Recently I came face to face with an overwhelming question, one that hundreds of thousands of other women are facing (or soon will): When did your perspective change from a self-focused one to one in which other people came first – children, spouses, significant others?

For many of us, it was the birth of the first child, or the day of the wedding; but for many others, the change was gradual – so gradual it would be impossible to put a date on it. Similarly, it is very often difficult to pinpoint when that perspective shifts back to a more egocentric one – or should.

In today’s world, the boundaries are blurry. Once, in a more traditional era, the change was marked by the departure of the eldest child from the household, bound for college or marriage, or the death or departure of a spouse. Now, children may not leave home at the exact moment of college age or chronological adulthood; and, once the kids are gone, the distaff half of a married couple may find it necessary to develop a new perspective, with or without the emotional support of her partner. More so than ever, too, a woman may opt for a single or alternative lifestyle not dominated by heterosexual and/or marital considerations.

For me, the process of shifting paradigms was extremely protracted. About four years ago, I completed the transition from an urban soccer-mom lifestyle to a more independent space in a little country community south of Atlanta, where I have deep familial ties. But I had been in need of repurposing my life for at least ten years.

I had tried for three years to sell my Druid Hills cottage, but it sat on the market for six months without a single acceptable offer. Until I had that mortgage off my back, my mobility was limited. Owning a house, having pets, taking care of a yard, shopping and cooking family-style, are parts of a lifestyle package – one that is appropriate for a woman bringing up children, with or without a partner – but may or may not be the best course for someone whose children are grown and gone from the home.

Many people with adult children, men and women alike, choose to stay in the house their children grew up in. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s working for them. Having a place for the kids to come back to, and bring their own children to, can be a good thing as long as the price isn’t too high for you personally. If it is, find another way to cope with entertaining the extended family on traditional holidays and other family occasions. Remember, it doesn’t take a mortgage to make a home.

Why 40?

So why should you stop and think about changing your perspective after you reach the age of 40? It’s not a magic number. But, biologically, you are a different woman beginning sometime around this age, as you move toward perimenopause. A woman’s metabolism and her nutritional needs are much different at 50 than they were at twenty-something and thirty-something.

Physical changes generally involve other kinds of transformation as well. Wrinkles, gray hair, the ravages of gravity . . . these will sooner or later take their toll no matter how hard you exercise, how often you have your roots done, how stringently you diet, how carefully you apply cosmetics. Even more extreme solutions such as regular infusions of Botox or plastic surgery don’t stave off the Age Genie forever.

Twyla Tharp, 67 for Gap (2007).

Relax. You can’t hold on to your youth, but you can be beautiful at every age. The process begins within. Acceptance, and a kind of inner peace, reduce stress and promote a new kind of beauty — that of serenity.

Five Tips for Shifting into High Gear

With fewer of the distractions that stem from being a parent, you have more time and energy to devote to self-actualization (and with a little luck and preplanning, more money). Like a fine automobile that’s been road-tested and broken in, you are ready to shift into a new, more fulfilling means of moving forward. Here are some guidelines as you begin:

  1. Be ready – think ahead. Don’t let your changed circumstances sneak up on you. Start thinking about the future well before it happens – that’s the time to make the plans that will propel you forward into your new mode of living. On the other hand, don’t beat yourself up if you are getting a late start. Remember the old saw, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”? Well, it’s never too late to shift your paradigm, either.
  2. Shed the dead skin. When the time comes, ask yourself, “What am I doing right now that isn’t working for me?” As obvious as this may sound, it’s a question that has yielded some surprising answers. The answers are as varied as the individuals. Staying in the same home you raised a family in may be just the right plan for you. . . .or striking out into condo or apartment life may suit you better. Your choices of residence, employment and social activities should be based on your right-now financial, physical and emotional condition, not on past assumptions and habits. Zillions of years ago, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in Canterbury Tales, “The past is prologue.” Still true.
  3. Move with “deliberate speed.” Deliberate speed was the pace at which the U.S. Supreme Court mandated the desegregation of American public schools in the twentieth century. It is also a good pace for changing your lifestyle after 50. What does it mean? Be decisive but slow to burn bridges. It’s a tricky balance to strike. Throwing out old photographs? Think twice about that. But — do get rid of those girlish clothes in your closet, the ones that look all wrong on you now and haven’t been worn in the new millennium. Consign ‘em or donate ‘em, but stop giving them a free place to hang! Once you can recognize that the old days are past, you’ll have (cf. Bob Seger) “so much more to think about – deadlines and commitments, what to leave in, what to leave out.” No one is recommending that you ditch your past. Hold onto it, but in perspective: tweak it, shape it and put it in a safe place for viewing and enjoying on special occasions.
  4. Embrace your new passions. Rediscovering yourself as the center of your own personal universe doesn’t mean you have to be selfish. Give yourself the gift, perhaps impossible in an earlier phase of your life, of throwing yourself wholly into your career, or community service, or a hobby that’s been simmering on the rear burner for eons. It is easier to move beyond the past when there are new, exciting elements to embrace in the unfolding present.
  5. Learn to love your changes. These shifts can be emotionally volatile. It may take time for you to accustom yourself to your new life, to  the new person you are becoming. Don’t be discouraged by that: Own your mood swings and ride them out. It’s natural to miss what was once the norm, and denying it will only make it fester. Allowing yourself to experience a reasonable period of grieving for the past will eventually empower you to move on.

Help the process along by being very, very good to yourself. Give yourself the gift of good health: as much sleep as you want; lighter, more nutritious meals; long walks with a friend, two-legged or four-legged; immersion in a good book on a rainy evening. Self-nurturing once came naturally, but that instinct has been, for many mothers and wives, submerged for decades. It’s a new day and you now have more resources to devote to your own well-being, so take advantage of them. The new you is like the old you, only different and better – fall in love with her! Nurture and care for her as if she was your beloved child, because, guess what? She is.

Join the conversation

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  • Darlene Wilson December 1, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Thank you for your article. Life after 40 can be very lonely at times…and scary.

  • Anna Desmonde September 17, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    I’m 53. Tired. Of my life, my job, and me. Considering changes, and a bit afraid but know they are necessary to invigorate me. Good thing about age you decide to do what you want and the heck with what others say. Gradually, gradually, I am gathering the bravery to change what I do not like, what does not serve me, any longer. No kids, no husband, but I don’t think that’s what’s missing. Just aspects of life which make me happier. It’s true that you change as you get older. I see my body change too. Important to keep healthy, and to love. Looking at fantastic older women helps too – Linda Fargo, Beatrix Ost, Cindy Gallop. Fantastic ladies!

  • Cynthia Rodriguez December 8, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    I am now 42. I just become single a year ago. My daughters…now 24 and 20 left the house. I found myself coming home to confusion about where my life went! My job since so so young was to take care of everybody. Now all of a sudden I had too much time without that job. So confusing. I know I should be happy to now finally have time for me; But, I don’t no how to handle it. Six monhs ago, I met the most wonderful man. I am soo happy with him. But, I still feel lost. He is my 4th relationship. I feel it could be my last. I loves my craziness at this stage. But, I am afraid to get to know me!!! Thank you for your article. It help me put some kind of perspective in my life right now! I am learning to love myself and stop being confused about these changes…and to be wise and use them to make me the best woman I know I am!

    Best wishes….Cynthia.

  • Tia Hintn October 17, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Wonderful article. Thank you! I am 42. An empty nester (my one and only daughter is a sophomore in college). Recently started a new job in old profession…and hoping this will be my last. So looking forward to embracing new passions and enjoying Life Part II.


  • Marce May 13, 2010 at 12:10 am

    I liked you comment…
    I just turned 43, divorced for 17 years, a teenage daugther and a steady job for the past 10 years. Something is changing in me and I dont quite understand what is it.. I think it has to do with age but the point is I dont like it. I´m scared and sometimes feel depressed, I look all over for answers and bumped into your comment which has made me think a bit more about this 40 plus status.

    Thanks for the comfort “Learn to love your changes” it was inlightning.
    Is there any book you may recommend for me?