- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

Donald Trump, 59, and his third younger wife are expecting a baby; Michael Douglas, 61, married a movie star 25 years his junior; and Jay Leno, 55, has how many motorcycles?

If this is how a midlife crisis looks for at least some men, how does its female counterpart look?

It’s a little more complicated than acquiring a sports car or a younger lover, though that certainly happens, too, says Sue Shellenbarger, author of “The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today’s Women.”

Ms. Shellenbarger is the creator of the Wall Street Journal’s Work & Family column, which she has been writing since 1991. The column inspired her research and book on women in midlife.

“It’s far deeper than the male stereotype,” Ms. Shellenbarger says. “For women, a midlife crisis is a time when you question old values and find a new path, when you explore your limits and see how far you can go.”

Suzanne Braun Levine, who also wrote on the topic in “Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood,” says many men in midlife yearn for a second adolescence while women strive for a second adulthood.

“For many women, especially if their kids are older, it’s a feeling that now it’s my turn to find a path toward self-fulfillment,’” Ms. Braun Levine says.

For Alison Quin, 46, of Rockville, the turbulent transition meant leaving a job as a lawyer and becoming an Episcopal priest.

“You get to a point when you say to yourself, This is my ‘one wild and precious life,’ so I’d better figure out what I want to do with it,” Ms. Quin says, partly quoting a favorite poem by Mary Oliver.

For Liz Ahmann, 49, of Cheverly, who home-schools her children, it meant carving out time for herself and exploring long-neglected dreams.

“I wanted to reconnect with nature and push myself physically,” Ms. Ahmann says.

This yearning started with daily entries in a nature journal and progressed into rock climbing with Adventures in Good Company, an all-women outdoors group in Baltimore, just a few weeks ago.

“It was really encouraging and invigorating that I could do it — physically — at almost 50,” Ms. Ahmann says, adding she’s already planning her second climb.

Deb Jansen Burke, 45, of Chevy Chase, Md., left a high-paying job as a graphic designer of annual reports for Fortune 500 companies to become a fiber sculptor. Her art includes wall hangings and bowls made of silk and other fabrics.

“I was an art major, but I picked graphic design because it was safe; it paid the bills,” Ms. Jansen Burkesays. “But I got to a point where I said, ‘I can’t do something for another 28 years that I don’t have a passion for.’”

Ms. Shellenbarger — who not only referred to other researchers’ work on midlife crisis for her book but even did her own 50-woman survey — says more women than men have midlife crises.

So why is it that we never hear about women and midlife crisis? Why aren’t women’s midlife crises depicted in movies the way men’s are in, say, “American Beauty”?

Because the phenomenon of women in midlife crisis is new, Ms. Shellenbarger says.

“We now have the muscle, the confidence, the skill to do something different in midlife,” she says. “Women of this generation can and are entitled to what they want.”

Just a couple of decades ago, the picture was quite different, says Marian Marbury, owner of Adventures in Good Company.

“Social norms have definitely changed. Back in 1977, when a company called Woodswomen was the only company that did adventure outings for women only, it was highly suspect for a woman to go off on adventure travel without her husband,” Ms. Marbury says. “Something would’ve had to be wrong in the marriage.”

That’s no longer the case, she says, adding that her business increased by 50 percent last year.

Ms. Marbury’s clients are usually in their mid- to late 40s, which is prime midlife-crisis territory, according to Ms. Shellenbarger. Midlife is considered 38 to 55, and more than a third of women in this age group report having a midlife crisis, Ms. Shellenbarger says.

The crisis is usually triggered by some internal or external trauma or loss, says Kathy Zamostny, a psychologist at the University of Maryland at College Park.

That trauma can be a divorce (external) or depression (internal), Ms. Zamostny says.

“That causes a person to start re-evaluating their lives,” she says. “At the end of their re-evaluation, ideally they can make a positive change.”

That’s what happened to Ms. Ahmann. Three years ago, she suffered three deaths in her family and felt as if she was losing her footing.

“I felt like a curtain was pulled away, and I was standing at the edge of a cliff,” Ms. Ahmann says. “I was struck by the shortness of life and felt an urgency to get busy doing things I really want to do.”

For Ms. Jansen Burke, the fiber sculptor, the change came about when she uprooted her life in Chicago to move and marry in the Washington area.

“And I did marry a younger man, actually,” she says with a wink. “I was 41, and he was 30.”

In Ms. Quin’s case, the change came about because she finally had time to think when at home caring for her small children.

“I had that luxury. I am sure it’s much harder to contemplate a change if you’re living paycheck to paycheck,” she says.

Ms. Braun Levine agrees that financial stability improves the chances for change, but it’s possible for anyone — and that anyone, she says, needs to be patient with herself while re-evaluating and starting to embark upon her second adulthood.

“We’ve spent so much of our time multitasking, developing career plans and resumes while taking care of children that the idea of being accepting and patient with yourself is foreign,” Ms. Braun Levine says.

Also, that acceptance needs to be all-encompassing.

“Let’s face it, there’s good news and bad news in midlife. … The peace I had to make was that I lost my waist,” she says and chuckles.

Both Ms. Braun Levine and Ms. Shellenbarger foresee a societal change linked to the large group of baby-boomer women who go through a midlife crisis.

“We are becoming aware of our clout,” Ms. Braun Levine says. “We grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and whether or not you were a pioneer or feminist, you could not ignore that women were making breakthroughs. … And I think this will be one of our accomplishments.”

Ms. Shellenbarger agrees.

“I think we will make a really refreshing impact on business,” she says.

Ms. Marbury and her booming women-only adventure-travel business are already reaping the benefits of that impact. Ms. Quin, who’s in a once-male-only profession, also represents a change.

Any societal change is really just a side effect of women finding their own path to happiness — happiness and peace that will sustain them through old age, Ms. Shellenbarger says.

Well, is Ms. Jansen Burke happy?

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says and picks up one of her blue, silky, soft scarves that could double as a wall hanging. “I like the way it feels. You wrap it around you, it’s calming and meditative. That was never part of my world before.”

Fair enough.

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