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The Breaking Point



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About The Author

Sue Shellenbarger

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 the growing conflict between work... More

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EXCERPT

Introduction
 
Careening down a mountain on an all-terrain vehicle, I struggle for control as my ATV bounces off ruts and roots. A teenage friend leading the way on his dirt bike waves his hand in a “Slow down!” signal.
 
I ignore him. At 51, I am hell-bent on adventure.
 
Grazing the trunk of a Douglas .r big enough to halt a speeding Humvee, I make a turn on two wheels and hit the throttle. I am invincible. Ageless. Mindless, I might add, of the fact that with scant experience on mountainous terrain, I am like a grenade with the pin pulled, moments from certain disaster.
 
For twenty-five years, I have been a working mother, juggling home, family, kids, job, and suburban community life with intensity. In middle age, I have become somebody no one knows, a wild woman with graying hair under a full-face helmet, a hand too heavy on the throttle and an adventure lust so consuming that I lie awake nights.
 
Camping in Oregon’s Coastal Range with a hard-riding crowd of off-road adventurers, I am flattered to be invited to join three of the biggest daredevils on the trail. As I gain speed, exhilaration renders gas fumes sweet in my lungs. The trees fly by in a blur, the roar of my engine fills the air. Speed rivets my senses on the moment. I lean into a sharp turn.
 
Then, in a heartbeat, the ground heaves upward, earthquake-like. A berm erupts and lifts my two right tires. My ATV bucks and starts to roll. Reflexively, I hit the throttle. The earth tilts. My body flies off the seat. Deep-green treetops spin crazily.
 
My back slams hard onto the dusty red clay of the trail. The sky goes dark as the 375-pound Honda 400EX flips and lands sideways the full length of my body.
 
When I regain consciousness, three pairs of eyes behind full-face helmets circle the sky overhead, peering down at me like curious aliens landed to search for signs of life. “Can you breathe?” asks one. “Can you move?” comes another voice from beneath a fiberglass face shield.
 
I move my neck slightly, then my spine, and say a prayer of thanks that I am not paralyzed. “She has the balls of a gorilla, doesn’t she?” murmurs one of my companions, thinking I cannot hear.
 
Their quick-witted rush to hoist the ATV off my body saved me from a worse fate, I later learn. The damage: a collarbone knocked so far out of whack that it looks like some demon battling to escape my skin. A bruise the shape of an ATV extends the length of my torso. I creep painfully onto the back of a friend’s ATV and we ride back to camp. My worried children, 12 and 15, and the rest of our campmates circle me, marveling that a collarbone could go so far AWOL, and my friend shuttles me to the nearest emergency room forty miles away.
 
What was I thinking?
 
The answer, of course, is that I wasn’t thinking. I was only feeling. I had plunged deep into the dark comedy of a midlife crisis.
 
A series of losses in middle age had left me reeling—the death of my father, the end of my twenty-year marriage in divorce, and the approach of the empty nest as my children grew more independent. Values that had helped guide my life for decades—achievement, frugality, respectability, career success, exceeding other people’s expectations—did not matter to me anymore. Beset by an emotional deadness, I felt the truth of Joseph Campbell’s quote, “Midlife is when you reach the top of the ladder and find that it was against the wrong wall.” For a time, it seemed, repressing my deepest dreams and desires—for adventure, for a simpler, more rustic life, and for closeness with nature and with other people who valued it, too—was no longer worth the sacrifice.
 
Like most people, I had never taken the notion of midlife crisis seriously. I thought of it as a fleeting, laughable period of adolescent regression that leads middle-aged men to buy red sports cars and take trophy wives. Typing with my arm in a sling after the ATV accident, I attempted to make light of the subject in my “Work & Family” column in The Wall Street Journal. Lampooning myself for having one of the stupidest accidents of my life, I wrote, “The midlife crisis is a cliché—until you have one.”
 
I quickly learned I was not alone. The column drew one of the biggest reader responses I had received in twelve years as a columnist. While some readers of both sexes were startled by the notion that a female could even have a midlife crisis (“I had no idea that women got this, too,” wrote a Texas man), a far larger number of women readers experienced a shock of self-recognition. Dozens told heartfelt tales of pain, upheaval, rebirth, and transformation in middle age, and said they had no idea other women were experiencing the same thing. My comic tale had touched a hidden nerve. Clearly, millions of midlife women had reached a crisis stage—a time when old values and goals no longer made sense to them.
 
I began gathering more stories. Through newspaper ads, networking, and e-mail, I identified fifty women who had undergone midlife turmoil, each of whom generously agreed to share her life experience. In thirty years as a journalist, I have not experienced interviews as moving as these. Many agreed to talk for an hour, then went on for four or five. Some shared their artwork, their writings, photos of their gardens, their children, their dogs. Powerful themes of frustration or despair, the resurgence of unsettling passions and desires, self-discovery, and renewal ran through all their stories. From each one, I learned much about the gifts and challenges of midlife.
 
 
Shedding Old Selves. Not all women in midlife transition experience such explosive feelings—or bouts of foolishness—as I. There are many paths through this turbulent time. Many women remain calmer and wiser, taking stock of renascent dreams and desires, expressing them in new pursuits and integrating them into their lives. While they undergo a profound change in life direction, these women make changes more smoothly. Others spend a lot of energy repressing midlife desires, only to learn, too late, that stifled dreams have turned to bile in their souls.
 
Nevertheless, there is a common thread: In all cases, midlife crisis brings traits, needs, or desires that have been ignored or repressed roaring back on center stage in one’s personality. We strive at midlife to integrate the pieces of ourselves that we have been missing—to become whole. In the process, we pass two of life’s most important milestones, according to psychoanalyst Murray Stein, who has written extensively on midlife: We gain a new understanding of our limits. And we develop a new sense of meaning and direction to guide us through the rest of our lives.1
 
These themes bind together all the stories in my fifty-woman study. A California saleswoman wrote that, at age 50, she was overcome by such a powerful yearning for the intimate love she had never known that she could not bear to watch romantic scenes on TV or in the movies. She soon plunged headlong into the most passionate and transformative love affair of her life, learning for the first time to be truly close to a lover.
 
Struck at age 48 by a powerful recognition that she had not been true to herself, or “authentic,” in her choices, a Midwestern homemaker and community volunteer ended her marriage and poured everything she had into a long-standing dream of founding her own company. Soon, she was CEO of her own successful consulting firm, expressing her vision and talents in the world at large.
 
A San Francisco consultant quit her business after the long illness and death of her partner of twenty-two years. Then, after a time of grieving, she joined a motorcycle club, had a wild transcontinental love affair, finished law school, and met and married a new husband—all after the age of 41.
 
Like me, all the women who wrote in response to my column believed they were alone in their struggle. “Thanks for giving me a name for it,” wrote a California woman who nearly killed herself at age 40 in a biking accident on the beach. Her midlife transition led her to realize a dream of writing screenplays.
 
Similar in power to toddlerhood and the teenage years, midlife crisis drives people to shed old selves like a snakeskin. A New York bed-and-breakfast proprietor decides at 50 that life is no longer worth living if she cannot make the artwork she is yearning to create, so she shutters the B&B, ends her marriage, and takes up a career as an artist and art teacher. A 40-year-old homemaker with a lifelong desire to find a spiritual teacher decides after a divorce to make it her top priority, then plunges into a period of such intense personal growth that she winds up as CEO of a fast-growing company. A 43-year-old public-company executive from Colorado quits her job after a divorce, pilots a sailboat across the Mediterranean with a handsome new French lover, then decides to fulfill a long-standing desire to nurture others by training for a career as a counselor.
 
“Everyone thought I had lost my mind,” she admits.
 
All this from women with staid past lives and mainstream résumés who, based on the dictates of our culture, should be peacefully adrift by now on the placid seas of middle age.
 
Such growth comes at a cost. Midlife crisis can be painful and destructive, not only to women but to their loved ones. It can bring “a breathtaking degree of illusion and self-deception,” Stein writes, sparking behavior that seems out of character to others, laughable, or simply bizarre. As one woman wrote in an e-mail, “The brooding that turning 50 can trigger makes for a volatile emotional cocktail.”
 
I have been breathing the vapors of that cocktail myself for quite some time. Regaining one’s balance during midlife crisis can take years. Four years into my own, I am still neck-deep in change—high on personal growth, as described in new research on middle age reported in this book, but strained in other ways. I did not know it at the time, but I had some hard inner work to do when my midlife crisis erupted at age 49. I needed to pick up and reintegrate some old passions that I had cast aside in my twenties: a love of nature and outdoor adventures. As a Michigan farm kid and an inveterate camper in my teens and twenties, I had dreamed of making my adult life on a farm or in the forest, and of marrying a logger, rancher, or farmer.
 
I put all that aside in my twenties, left the farm for the city, and set out on the only path I could see toward forging a strong personal identity—investing in a career. I built my life’s work in journalism and met and married a good man, an educator and executive reared in the suburbs. Working, helping raise my three beloved stepchildren, and caring for the two birth children who became the center of my life, kept me very, very busy for years. I was the consummate juggler, subsumed by a time-starved workaday routine of job, family, sleep, job, family, sleep. I had no energy left, mental or physical, to imagine anything else.
 
But as I approached my sixth decade, the losses were mounting. My marriage had fallen victim partly to the strain of our juggling act; my husband and I had neglected old problems so long that they hardened into permanent scars. My father died suddenly after a massive stroke. An empty nest loomed as my two birth children moved deeper into their teens. I felt despair all the time—except when I escaped into the outdoors or new adventures. In a departure from the frugal, staid soccer-mom ways of my past, I started spending money recklessly on sports outings, motorcycle-riding courses, vacations. I played hooky too often from a job I loved, escaping to the only places I could find peace—the forest, the desert, or speeding down a mountain on skis or an ATV.
 
My midlife crisis peaked when I was 51, when, had anyone been keeping track, the hours I spent racing around in the woods, riding the Oregon dunes, camping, skiing, dancing, and having adventures rivaled those I spent tending to business—writing my column and taking care of my kids and my home. Family and friends shook their heads. My neighborhood homeowner’s association asked me to please, clean up my yard. Sometimes, I barely recognized myself. After marching for so long to the drumbeat of work and family, I felt as if I was dancing to some deranged inner bongo-player no one else could hear.
 
After two bone-crushing ATV crashes, my editor suggested I hire a driver, and my doctor took to asking for Evel Knievel when he called. “I had to check your chart again, to make sure you were fifty-one and not seventeen,” he joked. I began seeing a counselor for help reining in my own rebellion. At one point, I lamented to her, “I wish I had gotten this out of my system when I was seventeen.”
 
Today, at 53, I am sobering up from the vapors of midlife ferment. That I have achieved one of the goals of midlife crisis—finding and understanding my limits—is clear every time I look in the mirror. My dislocated collarbone remains so bizarre-looking that my teenage son invites his friends over to see it. After forty-five minutes of pounding and pushing on my shoulder to ram it back into place, my orthopedist and his assistant gave up and declared, not very convincingly, “Don’t worry. It doesn’t show that much.” Shopping for evening and swim wear has become a daunting challenge; turtleneck evening gowns are hard to find.
 
One task posed by midlife crisis is to act upon what it signifies—that repressing creative, productive, or expressive parts of yourself comes with a cost, and that you must either integrate those facets into your life or come to peace with the fact that you cannot. To that end, I am trying to refashion a more responsible and integrated life, one that not only helps me, my kids, and my friends and neighbors, but that serves as a worthwhile example to others. In so doing, I have also made progress on the second goal of midlife crisis: discovering new meaning in life. I am by no means nearing some late-life nirvana, but I am at least asking more of the right questions.
 
 
Ripe for Upheaval. As a society, we greatly underestimate the degree to which we are still developing, growing, and changing at 40 and beyond. Few women are prepared for the explosive desires that can erupt during this life stage. Even fewer are equipped with the knowledge they need to navigate these stormy seas with wisdom.
 
As a generation, the 42 million–woman baby boom is ripe for upheaval: After decades of juggling careers, the consuming demands of work, child care, elder care, housework, and marriages rendered numb by dual-earner overload—many women of this generation are weary of repressing the parts of themselves they set aside to keep all those balls in the air. Much is at stake: As life spans lengthen, midlife no longer ushers in a decrepit old age or imminent death. Instead, it marks the threshold of what is potentially an entire one-third or even one-half of one’s life. The quality of that final phase depends in large part on how well people navigate midlife transitions.
 
Part I of this book maps a broad trend toward female midlife crisis. In chapter 1, the research of the Gallup Organization, Yankelovich Partners, Leisure Trends, AARP, DDB Worldwide, and other leading sources helps show how female midlife crisis is shaping our culture. Chapter 2 describes the roots of its tremendous psychological power.
 
Part II of the book provides a new organizing principle for women in midlife crisis. It documents the six archetypes of midlife crisis that emerged in the life stories of the fifty women who participated in my study: the Adventurer, the Lover, the Leader, the Artist, the Gardener, and the Seeker. Each reflects a set of desires or goals a woman might express or strive for at midlife. Any woman in midlife turmoil should be able to find her driving force here.
 
Part III distills the meaning of our midlife crises, for each other and for future generations. Chapter 9 shows how midlife crisis shapes well-being in old age and shows ways of sharing the wisdom gained at midlife, through storytelling and women’s groups. The final chapter looks at how midlife crisis serves to prepare us for one of life’s highest callings: creating a better world for our children and the generations beyond.
 
Research psychologists and social scientists have long puzzled over why the notion of midlife crisis holds such power in people’s minds. Social scientist Elaine Wethington, whose research is documented in chapter 1, attributes its potency to its “symbolism to Americans of the hidden potential of their aging to threaten control over their lives.”
 
To me, its power derives from a deeper source: the surprising discovery that, at midlife, much of life still remains to be lived, that the vital juices of joy, sexuality, and self-discovery are bubbling within, more powerfully and compellingly than ever. I hope the stories herein will demonstrate that, and provide a new and promising map through midlife crisis to all women who seek it.
 
Copyright © 2005 by Sue Shellenbarger

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