Growing in Wisdom

Exploring New Paths:
Emotional and spiritual growth for women at midlife

Making meaning

Exploring New PathsMidlife offers challenges and choices, one of the most important being the way we choose to tell our stories. The facts of our lives only represent part of the story; the rest is what patterns we choose to make with them. Undoubtedly it helps to have other people around us who share our views about what they mean, but finally, we make the decisions ourselves. We can even seek out others who will support us in the meanings we choose, so that if we find our faith wavering, others will help us to recover it.

Women’s scripts have traditionally focussed around finding a partner and bringing up a family, and these personal stories may tail off in midlife, when such tasks often become less pressing. Many women are increasingly committed to the public world of employment and social improvement, but here, too, midlife may bring realisation that the current work no longer provides challenge or fulfilment. In either situation, shaping a new story in midlife may not be straightforward. Midlife can be seen as the beginning of the end, the time when all paths turn downwards. It can also be seen as a time of transition, a chance to look again at the shape of our lives and consider alternatives, an opportunity to revisit neglected themes and consider new variations on them – a chance to explore new paths, to make new meanings. The choices we make at this stage can affect us profoundly, not only mentally but also physically. Aaron Antonovsky, developing a theory of how we stay healthy (rather than how we get sick), treated meaningfulness as one of the three major components of his ‘sense of coherence’, very important in the maintenance of health:

‘meaningfulness … refers to the extent to which one feels that life makes sense emotionally, that at least some of the problems and demands posed by living are worth investing energy in, are worthy of commitment and engagement, are challenges that are “welcome” rather than burdens that one would much rather do without.’1

Major transitions demand of us that we should reassess what gives meaning to our lives, and how we make sense of it emotionally. For women, midlife includes the experience of menopause, a physical marker for transition, and one which may generate changes in its own right. During the child-bearing years, hormonal processes encourage women to nurture others. At menopause, the hormonal programming changes, producing a pressure to look again at the familiar patterns of one’s life and see whether they need changing in their turn.2  Not all women will feel able to take this opportunity, but it is not restricted to the affluent and the well-educated. With more support, more women could use ‘The Change’ as an opportunity to make real changes themselves, both in what they do and in what meanings they make. By being able to choose how and when to nurture others, and how and when to nurture themselves, they are likely to enhance their own health, and, perhaps paradoxically, become more valuable members of their communities – wise women.

This book has three main parts. The first, Accepting transformation, considers the losses and gains at menopause. The second, Living with transition, looks at ways of re-making identity and meaning in these new circumstances. The third, Seeking guidance, recognises that the making of meaning is essentially a spiritual enterprise, and takes a critical look at some of the major religious traditions to see what support they can offer menopausal women in negotiating this transition. The short concluding section, The Beginning of Wisdom, sets out suggestions for practice which will support women in finding a new balance between their own needs and those of others.

  1. Antonovsky, Aaron (1987) Unravelling the Mysteries of Health: how people manage stress and stay well, Jossey Bass,
    San Francisco p18
  2. Northrup, Christiane (2001) The Wisdom of Menopause, Piatkus, London

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