Life begins at 40 – or so the old adage goes. However for many women this is a decade rife with life changing events which can turn what seemed to be a stable and steady road into the most challenging obstacle course. There are relationship breakdowns, stroppy and difficult teenagers, older children leaving home, ill and dependent parents, redundancies, money worries, career changes and to top it all your body starts to morph into something unrecognisable as your hormones begin to rage in preparation for the menopause. Many prominent psychologists now recognise that being a woman in your 40’s – part of the sandwich generation between kids and parents– is a very stressful and confusing place to be and not surprisingly most women in this age range find themselves thrown into unfamiliar territory – a crisis of confidence.
So, parents die, children leave, redundancies happen, marriages break up, illness strikes and then what? When the dust settles you find that your previously unshakable confidence in your ability as a strong woman who makes intelligent decisions about her own life is completely shattered and because you feel you haven’t got the where-with-all to move forward your self esteem plummets and you feel completely lost. For lots of women this is a horrible and unfamiliar feeling and it is more common then anybody realises. For the most part women do what they have always done – put one foot in front of the other, carry on and make sure everyone else is OK – but inside you feel like a different person, a shadow of your former self. The things that made you who you are all these years, the lynchpins of your life are gone. You are no longer that man’s wife or that book keeper, bank clerk, cleaner or managing director. The fact that you have raised a child who can go off into to the big bad world and make her way in it without a backwards glance does nothing to fill the aching void she leaves behind in your life. The parents you have looked after in their old age die and despite the fact that you are a mother yourself and in your 40’s you feel like an orphan. When they are gone you become the older generation, that’s it – from now on the buck stops here. This is an instinctive and emotional response to loosing parents who have always tried to be supportive and almost everyone I have spoken to feels like this although most feel embarrassed to admit it.
Loosing confidence in yourself is energy sapping and very destructive. You know you should do something about it but you don’t know what. You are used to your days being filled with activity, you are used to being needed all the time, you are used to feeling important and being able to do ten things at once and all of a sudden you have one thing to do and ten hours to do it in! It’s easy to make excuses. We all do it because sometimes taking the plunge is too scary and it’s better to stay holding the towels on the beach! In very traditional and tribal societies the older women were mentors and teachers to the younger. They were needed by the community as a whole and their advice and expertise gleaned from years of experience was invaluable to the younger generation of mothers who relied on them for support, both emotional and practical. They still worked as part of the collective and contributed fully to their society. They were still needed.
Often women talk of a feeling of failure in their 40’s. These are women who at a glance seem to be hugely successful. They have lovely families and loving husbands good jobs and nice houses. They are bubbly and popular (and always thin!) and seem to have life all nicely packaged and tied up with a big bow. Behind the surface however you often find that things are not quite as they seem. I have a very dear friend who’s 21 year old son attempted suicide recently. This is a big issue and not one I would even attempt to discuss or understand but again once things calmed down a bit and he was pronounced well my friend was racked with guilt and a terrible sense of having failed. She had absolutely no idea what was going on in his head and whilst she was worried that he was a bright lad who was drifting a bit she believed he was a reasonably happy young man. This sense of failure is now starting to affect her always amazing self confidence and she finds herself on very stoney ground and is beginning to question her very core beliefs. Similarly, friends who have been through relationship breakdowns report of a huge sense of failure. It seems that even and perhaps especially if you are the one who has instigated the break up the sense of having failed where others have succeeded is overwhelming and this feeling of failure of course, leads you to lack belief in yourself and your place in the world.
Furthermore, your 40’s is often a time for reflection. If the reflection is positive and your self confidence is quite intact then this can often lead to fantastic achievements like getting that university degree you should have got in your 20’s or starting your own business or loosing three stone in weight and getting fit. However for lots of women this reflection leads to even more confusion and increases any sense of failure that might be niggling and you end up feeling a bit hopeless wondering where to go with the rest of your life. Often too, it can be that you feel pressured by circumstances. For example you really don’t like your job and you had a plan to go part time and study for a different qualification now that the kids are grown up and a bit more independent. Then your husband gets made redundant and that plan has to be shelved indefinitely. Obviously this can happen at a much younger stage in your life but when it happens say in your late 40’s you really feel you are in the last chance saloon so it’s a much bigger issue. Or maybe you gave up work to look after the kids and 20 years later you are trying to dip your toe in the water again but feel old and behind with your skills and frankly, unemployable.
Crises of confidence can happen as any stage in a person’s life. However it seems that for women over 40 challenges come in job lots instead of one at a time. Also expectations are higher. You are now supposed to know what to do, to be wise and sail calmly through each crisis and out the other side whilst at the same time helping everyone else through their crises also! So what are we to do? Stick our heads in a bucket of wine and say to hell with it all or take stock and some baby steps and see what the next 40 years holds for us. Whichever way you decide to handle this decade and beyond the one thing I can promise you is you are not on your own. Millions of women all over the world are feeling exactly the same. We are not the first generation to feel like this and we certainly won’t be the last but we are the first to have a myriad of brilliant opportunities open to us – not least the ability to chat to other women all across the globe and simply rant a bit!