Midlife crisis? What crisis? Bring it on, say the nation's New Women

Today's forty-something women are grabbing the chance to change their lives for the better.

The midlife crisis, once the preserve of forty-something men who trade in their wives for younger girlfriends and ditch family saloons for sports cars, is taking on a feminine hue as women throw off the shackles of domestic life.

But for a new generation of older women, the so-called crisis is actually a golden opportunity - and they are relishing it. Women who have reached 40 are leaving their jobs, divorcing their husbands and jetting off to see the world, according to new research.

A combination of higher incomes and more women going to university has encouraged growing numbers of women to make dramatic changes once they have reached their 40s. Academics say the changing role of women over the past 30 years is fuelling the phenomenon.

Business experts are reporting an increase in the number of women in their forties starting their own companies. Gap year companies - normally used to dealing with fresh-faced 18-year-olds - say the number of over-40s signing up for a year abroad has doubled in the past 12 months.

In the US, a new book - The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis is Transforming Today's Women - has capitalised on the trend. The author, Sue Shellenbarger, experienced her own midlife crisis after she got divorced. A similar book over here, Stop Dreaming, Start Living, has also been published, which advises women on how to change their life.

Gladeana McMahon, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychology, said the midlife crisis should be seen as an opportunity. "There is a negative aspect attached to the word 'crisis'," she said. "It sounds as if you are on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but it should be a time for reflection.

"It's an opportunity for people to recognise that there is something they've always wanted to do and this might be their last chance. Particularly for women who may have brought up a family," she said.

'I had to get out. There's much more to life than working in England'

Suzi Harby, 43, was an interior designer in London. At the age of 40 she decided to spend two-and-a- half years travelling around the world on a motorbike.

"I just decided I needed to get out and travel - I had to go away. I had been on holiday to Africa and just thought there is so much of the world to explore I had to go. I was doing well at my job and lots of friends said 'why are you doing this?' But there is more to life than just working in England.

"Being 40, I did not want to do backpacking. At the time, I couldn't even ride a bike. I was really bad to begin with, but I got better. Being on bikes was fantastic. You are exposed to the people around you and much more approachable. I absolutely loved it."

During the two-and-a-half year journey, she travelled through Europe, across Africa, into the Himalayas and Burma as well as south-east Asia, Australia and the United States.

"It was very strange coming back to a comfy bed and all your belongings. It has made me much more tolerant. I have a lot more time for people. People in London are so intolerant - it is all rush, rush, rush.

"By the time you get to your 40s, you think 'what do I really want in life?' If I hadn't gone then I might not have ever done it. But we made it all the way round. I did it."

'I got to 40, and I couldn't carry on'

Dawn Robertson, 47, was married with two children and had a comfortable job at a further education college. Then she realised she was gay and everything changed.

"I suspected there was something a bit wrong. I got to 40 and thought I could not carry on doing this, living this lie. I went on a trip to Amsterdam with my students and spent a lot of time on my own looking around the galleries. I came back and decided I wanted to change my life. I told my husband I no longer wanted to be married. Shortly afterwards I met my partner, Louise.

"The hardest thing was telling my kids. They were 11 and 13 at the time. It was not something I wanted to put them through but I could not carry on living like that.

"The next stage was to walk out of my job. I wanted to do something more worthwhile. I set up this business called Media Divas - we run arts workshops in the community for deprived kids. I wanted to get people who wouldn't normally think of doing art to try it.

"My children are now 18 and 20. They are fine with it. Emma, my youngest, said 'you're my mum, it doesn't matter what you do'."

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