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The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis is Transforming Today's Women

by Sue Shellenbarger

Published by Henry Holt

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A generation of women have:

Come home from work to start the second shift . . .

Bought into and rejected the beauty myth . . .

Now they've reached The Breaking Point.

When Sue Shellenbarger wrote about her midlife crisis in her award-winning Wall Street Journal "Work & Family" column, the volume and emotional intensity of the responses from readers was stunning. As she heard story after store of middle-aged women radically changing course in search of greater fulfillment, a trend began to emerge: an entire generation of women was experiencing the tumultuous transition of midlife in ways not seen before. When she began to back up these anecdotal experiences with her own research, she realized she was looking at nothing less than a cultural phenomenon.

Long stereotyped as the province of men, today the midlife crisis is reported with greater frequency by women than men. Emboldened by the financial independence to act upon midlife desires, exhausted by decades of playing supermom and repressing the feminine side of themselves to succeed at work, women are shedding the age of roles of the past in favor of new pursuits in adventure, sports, sex, romance, education, and spirituality. And in the process they are rewriting all the rules: the rate of extramarital affairs among women is nearly equal to that of men, and divorce rates among middle-aged women are on the rise. Women's inflation-adjusted earnings have risen 17 percent in the last fifteen years, while men's have fallen. Part-time enrollment in college by midlife women has grown at nearly twice the overall rate in the past decade.

Though the female midlife crisis travels many courses, Shellenbarger found that most women's angst is propelled primarily by one powerful, repressed passion -- a part of oneself that begs for expression and reintegration. These archetypal drives -- Shellenbarger labels them the Lover, the Leader, the Adventurer, the Artist, the Seeker, and the Gardener -- reflect our core human capabilities to love, to create, and to learn. Equally important are the modes or common paths women travel as their midlife crises unfold; and these, too, fall into distinct categories: from the Sonic Boom, which erupts with overwhelming force, to the Slow Burn, which triggers a hesitant, more socially acceptable response that minimizes the damage to others but can also risk limiting the full expression of a woman's midlife potential. If handled poorly, this turbulent time may result in ruined relationships and destroyed families, jettisoned careers, and abandoned goals. Shellenbarger demonstrates, however, that successfully navigating this transition period can lead to personal growth, increased satisfaction, and greater self-discipline.

Once every decade or so a book comes along that captures and names the collective experience of an entire generation. Provocative, insightful, and resonant, The Breaking Point will reassure millions of women in midlife suddenly overpowered by yearnings for joy and meaning that their experience is an ordinary and widespread one -- and reassure them that there are constructive, fulfilling ways to journey through this time of personal evolution.


pub date: 2005-04-06 | hardcover | 9780805077117