Today's women can have it all -- including a midlife crisis

By Pamela Paul
Sunday, June 20, 2010

It seemed like a familiar scenario: the stay-at-home mom with two young children. The Tribeca loft, the Wall Street husband. And, after less than a decade, the divorce. Those of us who knew her, if only casually, jumped to conclusions: "Typical finance jerk . . . up and leaves his wife."

But no, it turns out, she left him. She had an affair. And she's apparently much improved, complete with a new apartment, a new lover, even a new start-up company. At once exhilarating, gutsy and faintly embarrassing, the spectacle looked just like your classic midlife crisis.

Except your classic midlife crisis has always been male terrain. The fast car and the buxom secretary were the cathartic release -- snap! -- after years of mounting marital boredom and the pressure of providing for a family; the pivot when a man shifted from wanting what the guy 10 years older had to wanting what the guy 10 years younger had. It was Billy Crystal running off to become a cowboy in "City Slickers," Jack Nicholson cheating on his pregnant wife in "Heartburn," Kevin Spacey buying a vintage Firebird and lusting after a sexy cheerleader in "American Beauty." Not necessarily forgivable, but recognizable and therefore understandable.

Switch the pronouns, and the scenario seems preposterous. Yet what's really preposterous is the idea that Gen X women don't have the same financial responsibilities, the same stresses, the same professional disappointments that dogged the men of our father's generation. We do. So why wouldn't the daily slog of work and family commitments stir in us the same desire to chuck it all in favor of something new?

Having come such a long way, we may even have more cause than men for midlife breakdowns.

After all, the gray flannel suit has been long mothballed. The men I know, no longer their families' sole earners, seem to be chugging happily toward middle age, pleased with their post-millennial mix of shared breadwinning and gung-ho fatherhood. In survey after survey, today's Baby Bjorn-wearing dads say they're much more involved with and fulfilled by their children than their fathers were.

But though Gen X men spend more time with their kids, they're still less engaged than their wives in the hard work of parenting. They may devote more hours to household duties than husbands used to, but studies show that women, even those working full time, shoulder a far greater share: Working wives still spend nearly twice as much time on child care as their working husbands, and more than 50 percent more time on chores such as cooking, cleaning, shopping and home repairs.

Now consider that this particular work-life juggling act -- with its dueling parental and professional demands, carefully calibrated multitasking and relentless pressure -- is currently in rotation among late 30-something and 40-something women. According to a new report by Princeton and the Brookings Institution, women, particularly college-educated professionals, are delaying marriage and children as never before. Having put off kids for so long, we're now up all night breastfeeding and skipping out of sales meetings to attend our umpteenth parent-teacher conference, while at the same time helping to pay down the mortgage and sock money into our kids' 529s. All this precisely at the moment we're supposed to hit the pinnacle of our careers. We're tired.

It would be helpful, then, to acknowledge that women have just as much cause for meltdown as men. The recognition that all this is enough to tip someone over the edge might help women navigate the disappointments and confusions, the uncombed hair and forgotten dental checkups, of midlife.

Where is our "Old School" or our "Hot Tub Time Machine?" When do we get to have "The Hangover?" But for the boomerama chick flicks of Nancy Meyers and "Cougar Town's" cartoonish version of female lust, women onscreen are hastened from "Pretty in Pink" to "Driving Miss Daisy," swiftly bypassing all that takes place between wedding and widowhood. (Unless you were among the 18 people who sat through last year's "Motherhood," starring Uma Thurman as a woman simultaneously over- and underwhelmed by her kiddie-encumbered lot. In which case, you may actually feel worse.)

Nor does the baby boomer precedent seem relevant to us. For women born in the postwar period, midlife was all about transformation -- a yoga-centric quest for enlightenment featuring "sister circles" and discreet cosmetic procedures. Each setback was refashioned as an essential passage by Gail Sheehy, the author of such boomer tomes as "Menopause: The Silent Passage." But these women could be "40 and fabulous" only because their children were long since out from underfoot, leaving them free to self-fulfill. Their vision of midlife womanhood seems both blindingly optimistic and wholly inadequate to the dilemmas of my generation, as we attempt to convey assured professionalism while teething-biscuit crumbs hang glueily from our lapels.

For us, something tougher and more selfish, something that cannot be buffed away by a chemical peel, is going on. We don't need to prepare for the "gift" of menopause. We are anxious, dissatisfied, insecure and, above all, desperate to stop pleasing others for a single afternoon and start doing something for ourselves.

We may even be better at this than men: We certainly wouldn't stoop to anything so tacky as muscle cars or hair plugs. I know one French mom who designated a "chambre des disputes" in her home, festooned with flowing purple fabric that her husband would never tolerate. Another friend is taking a four-day weekend in New Orleans with a college roommate, promising debauchery unencumbered by spouse or child. Whether it's an eco-spa getaway, a return to grad school or one night a week dedicated to out-of-home endeavors, each of us deserves something more than a yoga session or a new hairstyle.

Of course, this could well go in a regrettable direction, as it sometimes has for men. A consistent body of research shows that wives file for divorce more often than husbands and in large numbers say they are happier divorced than they were when married. Seven to 10 years into our marriages, I've begun to hear restless rumblings among my peers. One friend, over coffee, confided that she was dying -- dying! -- to have sex with someone other than her husband. She even suggested separate vacations as a mutual anniversary gift. After a dinner party recently, a fellow mother warily pulled out a pack of Marlboro Lights stashed in tin foil and a plastic baggie and growled, "It's either this or an affair!" Another friend propositioned her son's tutor over e-mail. That he said no -- you're married, and doesn't that still mean something? -- only deepened her crush.

One film last year, "Up in the Air," gave a glimpse of what might come. When George Clooney's character realizes with dismay that he's devoted his life to an empty job, he turns to Vera Farmiga's character for absolution. A recognizable male midlife change of heart! But instead, he runs headlong into her crisis. Turns out she's married; he was her affair. The slap in his face is resounding. "You never see a female midlife crisis, or that a woman can be so demanding and unapologetic and libertine with her sexuality," Farmiga told the Hollywood Reporter. ". . . As women, we do want it all -- as mothers, as career women -- and we always cater everybody else's needs -- our children's, our husband's, our family's. And this was a woman who was saying, 'These are my needs, these are my desires.' "

I'm certainly not recommending that women become chain-smoking, cheating narcissists or that we break George Clooney's heart. But I do believe it's time to get a little selfish. Approaching midlife, we've earned it.

Pamela Paul is the author of, most recently, "Parenting, Inc."

From the archives: Pamela Paul's most recent Outlook essay was "The cost of growing up on porn" (March 7).

© 2010 The Washington Post Company