Five Questions on Women in their 40s
What happens to a woman (physically, emotionally, mentally) when she hits her 40s? In other words, what can you expect a typical woman to feel when she hits this milestone?
There is no hard and fast rule. Depending on how a woman has been living her life up to that moment, she can choose and, to a certain extent, control what happens to her when she hits her 40s. Having to deal now with the realities of physical aging, intimacy/other emotional issues, and intellectual decline, she can choose to work at being: 1) physically fit (have regular medical check-ups, reduce stress, eat the right food, exercise regularly, stay upbeat); 2) emotionally competent (continue to know and develop herself, consider her limitations, maintain meaningful relationships); and 3) intellectually engaged (read, work, volunteer, remain socially active). She can also choose to stagnate in all areas or in any area of her life.
Does the typical woman in her 40s really go through a crisis of sorts regarding her life's achievements, her success in the different roles she plays in her her life, her perceived attractiveness?
I do not like to use the word "crisis" because it has such negative connotations but yes, in midlife, women may assess how far they've gone. They look at their achievements in terms of self-development, career, family matters, community involvement and they may make up for what they perceive to be "deficiencies."
If a woman is still single, this is the time when she may decide to get married. If she is childless, she may decide to have a child to beat the biological clock. If she has been very involved in her job, she may decide to quit to take better care of her children. If she realizes she has been pursuing the wrong career, she may launch a second career or go back to school and retool for one. If she is in an unhappy relationship -- she may decide to end it or seek help to make it work.
It may be typical for women to go through this midlife passage -- but their responses to the questions raised will not be typical and will definitely vary. There are even those who believe that midlifing is a middle-class phenomenon and does not concern people struggling for survival.
As for "attractiveness" -- this may be a "liability" for a woman when she has either too much or too little of it that it becomes a crucial part of her self-definition. If she has always considered herself a beauty, physical aging may make her feel that she has lost that part of herself that made her attractive to men. If she feels unattractive -- aging may make her feel even more so. One solution for such women is to develop their "competencies" in other areas.
Does menopause (or the threat of it) have anything to do with this crisis, or with the changes she experiences?
Menopause signifies different things for different women. For some, it may be the end of the world. They take it to mean that one is no longer young and desirable. For others, it may be the beginning of a new phase and a time for more personal freedom.
Some cross-cultural studies on menopause suggest that experiencing menopausal symptoms is heavily influenced by cultural attitudes and expectations. Gail Sheehy, who has written a book on menopause, says that women in Asian countries report fewer and less severe symptoms than menopausal women in the West and generally have no regrets about the loss of fertility.
Is it normal for women to have romantic fantasies about people other than those they're married to or committed to? How about a desire for more exciting lives? Or flings?
When you are young and starry-eyed and dreaming of getting married, you believe that marriage is going to give you everything you ever wished for -- a wonderful husband, gifted children, emotional and financial support, and a secure place in a community of like-minded people. You may look around, observe other couples, and start having romantic fantasies about people other than the one you are married to. This is normal. Who does not want more excitement in her life? Who isn't tempted to have a fling - that heady experience that tells us we are still attractive?
A fantasy every now and then does not hurt anybody. But when a woman feels emotionally distant from her partner and makes her situation bearable by indulging in fantasies, this can present a danger. We indulge in fantasies when we feel that something is missing in our life. Getting the kind of relationship you can enjoy may mean giving up certain deeply entrenched fantasies, like your fantasy of what a marriage is supposed to be. You stop wondering if there isn't someone who will make you feel better. If you give up that illusion, you can be fully in your marriage and not feel like you are missing something.
How should the "evolved" 40- and 40-something woman deal with these issues? Any specific resources to consult, regimens to begin, etc.?
Get a life, as the young ones would put it. Develop your own interests. Nurture your friendships. If you have a life of your own -- the idea of being married and catering to the needs of your family will not be oppressive.
Find your voice. Express your needs and encourage your partner to do the same. "Expressing yourself using your authentic voice," says Harriet Lerner, author of the book The Dance of Connection, "is the key to making intimate relationships work." Even when it's not spelled out in words, couples know each other's bottom line, just like kids know what they can and can't get away with.
Take the risks involved in constantly redefining your relationship. Push for the necessary changes that you have to make as a couple. This will ensure that friendship and equality are present in your marriage. There is no chance for intimacy in a relationship when there's a core inequality that is not acknowledged -- and challenged.
Be in the present. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in her book Gifts from the Sea -- "Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.
Most important of all -- take responsibility for making yourself happy.