Spirituality and Women's Midlife Development. (Articles)

By Howell, Lynn Calhoun | Adultspan Journal, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Spirituality and Women's Midlife Development. (Articles)


Howell, Lynn Calhoun, Adultspan Journal


This qualitative study describes midlife spiritual practices of 2 groups of minority women, 1 lesbian/bisexual group and 1 Black group. Each group attended 3 focus group meetings in New York City. Grounded theory was used for data analysis. Implications for counselors working with middle-aged women were discussed.

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Existing literature on women's midlife development reflects substantial shifts in psychosocial paradigms. Three shifts are explored in this introduction: increased human life expectancy, the emergence of gender-specific research, and the focus on spirituality. In the context of the new paradigms for understanding women's midlife development, I then describe my prior research (Howell, 2001; Howell & Beth, 2002), which was used as a baseline for the current research.

INCREASED LIFE EXPECTANCY OF HUMANS

A rapidly changing figure, life expectancy now exceeds 80 years. Midlife has, therefore, become the gateway to old age. As a result, various definitions of midlife exist. Mansfield, Theisen, and Boyer (1992) used parameters of 35 and 55. Lacy (1986) and Levinson (1978, 1996) defined midlife as ages 40 to 60, and Borysenko (1996) used the ages 42 to 62 to define midlife. In contrast, some researchers did not tie midlife to age at all. Rubin (1979) and England and Finch (1991), for instance, said that midlife began when women's children left home. Most recently, I (Howell, 2001) interviewed women from ages 35 to 60 and found that participants who were below the age of 40 did not identify with what was being shared by the older members of the focus groups. In addition, members of groups strongly believed that midlife starred as late as 45 or 50 for most women. They did not argue with the upper limit of 60.

As life expectancy increased, attitudes about midlife occurrences such as menopause also changed. Sheehy's (1991) seminal book called menopause the "silent passage." With a tone of dread and frustration, one section was titled, "the need to know and the fear of knowing." Another was titled "the perimenopause panic." In contrast, 10 years later Northrup (2001) reflected more positive attitudes in her book, The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional Healing During the Change. Likewise, Voda (1997) challenged the popular conceptualization of menopause as a disease requiring treatment, conceptualizing it instead as a normal transition. The paradigm of women's midlife experience has shifted from senescence (de Beauvoir, 1989; Sheehy, 1991) to one of vitality; enthusiasm, and wisdom (Borysenko, 1996; Northrup, 2001; Voda, 1997).

GENDER-SPECIFIC RESEARCH

As a result of the work of Miller (1976) and Gilligan (1982), theorists challenged the popular practice of applying classic androgynous psychological theories such as Erikson's (1978) to both men and women. Subsequently, two theorists (Borysenko, 1996; Levinson, 1996) created comprehensive developmental models for women. Other theorists (Doress & Siegal, 1987; Love, 1998; Northrup, 2001; Rubin, 1979; Sheehy, 1991; Voda, 1997) conducted research that focused on uniquely female experiences.

SPIRITUALITY

The third major shift in the psychosocial paradigm for understanding midlife involved spirituality; Jungian practitioners Brewi and Brennan (1999) described the psychological challenge of midlife as "a call back to wholeness" (p. 11). They described the classical Jungian process of exploring the shadow, or to contact and integrate the neglected aspects of the personal unconscious (p. 59). Another Jungian, Hollis (1996), described the midlife process as one of "re-imagin[ing] ourselves in order to live in the present" (p. 142). In the final chapter of their book, Brewi and Brennan discussed the importance of religion in the process of exploring the unconscious. Hollis said that, during midlife, he drew from the Bible and "the wisdom of great writers" (p. 136). …

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