If you watch Oprah or read all the "you go, girl" midlife reinvention books and just about any article in More magazine, it's easy to believe that being a middle-aged woman is the best thing since sliced bread. Why not finally find happiness transforming a 16th-century Tuscan villa into a charming eco-friendly B&B, or leading women-only backpacking treks into the wilds of Montana?
A female midlife crisis? Bring it on, or so Time magazine declared.
And it's true -- midlife is a great time to reinvent yourself. It just isn't a great age to get divorced, especially if you're a woman who isn't ready to give up on sex and love and a partner.
When it comes to the palette of losses at midlife, getting a divorce is "more emotionally devastating than losing a job, about equal to experiencing a major illness, and somewhat less devastating than a spouse's death," according to an AARP study a few years ago of those 40 to 79 years old who'd gotten divorced in their 40s, 50s or 60s.
Along with emotional turmoil, people report other difficulties. Foremost
among these is dealing with uncertainty or not knowing what's ahead, cited by 40
percent. Many suffer from loneliness or depression (29%), as well as feelings of
desertion or betrayal (25%), a sense of failure (23%), feeling unloved (22%), and
feelings of inadequacy (20%). People also face many fears. Greatest among them is the fear of being alone, named by almost half (45%).
Divorcees are particularly depressed and stressed, and 24 percent worry about never finding someone to marry or live with again.
It isn't a frivolous concern.
If men are from Mars and women from Venus, then middle-aged men are from Viagra and middle-aged women are from menopause. Guys in their 40s tend to marry women about seven years younger, in their 50s they skew 11 years younger and in their 60s they're eyeing women who are 13 years younger, according to a study by Paula England, a professor of sociology at Stanford.
Which means a 50-something woman like me should expect to hookup with a 70-something man. Well, I've been hanging around my dad's nursing home a lot lately and all I can say is, I don't think so!
All of which makes it a lot easier to understand the rise of the "cougar."
And a good number of those middle-aged men are nesting again -- the so-called do-over or start-over dads; you're just not going to see a lot of middle-aged women rushing to get knocked up. Still, the do-over dads say they have more time and patience for their new brood. That may be, but they may not be around long enough to do much nurturing, and that has more severe ramifications that even divorce. A divorced dad is generally still reachable. A dead dad? Not so much. And then there's the resentment that their older kids -- who perhaps knew them as absentee dads -- might feel.
I won't say the age differentials have made middle-aged divorcees feel bitter or resentful, although more than a few are. But for those who want a partner to grow old with -- without him having a 13-year start, especially since women live longer -- it's tougher than ever, England says.
"With both older and younger men chasing younger women, the law of supply and demand make the marriage market a tough place for middle-aged people of both genders ... For women, the marriage market may be limited to potential husbands who are significantly older, because many men of the same age are interested in younger women."
And significantly older men may need a level of caregiving that a 50-something woman just isn't interested in, especially since most of us have recently cut the apron strings on our kids and are finally feeling like we've got out life back.
Which may be why many more older divorcees than older men who haven't married again told AARP that intimate touching, hugging, kissing and sex are no longer a part of their lives.
But Oprah, More and the deluge of midlife female reinvention books continually offer models of women who are happier than ever, buying motorcycles, enrolling in gyms and colleges, and embracing their newfound freedom and confidence. Yes, it is encouraging.
With some 20 to 30-plus years ahead of them, women in their 50s say they feel a lot happier about aging than they thought they would, according to the National Center on Women & Aging at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., although in all honesty the slide from 50 to 60 isn't all that grand. Many say they're learning they can not only cope but also grow, says Cornell University sociologist Elaine Wethington, "and solving problems then feeds back and gives you a sense of mastery of life."
As long as they realize they'll likely be doing it without a partner to congratulate them with a kiss and a hug.