With the passing of Jean Stapleton this past week, best known for her role as “Edith Bunker,” comes the awareness that we actually have “Come a long way, baby!”
Edith represented the old-fashioned wife and mother, the caring, loving but powerless and passive traditional American housewife. This is not what I see around me today!
I see women earning more college degrees than ever, and more than men. I see women who have advanced far past “home economics” and taken over ownership of their own finances, becoming the primary breadwinners in American families like never before.
Over 40% of American families now have a woman as their primary breadwinner.
As a historian and psychologist, I believe it is important that we appreciate exactly how far we have come, and for this, historical perspective is essential. Did you know that we are the most fortunate people in human history? And yet it sometimes seems like all we do is complain.
How did we ever get so lucky? We have so many more choices than our mothers and grandmothers did! For example, we have access to excellent health care and mental health assistance, topnotch education, endless work options, reproductive freedom and important new options like divorce and the freedom to choose to remain childless, options that most of the world’s women simply don’t have.
Advances in birth control have had the greatest impact on our lives. Not only did our mothers have fewer birth control options, they were also so much more limited in their access to self-esteem, education, career options, divorce and essential assistance to make menopause more comfortable.
We were raised to go after what we wanted instead of standing passively by. No more “stand by your man,” instead we have “become the men we wanted to marry.” Sometimes I think we do not appreciate the quantum leap in rights and responsibilities we have inherited in just one generation.
It took a major research project for me to fully appreciate the advances we have experienced just in our lifetime. I have been studying the emergence of the phenomena of midlife, and how it has changed our world and impacted our mental health.
First of all I was surprised to find how much we all share emotionally as baby boomers. Reading studies of boomer psychology showed me how growing up in the same age cohort affected our view of the world and our lives within it. Inventions like the atomic bomb, television and the transistor radio changed everything, but being born into America’s largest generation also limited our options because of intense job competition.
Then I read about how psychologists in previous generations view life stages and learned about the uniqueness of our middle years, how the idea of midlife is evolving, and what we have learned thus far about making the most of this brand new stage in adult psychological development.
I discovered exactly how fortunate we are, simply because we now live decades longer than our ancestors.
We have received the gift of “midlife,” a time when we are free to re-consider all of our options, with time still left to re-imagine our lives exactly as we want them to be. We have time to change our health, our personal life, the way we relate to others, and our careers, and then go on and live differently.
This is truly a quantum leap in human personal development, not to be ignored or missed!