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Women Confidential

Midlife Women Explode the Myths of Having it All
Dr. Barbara Moses

I feel like everything is bubbling to the surface. Although I don't know what my 'what next' is, I have a palpable sense that it's almost around the corner."


The next chapter: what midlife women want

Manager, professional, mentor, mother, wife, volunteer, artist, friend, athlete.

Never before have there been so many demands on women to excel in so many domains of life, so many opportunities for self-expression and success, for disappointment and frustration. Our sense of self is nuanced, intricate, and rich. We derive our feelings of satisfaction from multi-ple roles.

Freud famously said: "Love and work are the cornerstone of our humanness." If we augment "love" to include our friends and our passions and "work" to include paid and unpaid activity, this is all that matters. These are the issues we are particularly likely to reflect on at midlife, a time of significant opportunities and challenges when we take stock and ask, "What next?" and "How can I feel better about my life?" and re-evaluate our priorities.

We have so many needs and desires. We want it all. We need it all to have a sense of a fulfilling life.

We all have unique needs, but we also have a lot in common. Each of our roles provides opportunities for a deep sense of satisfaction that supports important values and desires. Each also opens us up to disappointment and sadness. What mother is not deeply, viscerally wounded when her child tells her she hates her? What professional is not furious when her male boss tells her she is not a good team player or that she needs to toughen up? What woman is not exasperated that she has to choose between the great career and the great family life?

We wear our hearts on our sleeves. We are tender but can be tough. We lead interior lives, always on a quest, always asking, Is this all there is, is this how life should be, am I doing this right, should I make a change, is everyone in my care happy, how do I compare with others in my situation?

We use subtle vocabulary to describe our emotions. We are explorers of an emotional terrain quite foreign to the land of doing, acting, and achieving. The one thing we can’t do is segment our lives. If we are deliciously happy in one area, we are full of lightness. If we are hurt in one area, it spills over and colours everything else. A sharp word from a friend. A child’s rejection or failure. A boss’s criticism. A partner’s ennui.

Don’t take it personally, we are told. But we do. We may get angry at our environment momentarily, but finally we ruminate: What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? And we blame ourselves. "If I was smarter or tougher or a better partner or parent or professional, this wouldn’t have happened, or I would be better able to cope," we tell ourselves.

Who are we? We are midlife women who have been doing what we’re doing long enough to know a few things about life and work. We are experienced enough to have perspective on ourselves, our work, and our relationships. We can be bitchy. We are sick of engaging in male-pleasing behaviours. We are sick of pretending we are good girls. We are sick of putting others’ needs first.

We are also nosy. Very nosy. Am I thinking and feeling similar things to other women? Are they doing something I can do? This curiosity gives us insight into our own experiences and what we can do differently. It is how women learn.

We compare ourselves to others in all life arenas. We used to ask: "How did you do on the test?" Now we ask: "How are you doing at work?" "How are you doing as a mother?" "How are you doing as a partner?" "How do you feel about X, Y, Z?" In this way we can answer the critical questions: "Am I doing OK?" "Are my feelings – whether positive or negative – normal?" Social psychologists call this phenomenon social comparison.

Women Confidential will give you the inside scoop and allow you to check your experiences and feelings against the lives of women who have grappled with the same questions, insecurities, thoughts, and challenges, and overcome them. It provides no-holds-barred career and life intelligence on what women need to know and do in order to feel good about themselves. It provides a psychological framework for women to understand and reshape their lives, make good decisions, and move forward with grace.

We are all in different places. Some of us have a degree of financial independence. Most of us do not. Some of us have a household full of kids, some are empty nesters, some are childless. While some of us are happy, many of us are struggling. We are tired, lonely, unhappy at work, irritated with our partners, worried about our kids, or disappointed with how our lives have turned out so far. As the pampered baby-boom generation, we thought we could have it all. Some of us feel that all we got were the dregs; most of us feel that what we got was something in between.

The second half of our lives presents us with unique challenges and opportunities. We have been busy. By now we have fallen in and out of love, been married, had babies, been divorced, made friends, lost friends, worked for bad bosses, made career changes, suffered heartbreak, and experienced loneliness and bereavement. All of our life experiences have left their mark and shaped us. They have given us strength and perspective. They have left us asking questions. They have left some of us reeling from good fortune, others reeling from twists and turns less kind.

This is a time for asking ourselves what we really want. The answer depends on our situation, talents, and needs. Some of us want to feel contentment. Others want to ignite passion. Some of us want to test ourselves in new and inventive ways. Others want to reconnect with earlier career themes and return to the path not taken. The stories and voices in Women Confidential will show how others have coped with their own twists and turns.

We are each different in terms of what we need from our work, whether we are looking to contribute to something important, seeking collegiality or to hone professional skills, or simply wanting to make enough money to have a rich life outside of work. But although we are all different, at our core we are all finally looking for the same thing, and that is to be able to express ourselves in our work – paid or unpaid – and in our personal lives. Our work should make us feel good about ourselves because it is in tune with deeply held values and speaks to us at an emotional or intellectual level. And it should still allow time for a life.

It is now that we deal with unresolved issues in our work and personal lives, reclaim disowned parts of ourselves – ambitions left unfulfilled, dreams unsatisfied – and give expression to entrepreneurial or creative impulses we have too long denied. As one client, a forty-one-year-old magazine publisher, said, "I’m feverish with all the possibilities." This is also the time when we start to think about what kind of legacy we want to leave behind.

The challenge of the first half of our lives is to make our way in the world: to demonstrate our competence, to test ourselves against others, to get feedback from the world about what we are and are not good at. This externally driven phase often involves dealing with petty bosses, putting up with less than fully satisfying work, kowtowing to the needs of high-maintenance friends, repressing important parts of our personality, or putting our partner’s needs before our own.

In the second half of life, the midlife years, we are internally driven. We should have a sense of who we are, both our strengths and our weaknesses. And yes, I’ll call them weaknesses – they are a part of us; we should accept them, and refuse to think of them in silly corporate euphemisms such as "areas for development."

How do we know this about ourselves? Well, for one thing, we’ve been through enough performance appraisals, whether literally from bosses and clients, or metaphorically from friends and family, to know what they are.

Accepting our limitations and disappointments means we don’t beat ourselves up for being less than perfect. It means we can move ahead rather than endlessly revisiting the past, decrying slights and instances of injustice in an endless, negative feedback loop. We see expressing all our complex needs and desires as a right, not a privilege, or as my friend said, an "irresistible" pull. If we fail to focus on what we really want and care about now independently of the "shoulds" of the past, then we continue to play out old scripts, scripts about what we should do, how we should behave, what we should be happy with. Or as Carl Jung said, we walk "in shoes too small."

It is time to celebrate our achievements, which are many. We have fought the wars at work, we have raised children, and hopefully done a few interesting things in our lives. Remember, we have been very, very busy.

Excerpted from Women Confidential by Barbara Moses, published by Marlowe & Company, copyright 2006.