Following the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines
Midlife, or the age between 35 and 55, can be a complicated time for a woman. As a female enters these years, sometimes it can be difficult to navigate the waters because the things that once made her happy are no longer available, or as satisfying. This can be confusing. Other things that she never enjoyed before may be cast in a new light, and be even more enjoyable than the female ever thought possible. There may be complicated feelings about life satisfaction, which can lead to new discoveries or depression. The female may attempt sexual exploration as her body continues to mature, finding it more or less satisfying than she did in her earlier years. Issues with child bearing and adoption may arise. Menopause also begins to emerge during these years, bring with it a plethora of issues that each woman must take as each one comes. Thought it appears that there are many obstacles during a woman’s midlife, there can also be many triumphs. It is a confusing and exciting time for a woman to rediscover herself.
As a woman matures throughout her life, she is continuously learning what she wants out of life. The midlife stage for females can be surprisingly difficult because many women entering it thinking they know who they are, what they want, and that is that. They do not believe that any more changes between college, or having children, and retirement are going to happen. This is usually not the case, as most women find out. According to Kathryn L. Jackson and her associates, authors of the article, “Body Image Satisfaction and Depression in Midlife Women: the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation,” many women initially enter this period of their life depressed and unhappy. They may be dissatisfied with a number of things about their lives: their partner, their children or lackthereof, their bodies, their profession, or their education (2014). This becomes a time of reflection for the woman where she begins to realize that she is still quite young and there are many years to go before her retirement, when she will live out what she considered to be the next chapter of her life. Eventually, according to Jackson, most women adjust and begin to realize that there is an in-between stage, a transition, which occurs before menopause and retirement age. This is when most women realize what they are looking for.
What women in this age group are looking for is different, depending on whom you ask and where they fall on the age spectrum. Many younger women, as cited in an article by Alonso Fernandez and his associates, published in The European Menopause Journal, still wish to have children, marry, return to school, or increase their professional success (2012). In the early part of this transition, they may not realize that this is an option because many women have a psychological block, believing that they are too old to do any of these things. It takes time for them to remind themselves that they are only 30 or 40 something. Women in their 50’s and 60’s, according to Fernandez, tend to have different goals. They would rather nurture existing relationships with relatives and friends, take up easy hobbies, and enjoy their time in a manner that they had not enjoyed it before. Thirty-five percent of the elderly women studied by Fernandez showed interest in finding a partner and remarrying, as well (2012).
While midlife can be a time for transition, it can also be a time for depression. Satisfaction during this time in a woman’s life can sometimes be hard to find, especially if the woman has no goals or direction. One of the primary sources of depression during this time in a woman’s life is body dissatisfaction. Sometimes it can be difficult growing older, especially when everybody is constantly finding ways to stay looking so young. In Jackson’s article, published in Archives of Women’s Mental Health, over 75% of women aged 35 to 60 reported being extremely dissatisfied with their bodies. At a certain age, wrinkles appear, hair grays and thins, skin loosens, and it becomes harder to lose weight. Women are more susceptible to feeling bad about this because most advertisements are aimed at how women look, subtly making them feel badly for simply looking human and aging naturally. During midlife, women often find it difficult to accept their new bodies and it can lead to depression. There is a remedy for such depression over an aging body, which was assessed by Beth A. Prairie and her research team. In the article, “A Higher Sense of Purpose in Life is Associated with Sexual Enjoyment in Midlife Women,” Prairie and her co-authors found that women who had trusted intimate partners and healthy sex lives were more likely to rebound from the depression they felt over their bodies (2012). The team hypothesized that this could be for several reasons. For example, sexual intercourse and feelings of love and intimacy release endorphins into the bloodstream, which have a good effect on the brain and an individual’s mood. The endorphins may be responsible for women not remaining depressed over aging. Another hypothesis postulated that bonding with an intimate partner gave women satisfaction and a sense of empowerment, reminding them that they were, in fact beautiful despite their insecurity over aging. Whatever the reason, healthy sexual relationships were found to remedy feelings of depression for women in midlife from the ages of 37 to 66.
Another reason women may experience depression during midlife is loneliness. Some women enter midlife without a partner, or if they have a partner, they may feel inadequate in a sexual relationship . The finding voids the previous results that sex help women reclaim their security and happiness. Sometimes during midlife women can feel isolated by their aging. They may not seek out a partner, or even a friend, because menopause or aging itself, may make them feel alienated and misunderstood. Many women feel like these matters should be kept private; as such, they avoid opening up about them. They do not have a partner to help them or, because of their changing body, they feel as if they cannot connect intimately with a partner that they do have. They do not allow themselves to trust anybody with the changes that are happening to them. This is understandable because this time in a woman’s life can make her feel very vulnerable. Many things change about one’s sexual organs during midlife. For instance, vaginal dryness and itching becomes an issue for many women as they age. Hormonal fluctuations cause a change in vaginal lubrication, for example. Without proper lubrication, this can make sexual intercourse uncomfortable or impossible. Of course, this prevents the intimate connection that was previously proven to help women regain some satisfaction and self-esteem. Studies have found that some women, especially after midlife and menopause have begun, feel self-conscious about using lubricants, even in front of partners that they have had for years . They claim that it is uncomfortable, or it is something that their bodies should still be doing. The general feelings were very similar to those that men feel when they experience erectile dysfunction (2012). This inadequacy and loneliness can lead to depression that, until the female comes to terms with, may continue to cause feelings of doubt and sadness until old age.
A third and possibly most psychologically damaging reason, a woman might feel depressed during midlife is if she finds it difficult to become pregnant. One-third of women over the age of 35 experience difficulty becoming pregnant, while women over 40 increase the chances of birth defects by 50%, should they manage to become pregnant . In some cases, doctors recommend that women do not attempt to become pregnant, depending on their health and age. If a woman surpasses menopause, her chances to become pregnant diminish almost entirely. There is medical support to help a woman become pregnant, even after menopause, but the latter form of help is in the infant stages and does not always work. For many women in midlife, it is simply too late to have children. This can be most depressing to hear to a woman in midlife who has not had children. It is unfortunate when these circumstances occur but, luckily, there are alternatives for women in midlife who wish to be mothers, for the first time, or again.
Adoption is a safe and viable option. According to Fernandez and his associates, adoptive parents have the same amount of satisfaction with their lives as biological parents (2012). It is not the act of carrying and birthing a child, but the act of caring for and raising a child that can bring satisfaction to the woman’s life. There are ways for women in midlife to become pregnant, even if they are experiencing difficulties. One of the easiest ways to raise a child that is biologically yours is to pursue the services of a surrogate mother, which is essentially a younger woman who will allow you to embed your genetic material in her uterus, carry your baby for 9 months, and then allow you to raise it. The experience is not entirely the same, but the baby will be of your own flesh and blood. There are also methods such as In Vitro Fertilization, which is a process wherein doctors take a woman’s egg, a man’s sperm and perform the fertilization process outside of the uterus, later planting the egg back in the woman’s uterus. This process can be costly and is not guaranteed to work, which can sometimes amount to more depression than satisfaction as the woman begins to feel more inadequate with each failed attempt (2012). Women who are without a partner often initially consider themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to wanting a child during this time. Raising a child can be scary, but raising a child alone often seems insane. However, as Fernandez found, children bring happiness and stifle loneliness. Many successful women who are able to care for children on their own opt to raise a child regardless of their lack of partner. The notion may seem crazy to some but studies showed that even women who decided to raise children as a single parent felt more satisfaction with life than they did before the child was born, despite the stress of parenthood (2012).
As if there were not enough issues for women during midlife, this is typically the time when menopause occurs. There is seemingly no end to the list of problems that menopause can create for a woman. There are many symptoms to menopause, according to GC Herber-Gast, and the co-authors of “Risk Factors for Night Sweats and Hot Flushes in Midlife: Results from a Prospective Cohort Study.” Typically, the first noticeable symptom is a change in menstrual cycle. Periods may be heavier or lighter than usual, absent for months, or occur for several extra days a month (2013). It is like when a woman first begins her period, and the cycle is very erratic. Hormonal therapy can remedy the irregularity of the cycle. Another symptom is hot flushes, which many women complain about as a primarily uncomfortable symptom of menopause. Heat will envelope the upper portion or entire body. The skin may turn red, itch, or feel hot to the touch. Hot flushes even have the capacity to wake a woman from sleeping. Hot flushes are typically experienced for at least two years after the last menstrual cycle but they may occur for longer. Menopause also causes pain during intercourse and severe vaginal dryness for some women. As menopause begins, there is a decrease in sexual hormones such as progesterone and estrogen, which effects the lubrication lining the vaginal walls. Further signs of vaginal dryness include itching, burning, or stinging around the vaginal opening. The dryness can make intercourse painful. Menopause may also cause a decreased libido. This is also because of the decrease in estrogen. Menopause may also cause incontinence or frequent urination. It is frighteningly common for menopausal women to simply lose control of their bladder and even experience painful urination. Tissues in the vagina and urethra begin to lose elasticity as the surrounding muscles of the pelvis begin to weaken. This weakening leads to less control of the bladder, causing leakage which can, at times, be embarrassing. A good way to avoid incontinence is to strengthen the pelvic floor with Kegel exercises. Aside from these lovely side effects and symptoms of menopause, there are also urinary tract infections, vaginal atrophy, and irrational mood swings . Many of these issues will fade with time and the ones that do not can easily be remedied with exercises or a prescription from your physician. Hormonal therapy is available for failing libidos and hormonal fluctuations. Anti-depressants are also available for woman who struggle with chronic depression through menopause. There are also new medications that help with hot flashes, as well as the insomnia that can accompany menopause.
In sum, midlife for a woman is not an easy time. It is a tumultuous time of transition, both for the mind and the body. There is a significant change in hormones, which causes the woman to think differently. The change in hormones also causes the woman’s body to act differently. As a result, sexual desires may change and depression may increase. There are, fortunately, ways to remedy these issues. There are many things for each woman to consider for herself during midlife. First, she must realize that she is still young, vibrant, and beautiful. Many women become depressed about their aging bodies, and this should not be the case. Next, she must understand that she still has many options; she does not have to spend the next twenty years unhappy with her life or what she is doing. Retirement is many years away and the woman is still capable of love, professional success, and any other aspirations she may have. Though there may be many obstacles to overcome concerning things such as childbearing and loneliness, and many detours to take, midlife can be a time of self-discovery. During this time, a woman can learn even more about herself and become a stronger person. With the exception of menopause, which sounds irredeemable, midlife can be a time for growth and prosperity.
Fernandez-Alonso, A. M., Trabalon-Pastor, M., Vira, C., Chedraui, P., & Perez-Lopez, F. R. (2012). Life Satisfaction, Loneliness and Related Factors During Female Midlife. The European Menopause Journal, 88-92.
Herber-Gast, G.-C. M., Mishra, G. D., van der Schouw, Y. T., Brown, W. J., & Dobson, A. J. (2013). Risk factors for night sweats and hot flushes in midlife: results from a prospective cohort study. Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society, 953-959.
Jackson, K. L., Janssen, I., Appelhans, B. M., Kazlauskaite, R., Karavolos, K., Dugan, S. A., et al. (2014). Body Image Satisfaction and Depression in Midlife Women: the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation. Archives of Women's Mental Health, 14-25.
Prairie, B. A., Scheier, M. F., Matthews, K. A., Chang, C. C., & Hess, R. (2012). A higher sense of purpose in life is associated with sexual enjoyment in midlife women. Menopause, 839-844.