Forget fast cars and affairs. The midlife crisis has had a makeover. Eimear O’Hagan meets the women who have finally found the confidence to become the person they’ve always wanted to be.
It’s a phrase that, until recently, conjured up images of balding men buying sports cars, taking up cycling and chasing ‘younger models’. But in 2020, the midlife crisis is less of a crisis and more of a metamorphosis, as women embrace often significant life changes in a modern approach to what was once seen as something negative.
Earlier this year, TV presenter Davina McCall, 52, hinted that her decision to end her 17-year marriage in 2017 was her own version of a midlife crisis, saying, ‘It probably comes as no surprise that there are so many divorces between the age of 40 and 50… You’ll start asking yourself those questions: “Am I happy? Is this what I want? Where am I going? What am I doing? Who am I?”’
According to psychologist Lisa Lloyd, in the past, women were held back from making midlife changes for fear of how they would be perceived. ‘There has long been societal disapproval of women putting themselves first or behaving in any way that could be deemed to be selfish. Thankfully, those attitudes are becoming increasingly outdated,’ says Lisa. ‘As a result, women feel less inhibited or concerned about making big changes to their lives and that’s a positive development.’
Lisa says hormones play a major role in the timing of the modern midlife crisis. ‘In our childbearing years – our 20s and 30s – we’re biologically programmed to nurture, putting others first and meeting their needs, not our own. As hormone levels drop when we head towards the menopause, women begin to think about their own life and what they want from it.
‘While men, anecdotally at least, embark on more flippant changes, women seek out meaningful ones. We’re more inclined to strike out on a path that is beneficial to us.
‘Later in life women may be more financially independent, have more time, their children have left home – and with age comes confidence, being less bothered about what others think. It’s really not a crisis moment, it’s the beginning of a new chapter.’ We meet three women who each struck out on an exciting new path…
‘The army gave me a new lease of life’
As Carina Evans approached her 40s, she felt stuck in a rut, but joining the Army as a reservist officer has given her a much-needed refresh. Carina, 42, lives near Henley-on-Thames with her husband Nick and their two teenage daughters.
At least twice a month, I kiss my husband and daughters goodbye and swap my working mother identity for my Army officer one.
When I’m on duty, you’ll find me mentoring and teaching troops, camping out under a ‘basha’ – a waterproof sheet – or training for a climbing expedition to the Pyrenees next year. It’s physically and mentally challenging, and I love every minute of it.
When I applied to become a reservist at the age of 40, in 2018, I was by far the oldest applicant. Unlike the other younger hopeful recruits, I’d come from a place of feeling unsatisfied and frustrated with some aspects of my life, and motivated by a desire to change it.
I was spending 12 hours a day at my computer running my online pet store, taking on too much, and being taken advantage of because I was too ‘nice’ a boss. My sedentary lifestyle meant I was unfit and gaining weight, and when I wasn’t working I was running a home and caring for my family. I was very much at the bottom of my own to-do list. I barely thought about myself.
As my 40th approached thoughts began to creep into my mind. Is this it? Is this as good as it gets? I didn’t want to reach the next milestone birthday and be in the same rut. If I was going to shake up my life, I wanted to do something worthwhile that I would gain a lot from, as opposed to just something frivolous.
My father was a Gurkha and my grandfather served in the Second World War, so I knew the Army could offer me everything, from a chance to get fit and learn new skills to travel as well as being part of a community founded on discipline, commitment and courage. Importantly, it would take me away from my desk and maternal responsibilities and give me the chance to focus on myself.
My family were very supportive but I think some friends didn’t believe I’d actually go through with it. After passing the gruelling six-day Army Officer Selection process, which involved psychometric testing, a maths exam and physical challenges, I did my officer training at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and I’m now a 2nd lieutenant. I spend a day plus a weekend a month away from home, and have forged new friendships with fellow officers.
I feel so much happier and more confident. I trust my instincts and decision making, and Army life has made me a better leader at work. I’m also fitter and have more energy – and it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, because I return to my normal life feeling refreshed and appreciative.
‘I emigrated at 40 with nothing but a suitcase’
After her mum’s death and her own divorce, Jen Noble, 45, originally from Canada, was suddenly able to focus on herself. She now lives in Belfast and is the director of a craft beer brewery.
The greatest gift my mother gave me, before she passed away in 2010 aged 68, was the realisation that life is for living. For a long time before I decided to emigrate from my native Toronto to Northern Ireland, I’d just been existing. Her death inspired me to seek out more.
Mum was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s when she was 55 and I was 25. Soon after I became her carer and as friends began to settle down and start families, my life was paused. In 2006 I did marry, but we divorced three years later, and in 2010 Mum sadly died.
I suppose you could say my midlife crisis was a slow burner – it didn’t happen overnight. I’d spent a long time not focusing on myself, caring for Mum and also my ex-husband who had health issues.
In the aftermath of my divorce and losing Mum, it was the first time in years that I only had myself and what I wanted from life to think about. It took time to adjust to concentrating on myself.
The first thing I did, in 2011, was to close my business as a financial adviser. I was successful and earned a good living but I hated my work. For the next few years I became a nine-to-five employee, enjoying the freedom of less responsibility and stress.
Then, in 2015, I stunned my family by announcing that I was moving to Belfast. Mum was born there; she’d left when she was 18 for Canada – and I’d spent a couple of years there in my 20s before moving home to care for her.
I wanted a new beginning, to start over. I had imagined that by the time I turned 40, I’d be settled down with a husband and family, but even though I wasn’t where I thought I’d be, I decided to embrace that freedom and take advantage of it. My friends were really enthusiastic but my family were concerned that my decision was a very emotional, not practical, one and that I’d regret it. I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I act on my emotions when I have nothing to lose?’ So, in January 2016, when I was 40, I arrived in Belfast with a couple of suitcases, knowing nobody. It was daunting but exciting.
The first year was challenging. Meeting new people and getting to know a city that had changed a lot since I’d last visited wasn’t always easy, but over time I carved out a new life for myself.
Today I work in insurance and am also the director of a craft brewery. Through it I met new friends and my partner Alistair in 2017 and we now live together.
I have a happy, fulfilling life I once could only have dreamt of and no regrets about my decision to emigrate.
I think Mum would be thrilled. She had an adventurous spirit, leaving her hometown in search of a new life, and I believe she’d be proud that I’ve done the same, just a bit later in life.
‘I ended my marriage and bought a boat’
Claudia Myatt, 63, an illustrator, saw the empty nest when her son left home as a new beginning. She ended her 20-year marriage and now lives aboard her 100-year-old tugboat Else, in Woodbridge, Suffolk.
Sitting on the deck of my boat, a drink in my hand as the sun sets, I feel relaxed and content.
My midlife crisis left me homeless, with very little money or possessions, building a new life from scratch at the age of 55. Yet it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
In 2011 I walked away from my marriage of 20 years. My son, now 26, had left for university and I saw the empty nest not as something sad, but as a new chapter for me.
I took up hobbies such as playing the harp and going to music festivals – I was seeking out challenges and friendships. My ex-husband, by contrast, was happy to slow down. We no longer had shared interests, weren’t communicating well and were on very different trajectories. I wanted to open doors in life, he wanted to close them. ‘If not now, then when?’ I kept asking myself, knowing I didn’t want to share the rest of my life with someone I felt so disconnected from.
I left and moved from my marital home in Pembrokeshire, to Suffolk, where I’d once lived and had friends.
For the next two years I stayed with those friends. Although there were low moments and it was scary trying to rebuild my life in my 50s, I also found a lot of pleasure from waking in the morning and knowing I was living my life on my own terms.
In 2013, with a £20,000 loan from a friend, I bought my boat, which I now have a residential mooring for. She’s gorgeous but tiny, with a small living area-cum-kitchen and stove, bedroom and shower. Sailing has long been a passion of mine, and to live on the water is a dream come true.
There’s so much pressure to accumulate possessions as evidence of what we’ve achieved in life, but I’ve shaken that off and now live very simply. My son, music and books are the most important things to me now.
I rent a studio where I work from, and travel as much as possible. Last year I joined a sailing trip from the Galápagos Islands to the Falklands, and I’ve cruised around Latin America, working as an art tutor on the ship to pay for my passage.
People have been very surprised by my lifestyle and carefree outlook at my age. The life-changing decision I’ve made means I’m not your ‘typical’ 60-something. I’ve also been told by married women that they envy my freedom and life without boundaries.
I’m proof it’s never too late to start over if you’re unhappy and craving more. I threw my life up in the air in a very dramatic way, but I have no regrets. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
Craving a new challenge?
Here’s psychologist Lisa Lloyd’s advice…
- Make a considered decision, not a knee-jerk one. Take time to reflect on what you want from life and how you can achieve that in the most positive way.
- Seek counsel. Talk over your plans with trusted friends and family.
- Make a list of the pros and cons of what you’re contemplating. Do the positives outweigh potential negatives?
- Have courage in your decision. While it’s important to confide in others, what’s right for you may not be right for them. Don’t be afraid to break the mould.
- For more information see itstimeforchange.co.uk/lisa-lloyd.