Menopause midlife can be the “perfect storm”: here’s how to ride it out
As a a consulting psychologist, consultant and executive coach to high-achieving women, guest blogger Barbara Mark, PhD, knows something about the storms of midlife. Here she takes on the six conditions of the perfect midlife storm and tells us how to survive the weather.
“Midlife: when the Universe grabs your shoulders and tells you,
‘I’m not f***ing around, use the gifts you were given.'” ― Brené Brown
If you are a woman in your late thirties to your late fifties you are entering into, are in the middle of, or are coming out of the perfect storm.
Yes, there’s an “out” to this storm, and you’ll get there. I promise.
Not all women experience this storm with the same intensity, as we are all different with different backgrounds and different communities. Your experience may be that of a squall, or you may find yourself holding on for dear life in a Category 5 hurricane. (If that is the case for you, my heart goes out to you!)
The elements that make up this perfect storm are
- The Stages of Adult Development
- The Happiness U-Curve
- The Social and Economic Realities
- The Sandwich Experience
- Cultural Beliefs About Midlife
First of all, it is important to know that you are not alone, you’re in good company. All women are subject to these factors to varying degrees, but we all go through it.
The Stages of Adult Development
Although it wasn’t until the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that psychologists began to recognize how adults go through stages just as children do, my favorite theorist, Carl Jung, developed his theory of adult development in the 1920s and 30s. Jung experienced a spiritual and intellectual crisis after Freud ended their friendship and professional relationship around 1915. He later identified this time as a spiritual crisis in the middle of life. In 1965, psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term “mid-life crisis.”
Not everyone experiences a “crisis” as such – it depends on how intense your perfect storm is.
I love this topic and could go on for pages, but let me say simply that the stages of adult psycho/social development that occur in an individual’s 30s, 40s and 50s are the most tumultuous.
Why? Well, we move from a relatively happy young adulthood through deciding that we don’t want to follow anyone else’s rules or meet others’ expectations, to discovering that there is a self to embrace, only then to encounter fears that this self may not be all that our younger self imagined and wanted to be when it grew up. This leaves us feeling, “Is this all there is?” until finally we arrive at a place of self-acceptance in our mid-to-late-50s to mid-60s.
For many women, midlife means an increase in anxiety, depression, and rage. But it is, like adolescence, a transitional (and hormonal!) phase with an ending. The important thing is to find tools (hobbies, exercise, family and friends) that will help you get through to the good stuff on the other side. Trust me – the post-menopausal zest and the last stage of midlife development are awesome! Then adult development goes on to the stages of older adulthood which are pretty cool, too.
The Happiness U-Curve
In the early 2000s, while everyone was looking at happiness, a few theorists developed and evolved the Happiness U-Curve. It is based on a group of longitudinal and multi-cultural studies of life satisfaction, happiness, and contentment. What the results showed was a curve at high levels of happiness in early life that then dives downward to its lowest level in the late 40s, before climbing back up beginning in the late 50s and early 60s.
The nadir of the curve is just at the developmental moment of greatest self-doubt and the search for purpose and meaning. If you’re feeling at the bottom, as unhappy as you can ever remember being, understand that it’s a curve, and there’s an up awaiting you. By this time your hormones have settled down quite a bit and you are feeling the psychological impact of arriving at big self-acceptance!
The Social and Economic Realities
If you are an American woman in your late 30s through your early 50s, you have lived through some difficult times in US history. Many parents’ child rearing practices were pretty hands-off, thus creating a generation of latch-key kids. There were a lot of divorces. The American economy went from OK to boom to bust to OK to a huge recession to a slow recovery. The recession made it more difficult to embrace the typical American Dream of home ownership and wealth-building.
There are big decisions to be made – Marriage? Kids? Kids before or after marriage or without marriage? Intense career development early on and then take time off from work? Try to get back into work or start an entrepreneurial venture? Try to move the Baby Boomers out of the way while dodging the Millennials who are running up behind and past you? And, this is just a cursory review! Wow, I am exhausted just writing this, yet I know that the economy is better and there are lots of resources out there for you.
While all this is happening, your hormones are having a party at your expense. Many women begin to experience the first stirrings of hormonal fluctuations in their late 30s. This will continue through to menopause, defined as the point at which you have had no period for one year, around 50-52.
The list of perimenopausal symptoms is long and varied. Many women experience hot-flashes, night sweats, insomnia, mind-crushing fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, heart palpitations, migraines, irritability, crying spells, episodes of rage, and lack of impulse control, to name a few.
If you are still young, preparing for this early in your life – your 20s and 30s – will make the transition a whole lot easier. Dedicate yourself to a good diet and lots of exercise. Develop a routine of mindfulness and self-care so that you are not scrambling to create it when you are in the middle of this.
If you are in the middle of this, contact a menopause specialist and assess the options that are right for you. Also, exercise and mind your diet. This doesn’t have to be hellish even if you are on the more “hurricane” end of the spectrum!
Trust me – this is not your new normal! This party ends and you’ll celebrate being past this ritual of maturation physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
The Sandwich Experience
Many if not most women are caretakers, and if kids are in the picture and parents are needing help at the same time, life can be a sandwich of competing needs and demands. For many women, travel is involved as more family members live some distance away from each other. Also, women who grew up at this time period are less likely to have many siblings that can pitch in to take care of aging parents, so the burden can fall to just one or two people. This, too, evolves. Give it time and give yourself a lot of self-care!
Cultural Beliefs about Midlife
Last but not least is the social construct that midlife equals “old.” In our youth-obsessed culture we have gendered ageism, meaning “old women” become marginalized and invisible.
As a result, so many women are doing everything they can to deny that they are aging and are not speaking up for what they need or engaging in appropriate self-care. Women are running around exhausted and dripping with sweat, trying to prove to themselves and everyone else that they’ve got it all covered.
We are living longer and healthier, so people no longer feel “old” in their 40s, 50s, 60s and for many even in their 70s! However, we have not updated our concept of what the middle of our lives is. The important thing is to live your midlife, not the one dictated by myths and outdated societal stereotypes.
There is calm after the storm
There is “calm” after the storm, if calm is what you want. But there’s also so much more: excitement, change, growth, confidence, and empowerment.
We now can have a midlife that is a productive, satisfying, full third of our lives book-ended by youth and older-age. I meet so many women who say that being in this middle third of their lives is the most empowered and vibrant time of their lives so far. If you met me in my late forties I would say that I was running out of time to accomplish all that I wanted to in my life. Now in my late sixties I am on top of the world and loving my work and my life.
Take heart, women! This can be a difficult and challenging time, but we have so much more access to information and community support from organizations like Gennev than we’ve ever had. Your hormones will settle down, you will move to a place of self-awareness and integration developmentally, and you will move up the other side of the U-Curve! Yippee!
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