to come to terms with dramatic change in midlife. There is no right or wrong through this phase of life. We each have our own way.

what is a midlife crisis

What matters is this: If you’re struggling to cope or are concerned about your mental health and emotional wellbeing, give yourself the kind gift of asking for support.

This doesn’t mean midlife is a cakewalk. It doesn’t mean you won’t struggle or wish away the midlife transition or silver hair, wrinkles, mood swings, weight gain or hot flashes if you have them. It means you see things you couldn’t see before.

And seeing from this perspective gives you something. What that something is we can’t say, because it’s your own. It’s for you to encounter from that 360º view, something no one has on your life but you.

Trusting our body-self

It’s often in middle age that women learn to trust the know-how of the body-self. This self-trust is a gift of self-caring, a kind of cocoon that we enwrap around our midlife transition.

Self-caring involves:

  • Coming to terms with knowing that we, as women, have a right to a life in the same way that everyone that we love and care for does.
  • Taking time for ourselves and prioritizing our wellbeing, recognizing that doing so is ours to do.
  • Pushing back against the conditioned voices that say giving to yourself is selfish.

Focusing care on ourselves has something to show each of us. And when those conditioned voices want to shut down self-caring by saying you’re being selfish, know that giving to our own life is the best care we can offer the ones we love.

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  2. Druckerman, P. How the midlife crisis came to be. Atlantic. May 28, 2018. 
  3. Freund, AM, Ritter, JO. Midlife crisis: A debate. Gerontology. 2009;55:582-591.
  4. Kittell, LA, Mansfield, PK, Voda, AM. Keeping up appearances: The basic social process of the menopause transition. Qual Health Res. 1998;8(5):618-633. 
  5. Markson, EW, Gognalons-Nicolet, M, Midlife: Crisis or nodal point? Some cross-cultural views. In Growing Old in America. New York: Routledge; 2020. 55-65.
  6. Sheehy, G. The Silent Passage: Menopause. New York: Random House; 1992. 
  7. Wethington, E. Expecting stress: Americans and the “midlife crisis.” Motiv Emot. 2000;24(2):85-103.

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