OPINION: For women, midlife can be a crisis or an opportunity

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According to one study, about 25% of Americans over the age of 35 believe they have experienced a midlife crisis.Age is only one factor in a midlife crisis, Susan Albers of the Cleveland Clinic said.Women often experience a midlife crisis as it relates to their relationship to others, she said, such as changes in their role as caretakers.“Midlife crisis needs to be rebranded as a midlife opportunity," Albers said. "It is an opportunity to take stock of your life and make changes."."A more positive outlook is that it is taking time to reassess your values and roles,” Albers said

We all know the gender stereotypes of a midlife crisis. Men buy fancy sports cars. Women get plastic surgery.

But what if the idea of an inevitable midlife crisis is nothing more than a social construct?

Studies have shown that most people in middle age, which spans the decades from 40s to 60s, are happy. If they are happy, they are less likely to experience a midlife crisis, a period of regret or self-reflection that can last a few years to a full decade.

According to one study, about 25% of Americans over the age of 35 believe they have experienced a midlife crisis — a period characterized by feelings of boredom, emptiness and unfulfillment, among others. For those who do experience this transition, it can feel overwhelming.

And yet, only about 13% of those who desire help navigating a midlife crisis actually receive it. Women may find their concerns overlooked or dismissed because a midlife crisis in women can look very different than it does for men.

“We often shut down women who express disappointment or regret. Most people want the status quo and often don’t offer support,” said Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Women’s Health Center at the Wooster branch of Cleveland Clinic.

Age, she said, is only one factor in a midlife crisis. “External stressors, a loss or a significant change are often at the heart of a midlife crisis,” said Albers.

Women often experience a midlife crisis as it relates to their relationship to others, she said, such as changes in their role as caretakers. “The shift in relationship makes a woman tune in and question who she is and what roles she may want to carry,” Albers said.

Also during midlife, women are experiencing a shift in hormones. They may experience additional shifts in mood and physiological changes, which are much different than what men are experiencing during that stage of life, said Albers.

The pandemic triggered many midlife crisis situations, particularly in regard to relationships and work. “People were running so fast on a hamster wheel and then the pandemic stopped the wheel when things shut down. It forced people to pause for a moment, look around and ask themselves how they got on this wheel, where is the wheel taking them, do they want to be on the wheel?” Albers said.

This does feel like a good moment to reexamine our lives, and while we’re at it, maybe take a fresh view of midlife crisis. Rather than casting it as something negative when all reason is lost, it should be viewed as a period to take stock of life, particularly if a person is living a life they want to change.

Those were the thoughts running through Catey Funaiock’s mind as she turned 40 in the midst of the pandemic.

“I just feel like I’m coming to terms with the fact that my life did not turn out as I thought it would,” said Funaiock of Atlanta. “Growing up as a woman, you are told you go to college, meet a man, have a kid, buy a house. I didn’t wait for the guy to do those things, but he never came. Then my biological clock was ticking.”

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Catey Funaiock, 40 of Atlanta felt she needed help sorting through many decisions that confronted her when she reached age 40. Photo credit : Catey Funaiock

Credit: Catey Funaiock

Catey Funaiock, 40 of Atlanta felt she needed help sorting through many decisions that confronted her when she reached age 40. Photo credit : Catey Funaiock

Credit: Catey Funaiock

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Catey Funaiock, 40 of Atlanta felt she needed help sorting through many decisions that confronted her when she reached age 40. Photo credit : Catey Funaiock

Credit: Catey Funaiock

Credit: Catey Funaiock

Funaiock, a special education teacher who works with autistic children, was hit with a triple whammy during the pandemic. She lost her mom to lung cancer, parted ways with the man she was dating for almost two years and is embroiled in a lawsuit with the HOA of her condominium.

The pandemic made a tough job even tougher for Funaiock and countless other educators. “There are days where I am getting beat up a lot and physically my body can’t do it anymore,” she said. “But now with COVID, it has lifted the veil on the education system ... and I am not sure I want to be in education at all.”

It all left her feeling triggered and wondering what to do next.

“It is a lot of big decisions that I feel like I have to make and it feels overwhelming. The bigger questions start to weigh on me more than they used to,” Funaiock said.

Just prior to the pandemic, she began working evenings at Starbucks to get fertility benefits that would allow her to freeze her eggs at age 38. A few weeks before the stay-at-home orders, she met a man online and they decided to quarantine together. It was her first significant relationship in almost a decade. The recent divorcee and father of one did not envision a future with marriage or more children, but Funaiock still wanted to give the relationship a chance.

A few months after she froze her eggs, Funaiock’s mother grew gravely ill with stage 4 lung cancer. Her mother died in January 2021. By September, Funaiock and her boyfriend had broken up.

Now, Funaiock just feels as if she needs to start talking to someone — a therapist, a life coach — anyone qualified to help her think through all of the decisions to get her life back on track.

Albers supports therapy, journaling and holding off on making any drastic life changes, but she also suggests connecting with other women who may be feeling the same way.

“Midlife crisis needs to be rebranded as a midlife opportunity. It is an opportunity to take stock of your life and make changes. The term often gets a bad reputation being associated with affairs and going crazy. A more positive outlook is that it is taking time to reassess your values and roles,” Albers said.

Talking about how you feel with other women can help normalize feelings and emotions, she said.

Funaiock did find a therapist and a support group for women who share their experiences and commiserate with each other. She is hoping to sell her condo, buy a house and start over. And she’ll have to decide if she wants to continue paying $600 per month to keep her eggs frozen.

I am wishing Funaiock well, along with every other woman on her journey through midlife. It doesn’t matter the path she takes to live the life she wants to live, it only matters that she has the freedom and the support to make those choices.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.