USA Today, November 2011
Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a four-part series on Passages to Well-Being, an exploration of what contributes to high well-being in women ages 45 to 55, the largest demographic in America today.
Why, then, did we choose Mary Claire for this series on “the happiest woman” at midlife?
Here’s the catch: To reach the well-being ideal for a woman in midlife â€” 45 to 55 â€” you need to have launched your last child by the time you reach age 50. And Mary Claire is on track for that.
Timing may not be everything, but it’s vitally important for women to know that the intersection between your stage in life and the age of your children will have a profound effect on your happiness.
The greatest impact on a woman’s well-being at age 50 is to be free of caregiving responsibilities for children in the home and to have healthy parents who don’t need care. That means, ideally, having your last child between the ages of 27 and 36. It also helps to do everything you can to support your parents’ healthy behaviors.
Out of the 250,000 women between ages 45 and 64 polled by Gallup-Healthways, 56,000 are family caregivers. Fully half of the caregivers are either struggling or suffering and register lower well-being on almost every measure.
Four or more kids is too many to support well-being, except in unique cases (the Angelina Jolie factor). Women who have no children experience a dip in well-being from their 30s to mid-40s as their fertility dwindles and ends.
A prime reason Mary Claire feels so optimistic about her life at 50 is that she looks forward to a Second Adulthood. She and her husband, Chris, were deliberate about having their only child when Mary Claire was 33 and both their careers were secure. Both parents tossed balls with their son, Christopher, from the moment he could stand. Now that he’s 17 and 6-foot-4, he’s about to graduate from public school and has his pick of a half-dozen top colleges that want him for their volleyball teams. His parents are already free to take beach walks several nights a week they and look forward to taking up ballroom dancing when he goes to college.
This scenario should prompt us to think again about delayed childbearing. How wise is it to ignore nature and turn our bodies into test tubes that rely on fertility drugs to have children whenever a woman chooses? Big pharma and hospital fertility clinics are only too happy to promote the late-baby craze. But is it in the best interests of the long-term health and well-being of women?
Another important way to expand your well-being in midlife is to expand your social relationships. Friends from earlier in life may grow apart or move away. Moms you saw regularly when your kids were in school are no longer in your daily orbit. And if you have caregiving responsibilities for aging parents or a spouse, you can easily become isolated. Healthways analysis shows that low levels of social relationships is as harmful to well-being as smoking, no exercise and obesity. Each hour of social time â€” up to about six hours â€” improves the odds of having a good day. And having a best friend at the office energizes you to be seven times more involved in your work.
But for women in midlife, nothing beats good girlfriends â€” a core group of at least four, and up to a dozen who would offer to help if you asked for it. Mary Claire Orenic counts on her next door neighbor to walk and vent with on weekends. In addition to her core four who live locally, she tries to keep up with friends from previous life stages who reside around the country.
That’s all you need to know. Go out and get a (happier) life!