By Susan Heinrich
Perhaps you’ve found your way to Stand Up Speak Up because you wanted to learn about their mission to translate kindness into positive social change, or you were enticed by their gorgeous artisanal products. But Stand Up Speak Up represents something else as well: the magic that happens when a midlife woman combines her passion and experience to bring something new to life.
Women are wonderful caregivers but that virtue can also hinder us. During the childbearing years, our biology wires us to be caretakers; we want to keep everyone happy, to smooth things over, to support those who need us however we can. But all that giving can leave little room for our own desires and dreams. As I approached 50, I began to feel that something was off, like my life didn’t quite fit – little whispers were telling me something needed to change. But life is noisy, so I ignored the whispers. They got louder and brought some pretty unpleasant emotions along: feelings of loss, sadness, and anger. It was tempting to chalk it up to changing hormones, but I suspected it was more than that.
We could call it a midlife crisis, but it turned out to be the opposite – it was an opportunity. I began reading about midlife and the possible reasons for my emotional upheaval. Dr. Christiane Northrup specializes in research on women and midlife health. She explains in her book The Wisdom of Menopause, that hormonal changes at midlife are an important catalyst to changing our priorities – to shift our focus from caring for others back to ourselves. She writes, “the need and desire to assume more dominion over our lives becomes a burning issue at menopause.”
Burning issue, check. I realized that in the nurturing of my family I had set aside a part of myself. And I needed to reclaim who I was, separate from my marriage and kids. In psych circles it’s called differentiation. It’s what teens do – separate from parents so they can prepare to become independent and make their way in the world. I began exploring what differentiation might look like for me. And my husband Sean, who was very supportive during this time, joked that it was like having another teen in the house. It’s fair to say I spent a lot of time with my noise-cancelling headphones on.
As I began having conversations with other women about their midlife experiences, I realized many felt as I did. They expressed a desire to reclaim parts of themselves, or to feel more free, from societal and family expectations. That desire for self-actualization and freedom can be tricky when we’ve spent years doing things a certain way and the people in our lives have come to expect it. We have to be willing to rock the boat and be open to seeing ourselves differently.
I am fascinated by the number of women who become artists or creative entrepreneurs at midlife, as they seek self-expression. Which brings me back to Stand Up Speak Up and its co-founder, Karla Tolstoy. She combined her unique talents, her business savvy, imagination and experience with her desire to make the world better. I also recently met a woman who created a business with products that teach people to live intentionally and find moments of joy in their day. Another friend of mine is about to publish her first novel as she nears 50, while another bought a yoga studio. She has always wanted to be a part of a yoga community, but didn’t have time. For all of these women, their midlife projects aren’t simply “work”, they are an expression of who they are.
It wasn’t clear to me at first how I would blend my passions and skills in a way that was uniquely my own. But slowly a flicker of an idea grew. I’m a writer, so I began sharing stories of my midlife experiences and how travel without my husband and kids reminded me who I was. I created a website for women, with the goal to reframe midlife as an opportunity. Having to learn new skills at midlife has been empowering, and the more I use my voice, the happier I feel. I am still on a midlife journey, figuring out how and what to contribute, and I struggle with setbacks and self-doubt. But I am inspired by the other midlife voices speaking up all around me – voices like Karla’s when she speaks up against injustice.
Karla’s son Zach, the co-founder of Stand Up Speak Up, writes about her unique contribution on the Founders page. “The world needs more people like my mom – people who lead with giving and kindness and genuinely want to become better every passing day.”
We are all different, but I believe we share the desire to use our voice in a way that is unique to us. And it’s what makes midlife so exciting. When each of us speaks up in a way that only we can, we create a dazzling chorus of empowered women creating endless possibilities.
Susan Heinrich writes about midlife and travel at midlifeglobetrotter.com
Her other midlife dream is to foster gender equality in developing countries, so that girls around the world have access to education, and the power to speak up and determine the course of their own lives.