There was a time, not that long ago, when women between, say, 40 and 60 years of age, were facing a whole new world — the one no longer centered on helping their kids thrive.

In our brave new world, many women of this demographic are approaching maturity in their careers…perhaps alongside the transition from working mom to empty nester, perhaps not.

Regardless of the scenario, mid-life identity “crises” for women are real, challenging and — quite likely — happening in a home near you.

As one in the ranks of those women (who happens to commiserate, mentor and consult with women seeking an identity refresh) I’m asking you to try on someone else’s mind and body for about 5 minutes…possibly, your mom’s.

Welcome to the adventure of waking up at 40- or 50-something and finding yourself in a hall of trick mirrors trying to capture a reflection of yourself that fits.

Here are ten of the many reasons that your mom (or auntie, or grandma, or middle-aged friend) might be changing in ways that seem unexpected to you:

1. Menopause/perimenopause/“change of life” is blowing through.

We might as well start with the fact that women’s bodies undergo significant hormonal and developmental changes that can range from mildly disrupting to full-on traumatic. Essentially, reproductivity is bowing out, signalling an era of gradual decline. As depressing as that sounds, it’s natural…like leaves falling off the trees in autumn. And cold setting in. And an eventual end looming. This time, Spring won’t come again…at least not in this life.

So, when the mid-aged lady in your life seems like something is bothering her, it is. The range of “symptoms” of approaching/occurring menopause varies widely among women. The physical transition to no longer having menstrual cycles can take months or up to 4 years.

The emotional transition is not quite as tidily predictable.

2. The mirror is not nearly as tactful.

Over time, our incredible body machines begin to show wear and tear. The moving parts, lacking lubrication, begin to grind. Materials that were once taut or supple relax and take the shape of years of repeated activity and relentless gravity. Starts are slower, even when the will to rev is still there. Sometimes parts of the engine simply break down.

Maturing women are confronting images of themselves that frequently do not match the state of their inner being. Although emotional resilience, wisdom and self-acceptance are ideals, I have yet to meet a middle-aged woman who doesn’t occasionally mourn the loss of smooth skin, naturally colourful hair, vigorous metabolism, wondrous flexibility, or seemingly endless energy.

Current culture, at least in the Western world, still worships youth and goddess-like beauty. Standing in front of the mirror with scores of years of living and giving evident in new dimensions and configurations can be a real trial of worth, especially for a woman who has not changed one iota in how she wishes to be attractive, respected and lovable.

3. Suddenly, you’re connected to people who are changing, too.

You’re waking up to an old man beside you. When did that happen? He’s looking differently, feeling differently, and behaving differently than when you were first a couple. The change isn’t necessarily bad — it’s just so much change.

Your kids are all growing up and away. They need you less than before, and perhaps — for many things where you once were the go-to expert — not at all.

Your longtime friends are beginning to go through scary ordeals: breast cancer, ovarian cancer, crazy-unexpected divorces, mid-life crises of their own that either make little sense or are strangely exhilarating. And you wonder if you’re next.

4. The things that have been placed on hold morph into options.

Whether in motherhood or workplace careers, there are things women have put aside or on the shelf in order to focus and make their contributions.

Travel, relationships, self-care, time for hobbies, causes, reflection, experiments in social life, health or personal image, purchases, home environment, the kind of car she drives, spirituality, fashion, ideas — with middle maturity come opportunities that can add so much to a decades-old menu of obligations and routines needed to perform one’s roles, be self-reliant, and to simply move forward.

Some of these opportunities add spice.

Some add meaning.

Some add stability or security.

Your mom or aunt or friend may not be acting out of character by serendipitously (to you) booking off a women’s retreat in Tuscany; she may actually be finally able to give her all to playing the role of her whole self.

Quite likely, the option is just becoming fully available.

5. When some things seem to be ending, we look for a new start.

Looming retirement from a job may actually be permission to explore new occupations.

Empty places at the table can mean a smorgasbord of other options for company.

The change from provider or pleaser or practical person to self-directing individual opens doors that previously seemed meant for others.

Honestly, when you’re feeling older, there is nothing quite as refreshing as something newer.

6. “Used to be cool” is the new cool.

When your mid-aged lady was young — say, 20 — she was as hip as you are now. She listened to current music, she wore what was considered the latest style, she hung out with people who pleased her sense of fun and adventure just like you do.

She consciously paid attention to the kaleidoscope of culture around her and took in what she thought then would fit her best or make her the happiest.

Almost everything that was once cool has cycled around and around to cool again. You may not even know that long straight hair, beards, European-style coffees, skinny jeans, midriff-baring tops, Vans, eco-awareness, vegetarianism, gender role revolution, humanitarian travel, street language showing up mainstream, and unplugged music have all already had their day.

When your mom appears at your cousin’s wedding reception in strappy four-inch heels and a leather dress, she’s not necessarily trying to be you (or younger), she may actually be revisiting the cool she’s already been.

Which might mean she always was. And you just didn’t know.

7. Time, time, time

As a mature friend recently told me, “You get to a certain age when you realize there’s way more time to look back on than to look forward to.”

Mid-years women may just now be having enough unencumbered time to actively, thoughtfully, and personally consider the passing of time.

When moms cry at weddings, the tears could mean a lot of things, including that there is a kind of loss at seeing you grow up and move on — loss for us of your childhood and of us losing time.

Weirdly to her, your mom is now getting announcements of friends’ and relatives’ passing on possibly a monthly basis. Sitting in memorial services for the deceased, especially with some regularity, can make one’s own mortality a stark reality.

Moms, aunts, and middle-aged friends who seem to suddenly shift sails and head off in new directions may be racing against time. There is so much they have wanted out of life and only so much life left.

8. Maturity makes a person…well…mature.

When we were all once fourteen and combed our hair in that gosh-awful style for weeks on end, then tried something entirely new, then ended up with the exact same do as our best friend, we were experimenting to find what worked best. And, we were kind of immature at it, right? There’s nothing to regret — just that there were some awkward moments along the way to who we are now, all grown-up and confident-like.

Decades of that kind of quest eventually win a person awareness and a measure of wisdom. (Let’s try this for a definition of “wisdom:” truth applied.)

If your mom chooses to wear muumuus or sweats or yoga gear around the house all day, it might just be because she’s figured out that comfort is queen. This is wisdom at work.

If your mom switches to all-natural toothpaste, deodorant, and FOOD, it really could just be wisdom setting in: the unnecessary chemicals are life-zappers for her. Plus, she bought the pizza pops for you, and you’re no longer the picky eater who stressed her out on a 3 times-a-day basis.

If your mom listens to Enya, attends meditation class, stares off into space a lot, or seems quieter than usual, it really could be that she is finding and living her peace.

If your mom decides to go dancing with friends on Fridays and isn’t home till late, it might also be her wisdom saying to dance while she can and not care who is watching.

Mid-life crisis is not only a departure from what one has known (or was known to be), it can simply be a settling into what one actually, really knows for sure now.

9. This is how she handles life right now.

Change has this way of shaking and stirring to create something new.

In the middle of the shake-up, it’s hard to tell what the end product will taste or look like…or even whether we’ll like the result.

Rather than languish or check out during the physical and emotional upheavals going on at mid-life, your mom or aunt or friend might simply be keeping herself moving and trying to manage the world spinning around her.

Remember how you would spin in circles till the world was dizzy? And how, if you spun in the other direction, you wouldn’t throw up?

Well, your maturing lady might be coping against the spin by taking what seems like an opposing turn around, just to stay upright.

Which is why she may be looking for tasty options of how to be: hipster, for example. Or, why she starts listening to your music…really listening…and finds out she likes hip-hop’s driving beat. Or how she starts to wander around Sephora, watching what the young ones do. Or signs up for kick-boxing.

It could simply be an effort to counter the sometimes sickening spin of becoming old(er).

10. The logic of the heart rules…always.

I don’t care how long and hard you’ve studied critical reasoning, there is a kind of logic of the heart that governs our lives.

Regardless of what action or position we take related to any decision or issue, even if the outward manifestation is perfectly logical and reasonable, our inner beliefs, desires, hopes, and loves reign.

Sometimes, we are very successful at matching our smart thinking to our behaviour and vice versa. This is cognitive assonance, the sweet spot where our layers are integrated and we feel confidence and peace.

But, there are plenty of occasions when we take the direct, accepted route and still long for the scenic one…or wonder what’s so scenic about the scenic one.

Even with her accumulated wisdom, life experience, degree from the school of hard knocks, or common sense, your mother (aunt, friend, grandma) will want to follow her heart.

At mid-life, the stakes related to actual, profound heart happiness seem particularly high. Time appears to be speeding up. Roles are evolving. Options are either proliferating or narrowing, depending.

But never before has this woman needed to know happiness like she needs to know it now. The rest of her days, her life’s meaning, her own sanity, and the outcome of decades of giving, creating, sacrificing, aspiring, and doing depend on it.

That’s where supportive people around her can make a world of difference.

5 Ways to Be Cool About All of This

1. Stay steady. Be there. Tame your surprized eyebrows. While your mid-life lady rides her storms, there is nothing like knowing an anchor is on board.

2. Speak love, speak truth, or speak less. Sometimes women at mid-life take risks that scare us — relationships we never would have expected, adventures that involve cliffs, gorges, and summits, ignoring medical advice, substance excesses, long breaks from established healthy routines. Go ahead and speak your concern, but do it with love…and, if you can’t manage that, do no harm with your words.

3. Ask thoughtful questions, then listen. There is nothing like laying out turmoil into a safe place, seeing it for what it might actually be, and having the chance to talk it through. Ignoring it is trouble.

4. Be pleased. Be happy for your mom that she is in a refining mode. So much of what she has done to this point in her life was for others and for big picture causes. While she strengthens the details of her identity, be a cheerleader…even if it just means watching while smiling, with a few honest hugs thrown in.

5. Learn. Like with everything she’s done so far, there is the conscious and deep-seated desire to be of worth to the people she loves, to live with a kind of grace that blesses everyone who depends on her. Even if your mom says, feels, or does things you consider uncharacteristic, she will come through and the process will be instructive. It may even be your path someday. Walk it with her.

Call to Action

You know it: love her. Be kind. Be patient.
See her beauty. Speak your love.

Then speak it again.

Thanks for reading,

Heather, 55. Photo by Aaron, 14.

Originally published at


  • Heather Burton

    educator, writer, whole foodie, coach, wistful idealist. Keeping it real {to make it better}.

    My life is pretty glorious and messy: nine awesome kids, working mom (teacher), writer, struggling member of the 5 am Club, believer. I'm thinking "life awkwardness empathy" should probably be my unique value proposition -- if it weren't so long and awkward. Did I mention my messiness loves company?