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Female Midlife Crisis

Men aren’t the only ones to redefine their life goals at midlife. More and more women are finding the traditional roles of wife and mother to be less than satisfying as they enter middle age.

The Archetypes of Midlife Crisis

The Adventurer.

Many women seek the catharsis of physical adventure or bold travel at midlife. In endeavors ranging from skydiving to hiking in the Andes, the woman in the Adventurer role strives to conquer her fears and transcend old limits. She plunges into extreme physical effort or into the detachment and freedom of travel, escaping anxieties and compulsions and probing her own personal limits. The Adventurer enlarges her world, encourages risk taking, and vanquishes fear.

The Lover.

Many women seek a soul mate at midlife — a lover who promises a chance of attaining complete psychological intimacy. This archetype bears the hope, the seeking, and the building of a life partnership to fulfill that desire. It motivates some women to work on their existing marriages, to draw closer to their partners. Others find a new partner who seems to promise unprecedented intimacy.

Women drawn to the Lover role sometimes enter a series of relationships at midlife, each one healthier and more fulfilling than the last. The Lover also sparks formation of more intimate friendships at midlife, affording women the freedom to be spontaneously, unabashedly themselves.

The Leader.

Many women seek to make their mark on the world at midlife. They want to get past others’ rules and their own people-pleasing behavior to create something new and uniquely their own. The Leader longs to influence others. These are the women who start businesses or political or charity movements at midlife. Some quit repressive jobs to escape leaders they no longer respect. The Leader seizes the opportunity to leave a meaningful legacy.

The Artist.

The Artist organizes her life around self-expression, usually in art. She sets aside other pursuits to give number-one priority to her drama, music, writing, sculpture, painting, filmmaking, or acting. To support herself, she may become a teacher of art or take a second job. But there is no question that making her art, and living out her life as an artist, occupy center stage. Her primary joy arises from growing in creativity, manifesting her vision, and uplifting or stimulating others with her work.

The Gardener.

Like the hero in Voltaire’s classic eighteenth-century novel, Candide, the Gardener has traveled the world, discovered much evil, and come to a time of discouragement and disillusionment. At midlife, she concludes that the best path to wisdom lies in tending her own garden, a metaphor for the immediate world within her control.

The Gardener focuses deeply on the elements of the life she already has and moves to expand and strengthen them. She strives to make the most of home, family, friends, community, and existing pursuits. She looks within herself to find meaning and new realms of discovery. Above all, this archetype helps a woman learn to cherish and live deeply in the moment.

The Seeker.

This archetype motivates a woman to begin her midlife search where other women end theirs: searching for a spiritual path. Regardless of her religious affiliation or background, the Seeker ascribes central importance to finding a set of spiritual beliefs and practices that afford her meaning and serenity.

She may spend a great deal of time trying out various religious traditions and teachings before settling on a particular set of beliefs. Some women get deeply involved in an established church. Others hew to nontraditional spiritual disciplines, attending seminars or practicing meditation. Regardless of a woman’s individual path, the Seeker has the potential to foster a profound and sweeping life transformation — in attitudes, in career, in love, in hobbies, on all fronts.

Copyright © 2005 Sue Shellenbarger

Excerpted by permission from The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today’s Women.

Sue Shellenbarger is the creator and writer of the Wall Street Journal‘s “Work & Family” column. The former chief of the Journal‘s Chicago news bureau, Shellenbarger started the column in 1991 to provide the nation’s first regular coverage of growing conflict between work and family and its implications for the workplace and society.