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'At 40 we're more likely to wear purple mascara than have a purple rinse'

Belfast author Alana Kirk asks whether women are entering a new middle age with more confidence and freedom than ever before

Is this generation of women redefining middle-age? For so many generations, women often stepped behind an invisible wall as soon as they reached middle age. Once their breeding years were done, they were desexualised and demoted to the stereotypes of fluffy slippers and nylon cardigans.

But times are changing and now we are seeing middle aged women turn what was once a crisis into an opportunity.

Imagine if you could be handed your life over again, but this time with the wisdom you have gained from experience? Well, if you are female and 40, you just have.

One hundred and fifty years ago, women's life expectancy was 40. Once children were reared, they retreated into the background to knit away their remaining days. Now, our life expectancy is 83.

Women today find themselves with an entire extra lifespan to enjoy, and for the first time we are beginning to shed the image of grey-haired, elasticated-waist-wearing has-beens. Middle-age is being redefined by a new generation of women not ready to hang up their high heels, rendering the label, and the stereotype, redundant.

Women like Suzanne Wylie, CEO of Belfast City Council; former model Alison Campbell, still managing her modelling business; Maureen Ledwith, who is actually now a grandmother but still looks amazing, and this week is running her 25th Belfast Telegraph Holiday World Show, and Brenda Morgan of British Airways, who is very much in her fabulous forties and has just been awarded an MBE for services to business.

I woke up on my 46th birthday and everything had changed. Not only was I squinting to read the vitamin pills bottle, and having to pluck rogue white hairs from my eyebrow and black hairs from my chin, but I also faced a future I hadn't expected: my husband had left; after five years of caring for my mum after a devastating stroke, she passed away, and my career had taken a back seat to raising my children.

Life events had catapulted me into a midlife crisis, but unfortunately not the kind that involved a red sports car.

Like many middle aged women, I am emerging from a self-spun chrysalis of caring for the needs of others at the expense of myself.

My marriage is over, my parent-care years have eased and, after 10 years of babies and toddlers, I have three schoolchildren. I have reached the statistical mid-point of my life but, when I look in the mirror, I don't see middle-aged. I see a woman with a whole life still ahead of her.

My midlife crisis is a midlife opportunity. And I'm not alone. All around, I see my generation of women refusing to disappear into the mists of middle age as silver hair becomes the new golden age.

A generation ago, middle aged women became invisible, resigned to the big pants years with few role models, little representation and no voice.

But as feminism has delivered unprecedented opportunities for women, middle-age is no longer being seen as the beginning of the end. For many, myself included, middle age has actually become the end of the beginning.

Claire (not her real name) is 48, recently divorced, with three sons leaving or just left home. Instead of suffering from empty nest syndrome, she is revelling in her new freedom. She says: "I feel I am reversing back and having my youth now."

Next year, she is going travelling with her 18-year-old son to South America. "I could have spent another 10 years just existing. But now I feel I'm living."

Although she is approaching 50, she sees herself as young. There is now a three-decade period from our 40s where we are not in the prime of our youth, but we are certainly not in the twilight of our life.

I ran my first marathon at the age of 44. I published my first book at the age of 45. I spent this summer, aged 46, climbing glaciers and camping on volcanoes in Iceland, having first taken my children to a music festival.

So what has changed to allow my generation to really start capitalising on those extra years in a way that hasn't happened before? Certainly better opportunities. Housework and child-rearing were almost exclusively the mandate of women. Roles are changing with shared parenting, and with women pursuing careers, our options to play a vital, vocal and positive role in society have changed, too.

We can be mummies, but we can also be people, too. While we still complain about the housework, compared to just a generation ago it is less. I still remember the clothes wringer in my grandparents' back yard in Stranmillis. Washing day was just that - a full day's work. Every week.

Amanda Keough had two children and a high powered career. She had it all and gave it all, but it seems it gave her nothing back. A bullying incident at work was a catalyst for change.

"I had lost myself. When I turned 40 I realised my life was whizzing past and I was spending most of it frazzled on the motorway.

"So I made a very conscious decision to move forward and actually engage with the second half of my life."

She left her job as a marketing director, and retrained as a Pilates instructor. "I'm 47 now and have never been fitter in my life. I've also never felt so confident in my own skin." It wasn't just her career she changed. "I had always just followed the path I thought I was supposed to take. But I wasn't actually expressing who I really was. I got a funky haircut, I wear fun clothes and I care so much less now about what other people think," she says.

Which leads to the second thing to change: society's attitude to ageing.

I grew up watching my mum and her friends resign themselves to a societal image of how they should be. The worst social faux pas was to turn up as "mutton dressed as lamb". She would actually say things like "is this too young for me?" as if it was a serious crime.

My generation of mid-aged peers are more likely to say, "does this make me look too old"? The difference between me and my mum was that she wanted to look her age, and I don't.

Smart, confident, sexy mid-aged women are now on our TV screens, from UTV's Rose Neill to cinema's Helen Mirren.

Advertisers are (finally) seeing that using young girls doesn't appeal to every market. Dolce & Gabbana has included Sophia Loren in their latest fragrance launch, and Marc Jacobs has named Winona Ryder (44) as the face of his new beauty range.

L'Oreal has recruited Susan Sarandon (69) to join its stable of mature thoroughbreds, Helen Mirren, Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda, representing women who have been ignored for far too long.

Increased divorce has also meant that the singles market is not just the domain of 20 and 30-somethings anymore. Of course, growing older does have its downside - losing our elastic skin, our eyesight and our mammary gravity.

But today there are numerous ways to counter these.

We are more likely to buy purple mascara than get a purple rinse.

Many of us are emerging from the baby-making, toddler-rearing years and, although live hectic lives, are re-engaging back into an era of life when we might just be able to focus on our own well-being, and have learned through life experience that we are strong and can actually do important things and recover from awful things.

Amanda is defiant that she does not fit into the traditional template.

"I categorically do not think of myself as middle-aged.

"Logically, I am in that age bracket, but mentally, physically and fun wise I think of myself as everything I always was but I'm a lot more confident."

We have the power to start over that our mums never had. Instead of dreading 40 we should be grateful for a whole extra life. Mid-age can be a new age and it's time to celebrate.

Alana Kirk is author of The Sandwich Years, Hachette Ireland, £8.99, an inspirational story of one woman's journey through years of being 'sandwiched' between looking after her young children and her mother and how, through caring for the person she had relied on most, she finally found herself

Cathy Martin (43), director of Belfast Fashionweek, lives in Holywood with her daughter Valentina (5). She says:

Now that I’m in my 40s I have a greater sense of acceptance of myself, failings and all.

And I no longer fret about things which may have been a concern when I was younger.

Now I am grateful for so much — to be here and be healthy, for my family and friends — things that I may not have appreciated quite so much in my 20s.

Confidence comes with making your own decisions and I no longer worry about what other people think about me.

Previously, I was a people pleaser and the opinions of others would have influenced me.

The most important elements of my life are my daughter and my family — they are the priorities.

I’m not as money orientated as I was, and my New Year’s resolution was to travel more which I have always enjoyed.

Now, I want to explore my wanderlust more that ever and continue to do so, not just in my 40s, but into my 50s and 60s.”

Joan Burney Keatings (42), chief executive of Cinemagic, lives in Moira with husband Jonathan Keatings and their daughters, Zara (7) and Savanna (4). She says:

It was only when I turned 40 that I became confident about who I was — having had so many knocks in life taught me what is important.

Most of us spend our 20s and 30s trying to figure life out in terms of a career and relationships.

In my 40s, both my job and family life were good and the new challenge became trying to achieve a good balance between work and home.

I know a lot more now and, especially, what is important whereas in my younger years I put pressure on myself to get it right all the time.

Having children really puts things into perspective and I have a greater awareness and empathy for life now. There are other greater issues in the world than what concerned me when I was younger. And I am more content with what I have compared to what I don’t.”

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