By Tori DeAngelis
Women at midlife remain
an oddly invisible group. Despite the strides they have
made in living lives of meaning and power, youth still
reigns supreme, as most popular TV shows and magazine
A new book published by
the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), Women
at Midlife: Life Experiences and Implications for the
Helping Professions gives needed attention to women
in this age range, generally considered to be between
ages 40 and 60. Drawing on 232 studies, the book shows
the positive aspects and challenges of all aspects of
midlife women’s lives, from family relationships to work,
health, psychological well-being, developmental issues,
identity, menopause and sexuality.
The book is unique in two
ways, notes Dennis Saleeby, DSW, a professor at the University
of Kansas’ School of Social Welfare. It comprehensively
integrates what is known about all women in this age
range, and it concludes that women at midlife possess
numerous strengths to help them cope and thrive.
“The authors focus as much
on the resources and strengths that come from this life
transition as on its challenges and stresses, carefully
demonstrating the unique significance of ethnicity, class,
race and sexual orientation in the process,” Saleeby
says. “This book is sophisticated and relevant, and just
Research highlights the
diversity of women at midlife, emphasize the authors,
Ski Hunter, MS, MSW, PhD, LMSW-ACP, of the University
of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work, Sandra
S. Sundel, MSSW, PhD, LCSW, Executive Director of Jewish
Family Service of Broward County, Florida, and Martin
Sundel, MSW, PhD, president of Sundel Consulting Group. A
45-year-old woman can be lesbian, black, poor and have
three children, they comment, or she may be divorced,
white and childless, among numerous other possibilities.
“Midlife women are far
from a homogeneous group,” the authors write. “The reality
of women’s lives is variation, a phenomenon that has
increased due to the historical trend of greater fluidity
in life events.” This diversity can be seen in all of
life’s major arenas, including childbearing, parenting
and work, they note.
Relatedly, nothing about
midlife—psychologically, anyway—is set in stone, the
authors add. The term “middle-aged” is a relatively new
construct of white, middle-class Americans, for example,
the result of recent dramatic increases in life expectancy.
Women at midlife experience their age in many ways, depending
on their experiences and backgrounds. If a woman has
a chronic, serious health problem, for instance, she
may feel older than someone who is healthy. Likewise,
a woman who is poor and lacks social support may feel
tired and “old” compared to one who has enjoyed relative
wealth and connection. The adage “you are only as old
as you feel” distinguishes accurately between chronological
age and feeling older, the authors note.
Given these factors, a
range of themes emerge for women in this age group, the
authors say. These include that:
is a time when many women come into their own, feeling
grounded, independent and satisfied with what they
have. In one study cited by the authors, nearly half
of women age 51 reported that their lives were “first
rate,” and they experienced high levels of personal
achievement and a new sense of adventure as parenting
roles and other duties subsided. In addition, midlife
women with greater ego resiliency—the ability to flexibly
and resourcefully cope with stressors—were more likely
to report life satisfaction, another study found.
midlife women are so diverse, significant in-group
differences exist, the authors write. While many midlife
women are doing well, certain groups fare worse than
others. Midlife is the most tumultuous time of life
for low-income African-American women, for example,
and midlife women in ill health may have a particularly
so-called “empty nest syndrome,” which describes the
depression that supposedly arises when one’s children
leave home, is far from inevitable. “More often than
not, the positives of this period of life outweigh
the negatives,” the authors write. Studies show that
women in their early 50s often feel satisfaction that
they’ve successfully raised and launched their children,
a new sense of freedom and well-being, and a desire
to tap latent talents and abilities.
is not a major trauma for many midlife women. In fact, “given
some exceptions, most women report neutral or positive
attitudes about menopause,” the authors write. This
is not to minimize the physical changes that accompany
menopause; however, research shows that the psychological
impact of these signs is culture-bound, the authors
note. Educational interventions, for example, can lessen
women’s negative feelings about menopause and help
them cope better with the transition.
is a psychological balm for most midlife women. Midlife
women who are employed report better health, lower
anxiety, less depression and greater subjective well-being
than women who stay at home, studies find.
said, women’s work histories are often erratic because
of parenting and caretaking duties. Many women leave
work for periods of time, work part-time or take low-paying
jobs, for instance.
a consequence, midlife women often lack sufficient
money, and later, sufficient retirement funds. “Women
who leave paid employment even temporarily to assume
caregiving roles often get locked into a lower socioeconomic
status for the rest of their lives,” the authors write.
Indeed, women represent about 75 percent of the elderly
poor, statistics show.
The authors highlight where
research findings diverge, and let the chips fall where
they may. As one example, some studies show that sexual
desire diminishes after menopause, while others find
women enjoy sex more after menopause. And even if desire
does decrease, other studies show, many women say they
don’t mind that fact, the authors write.
Indeed, researchers of
midlife women have their work cut out for them, the authors
say. Most of the data on people at midlife is on white
men, and most research on women at midlife is on white,
middle-class women. In addition, research is hobbled
by the fact that it is often cross-sectional and uses
convenience samples. The authors suggest several strategies
for improving research so it better represents all midlife
women and looks at changes over time. They also provide
a comprehensive appendix of all the studies they cite.
For practitioners, “Women
at Midlife” includes case vignettes and questions to
help practicing social workers hone their thinking when
working with different women in this age group. And as
research improves, they add, so will treatment.
“As findings become more
firmly established, professionals can apply them with
greater confidence,” the authors write. “The ultimate
beneficiaries are women from all walks of life.”
The book can be purchased
from NASW Press at www.socialworkers.org.
Hunter, Ski, Sundel, Sandra
S., Sundel, Martin (2002). Women at Midlife: Life
Experience and Implications for the Helping Professions. Washington:
National Association of Social Workers.
Tori DeAngelis is a freelance
writer who has written for Psychology Today, Common Boundary, the APA Monitor
and other publications. She lives in Syracuse, N.Y.