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This article concerns women's development at midlife. Attention is given to the tendency to focus on women's reproductive roles and to frame psychosocial development in relationship to reproductive status. Such deterministic approaches are entwined with heterosexist bias. The loom of Penelope is proposed as a metaphor of women's development at midlife.

"... and they lived happily ever after." From the most ancient folk tales to today's paperback romance novels, accounts of women's lives seem to end when the heroine is finally united with the man of her dreams. Developmental theories frequently reinforce this concept of women's lives by focusing primarily on such "appropriate" milestones of early adulthood as forming heterosexual partnerships and bearing children (Gergen, 1990). The earliest stage theories described adulthood as a process of continuous growth toward self-actualization. Although attempts have been made more recently to define stages within adulthood, the research has generally excluded women or has included insufficient numbers of women to allow the construction of theories of women's adult development (Hyman, 1988).

Developmental models based solely on men's life experiences began with the work of Freud and his drama of the Oedipal conflict. Freud described separation from the mother as a major task for preschool children. The work of Erikson extended Freud's model by defining separation as essential to the identity development of adolescents (Hancock, 1989). Gilligan (1993), however, pointed out that women tend to develop and define a sense of identity through relationship. This focus on connectedness causes women to seem less psychologically mature when measured against the male ideal of separateness.

Levinson and Levinson (1996) focused on life structure rather than personality development and claimed that the tasks for each of the eras and periods of their model were the same for both sexes. Here again, however, the persistence of the notion of male development as normative is revealed. In evaluating the midlife homemakers in their sample, Levinson and Levinson stated that fulfilling this traditional role would result in "a significant failure in the development of the self" CP. 173). A comparison of four Levinsonian studies of adult women confirmed the view that women seek attachment as a primary life task (Roberts and Newton, 1987). When measured against the criterion of professional accomplishment alone, women thus seemed to be less successful, and their life structures seemed to be less stable.

The twentieth century has been one of unprecedented change in women's roles. Despite this, however, women's development continues to be described in the professional literature primarily in relation to reproductive capacity (Gergen, 1990). Such a model inevitably implies a regressive course for a woman's life as her fertility declines and her children leave home. Furthermore, such an approach pathologizes and marginalizes women who do not marry or have children. An example of such patriarchal and heterosexist bias can be found in a study intended to develop an adult adjustment index for women that would complement Vaillant's Adult Adjustment Scale for men (Picano, 1989). Factors considered reflective of healthy social adjustment for women included a marriage of at least 10 years' duration, having children or close relationships with children, and having children with no problems. Picano reported that the first factor was the only one that contributed in a statistically significant way to "positive outcomes" in a woman's development CP. 313). It must be noted, however, that these positive outcomes were identified by scoring the women's life histories for these very criteria. In other words, a woman who had been married for 10 years or longer was considered by definition to have a more positive life than one who had not been married for at least 10 years. Although she might receive positive scores for other factors, she would receive a score of zero for this item. This binary approach perpetuates cultural biases and enshrines them as scientific "fact."

The unprecedented movement of women into the paid workforce in the final decades of the twentieth century would seem to present a powerful challenge to the traditionally circumscribed roles allotted to women. Many women, however, find themselves struggling for achievement and recognition in a career culture that reserves its greatest rewards for those individuals who place work before all other priorities. This role of worker, too, is severely limiting. Clearly such a culture is destructive to both women and men. Yet employed women also continue to be evaluated against the traditional standard of marriage, homemaking, and motherhood. The double bind created by attempting to adhere simultaneously to these mutually exclusive ideals has been described as "a kind of slow-release schizophrenia" (McKenna, 1997, p. 55). Recent efforts by the lieutenant governor of a northeastern state to balance her work and family life have received intense media scrutiny (Goodman, 2000). Such stories clearly demonstrate the continuing societal tension about women's roles.

If they are addressed at all, women's midlife experiences are usually described negatively in terms of the menopause and the "empty nest" (Raup and Myers, 1989). This occurrence is commonplace, although Lippert (1997) cited a number of studies that suggested the majority of healthy menopausal women do not experience mental health problems. Apter (1995) argued that "to put [menopause] at the center of mid-life development is as unsatisfactory as placing the onset of menstruation at the center of adolescent development" (p. 22).

Strayer (1996) pointed out that physical beauty, which is culturally associated with youth, is the primary source of power granted to women. Standards of beauty are cultural, rather than developmental, and exist outside the individual to whom they are applied. Sooner or later, every woman finds herself on the wrong side of these ideals. She is then expected to become "invisible," and women who resist this process are labeled hags or witches, both in fiction and in real life.

Occasionally, as in Amanda Cross's novel An Imperfect Spy (1995), a woman takes advantage of her invisibility to pursue her own ends. Amanda Cross is the pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun. Heilbrun (1988) argued that this process of pursuing her own ends, of winning a self, occurs only after a woman has experienced an awakening. This awakening most frequently occurs at midlife (Heilbrun, 1988) and is triggered by a combination of physiological, social, and psychological triggers (McQuaide, 1996; Strayer, 1996). Midlife women generally occupy multiple roles (Giordano, 1995), and it is often at this time that they seek to integrate the roles in personally meaningful ways (Hyman, 1988). Indeed, Jung (1960) described this integration as the essential task of midlife.

McQuaide (1996) identified several developmental tasks for women at midlife. They

include building a mid-life identity, finding purpose and having a dream for the second half of life, deepening self acceptance and expanding self expression, using awareness of love and creativity to help mitigate the reality of death and destructiveness, developing nurturing relationships, and building generative bonds with future generations. (p. 132)


It would be helpful for counselors working with women at midlife to have a metaphor for the process that women face at this critical juncture. Metaphors are particularly valuable tools for persons at midlife because the ability to use them has been shown to increase with age (Chinen, 1992). Because a metaphor is symbolic, yet external to the individual, it allows the client and the counselor to integrate, discuss, and reflect on experiences (Stanley-Muchow, 1985). These processes are characteristic of women at the stage of constructed knowledge, the highest level of intellectual development proposed by Belenky, Clinch, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986). This stage, which integrates objective and subjective knowledge (Belenky et al., 1986), is most likely reached at or after midlife (Chinen, 1992).

Hendrix (1992) suggested that an effective metaphor for counseling "must be structurally equivalent to the problem situation and provide a workable solution" (p. 241). Such metaphors can be constructed intentionally, but they also exist in the form of myths and fairy tales. Both types of stories address fundamental human problems and suggest effective solutions that combine the practical and the profound (Bolen, 1984; Chinen, 1992). As an old proverb put it, "give people a fact ... and you enlighten their minds; tell them a story and you touch their souls" (Chinen, 1992, p. 2).

The story of Penelope at the loom offers such a metaphor. When Penelope's son, Telemachus, was still an infant, her husband, Odysseus, was forced to join his fellow Greeks in the Trojan War. The war lasted 10 years, and Odysseus was required to wander the world for another 10. Thus, while Odysseus was engaged on his heroic quests, Penelope managed both the household and the kingdom. After many years, Odysseus was assumed to be dead, and suitors began to besiege Penelope for her hand in marriage. They abused the servants and devoured the substance of the kingdom, yet Penelope was unable to drive them away. All the warriors of the kingdom had departed with Odysseus, and the only men in the household were young Telemachus and her aged father-in-law, Laertes. When the suitors began to press her to choose one of them, Penelope told them that she would select a husband from among them after she had woven a shroud to be set aside for the day of Laertes's death. She wove during the day and at night unraveled what she had woven. This ploy was successful for a long time, until a servant girl betrayed the secret of the nightly unraveling to the suitors. At this point, Odysseus returned home and destroyed the suitors, but Penelope did not accept him as her husband until he had passed a series of tests to prove his identity to her (Homer, trans. 1996).

The Odyssey is an example of what Chinen (1992) called "middle tales." These are stories that begin when the protagonists are married and working and neither old nor young. Such tales tend to deal with the less romantic realities of middle age: with what really happens after "happily ever after" (Chinen, 1992). At the beginning of this story, Odysseus is finally on his way home, and Penelope is coping with the importuning of the suitors. Their respective trials over the past 20 years are told in a series of flashbacks, but they must endure further hardships before their long-awaited reunion can occur.


It is no coincidence that weaving occupies a central place in the story of Penelope. Throughout history, textile work of' all types seems to have been women's work. It has been suggested that any important work that was done primarily by women had to be compatible with the demands of breastfeeding and child care (Barber, 1994). That is, the work must be relatively safe, can easily be interrupted and resumed, and must require minimal movement from home. Food preparation and textile production meet these criteria. Both are essential to the functioning of any society, yet can be performed reliably by women who are caring for children. Although women are certainly capable of doing other forms of work, for most of human history the biological realities of pregnancy and nursing imposed unavoidable practical limitations.

The metaphor of the loom offers significant clues to the process of counseling women during the midlife transition. First, a loom offers a framework on which the woman can weave a fabric of her own design. Weaving is typically seen as a womanly pursuit. The woman who weaves can choose the fiber, the colors, and the design. She is limited only by her own ability and imagination. The woman in counseling is the weaver. It is she who will integrate the various themes of her life into the unique new fabric that she is creating.

The loom is a reminder that weaving the pattern of midlife is above all a creative process. Vaillant and Vaillant (1990) found in a longitudinal study that highly creative women were significantly more likely to achieve high levels of generativity. The data indicated, further, that these same women were likely to make a vigorous and joyful adaptation to old age. The authors cited as an example one of the women in the study who was deeply involved in theater in her 20s, then worked as a writer and editor in her 30s while also founding an interracial church. During her 40s, she assisted with the founding of the United Nations and, in her 50s, was nominated as one of the best teachers in the United States. At the time of her retirement, she was presented with a large silver bowl. Her spontaneous response was to place her newborn grandchild in it: a powerful symbol of her ongoing commitment to creativity and generativity. After her retirement, she founded a workshop for creative teaching and was still presenting original and surprising work at the age of 75 (Vaillant and Vaillant, 1990).

Penelope experienced significant demands from those about her during her time at the loom. Today's midlife woman also bears a heavy and complex burden of responsibility. Women in this passage may be bearing or launching children; caring for grandchildren or aging parents; serving their communities; and launching, sustaining, advancing, or changing careers. Usually they are combining several of these responsibilities. This time pressure is reflected in Hyman's (1988) study of inner direction and time competence in women. She found that midlife women initially experienced a decrease in time competence, but that time competence increased near the end of this period as women reassessed life goals and became more self-directed (Hyman, 1988). Spending time at the looms of their lives may allow modern women, like Penelope, the reflection that is essential to establishing goals for the second half of life. Counselors can support and coach women as they seek to identify ways to achieve this "time at the loom."

Penelope's work at the loom involved unraveling as well as weaving. When the patterns of thought and being that served well in the first half of life are no longer functional, they must be reworked (Berliner, 1992). There are few role models for this process. Eisler (1991) pointed out that many of the female protagonists in fiction who dared to deviate from traditional scripts died before the age of 40. The fates of women like Marilyn Monroe and Diana, Princess of Wales, suggest that real-life women can have the same experience. To endure, and even to assist in, the unraveling is painful and requires great courage. It is also an essential part of the process. As Eisler said, "that time, when everything seemed to be falling apart, turned out to be not only a period of disintegration. Out of it came a new strength, purpose, and meaning and, finally, a new integration" (Eisler, 1991). Penelope thus offers women in the midlife transition the hope that they, too, can endure this process of unraveling.

At first, it would seem that Penelope's brave struggle for feminine integrity ended with a return to the regressive pattern of so many stories in which the hero rescues the woman at the end. A closer examination, however, reveals that this is not so. Early on, Penelope suspected that the stranger who came to Ithaca was Odysseus. Rather than throwing herself into his arms and abdicating her painfully earned autonomy, however, she tested him repeatedly. In fact, her son Telemachus finally accused her of being a hard-hearted and unnatural woman. Odysseus proved himself by revealing knowledge that only he and Penelope shared: that their bed is built from a living olive tree still rooted in the earth. They shared a long-awaited night of love and told the stories of the years they had been apart. Penelope told her story first. Athena held back the dawn to extend their time together (Homer, trans. 1996). Thus, after all their trials, Penelope and Odysseus rebuilt their lives together on a foundation of mutual respect and love. The mature feminine and masculine elements were united in a manner that grounded them and offered the possibility of continued fruitfulness.


Penelope exemplifies a number of qualities that can be useful for midlife women. First, she was deliberate. She perceived that she had a choice to make, a crucial moment in a woman's life (Gilligan, 1993). Recognizing that this decision had profound implications for her own life and the lives of others, Penelope refused to be rushed by others' sense of urgency. This is essential for a woman who wishes to make a choice that integrates the wisdom of mind and heart (Bolen, 1984). Instead, Penelope created space and time in which to make her decision by beginning her famous weaving project.

The item on the loom is usually described as a shroud for Laertes, the elderly father of Odysseus. In seems odd, however, that Penelope would be able to stall the suitors for 3 years by claiming to weave such a simple object. Barber (1994) proposed that Penelope was probably weaving a story cloth, an elaborate fabric recording the myths of her clan. Typically, the various stories were woven in a series of friezes using a supplementary weft. Such a task might easily take years for even a skilled weaver to complete.

Creating such a textile would allow Penelope to order and make sense of her life experience, a second way in which she can serve as a guide to midlife women. Gilligan (1993) has argued that to accommodate themselves to a world founded on a patriarchal view of reality, women and girls undergo a process of dissociation. They learn to disregard their own subjective knowledge and experience. A fabric from which these critical threads were omitted would inevitably contain holes. As a woman reclaims those discarded elements of her own knowing, their threads can be rewoven into the pattern. McAdams (1993) considered this to be an essential task for persons at midlife. Women may also feel a need to unravel certain goals and values that no longer serve them well.

A similar process occurs in other forms of textile work. Quilters gather up scraps of fabric so that they can be reused in new designs of the quilter's choosing (Showalter, 1991). In a fashion even more closely related to the work of Penelope, Afghani women who weave rugs have for the past 20 years been incorporating weapons and other images of war into their weaving. In some cases, images in the rugs can be matched to known events, including chemical weapon attacks (Zibart, 1998).

Finally, Penelope was discrete about the true nature of her work. In this she demonstrated some of the wiliness often attributed to her husband, Odysseus. She recognized that she did not yet have the resources necessary to confront the suitors successfully. Instead, she delayed 3 years. Ultimately, she was betrayed by a younger woman who was one of her servants: a woman whose primary loyalty was to the suitor whose bed she shared. This act proved the wisdom of Penelope's caution. It is important for women to recognize that the risk of betrayal can be a part of their own process as well. The betrayer can be a person who is still invested in patriarchal values, but the betrayal can also come from within the woman herself. Penelope's ultimate triumph, despite this setback, can offer encouragement to women at a similar point in their own journeys.

Apter (1995) suggested that the discretion modeled by Penelope is an essential part of the midlife journey, allowing women to enact new patterns of development for which there have been few models. She also argued, however, that the silence surrounding these patterns is in part a consequence of the culture's tendency to marginalize women who are aging. Apter concluded that with the aging of the baby boom generation, midlife women have become too numerous and too articulate for this silence to continue indefinitely.


The use of Penelope's loom as a metaphor for counseling midlife women highlights several areas on which counselors may focus when working with this population. The experiences of women in midlife are quite diverse. Penelope's loom helps the counselor and client understand that each woman is an individual with a myriad of threads coming together to form her life tapestry. These threads may include issues related to menopause, empty nest, vocational and educational aspirations, intimate relationships, and balancing multiple roles and expectations. It is, therefore, important for the counselor to assist the woman in exploring each of these threads and the interconnectedness of each of them with all of the other threads.

As the counselor works with the woman to unravel and then reweave her tapestry in midlife, it is essential that the counselor assist the client in focusing on her experience of the world as a woman. That is, counselors must be aware of and use models that emphasize a woman's experience rather than the more traditional models that focus mainly on the experiences of men. Using the Penelope metaphor provides the counselor with this type of a feminine framework through which the client may examine her life experiences.

The image of weaving, of the interconnectedness of various threads and colors, highlights the relational themes that are important to women. This is particularly valuable because women often perceive their strengths, especially relationship and emotional strengths, to be weaknesses (Miller, 1986). Using the Penelope metaphor to emphasize how the threads of one's life come together enables the client to recognize the strength of a relational, connected approach to life. Furthermore, women's efficacy expectations and self-worth increase when they share connections with other women who validate their experiences (Betz and Fitzgerald, 1987). Using this feminine metaphor affirms the value of the female client's life experience while offering her both a role model and a structure for further exploration.

Because of the diversity of women's experiences and the ever-changing, ever-expanding roles of women in society, it is difficult to imagine any theory that can do justice to the female experience. The Penelope metaphor is useful because it allows the counselor and client to individualize and validate the roles and life experiences of any woman. In addition, recent research has indicated that women in midlife experience individuation and relationship differentiation (Niemela and Lento, 1993; Surrey, 1991). That is, women in midlife may be struggling with the need to become more independent and to discover self, as well as struggling with relational issues. Rather than these issues being mutually exclusive, the Penelope metaphor allows a framework for understanding the importance of both perspectives. The individual threads are important and distinctive, yet they are also interconnected and form the tapestry.

Additional issues that may be addressed using the Penelope metaphor include encouraging the woman to unravel the tapestry from the first half of her life and to reweave the tapestry for the second half of life. Cook (1995) asserted that a woman's central task at midlife is to construct personal meanings for life events and to determine what effects those events have on her overall quality of life. This task of midlife--reexamining life goals, constructing personal meaning, and setting new goals--may be vividly highlighted using the Penelope metaphor.

Negotiating the midlife transition is crucial if a woman is to thrive in the second half of life. Women's experiences in today's society are continually becoming more diverse. Therefore, counselors must be prepared to encounter midlife women whose life experiences cannot be adequately understood by using existing theories and whose experiences may even fall outside the counselor's own life experiences. If no new models are available for counselors and clients to understand the experiences of midlife women, then it is difficult to adequately serve the needs of this population. Penelope's loom and the character of Penelope herself can offer women and their counselors useful insights into the essence of this challenging process.

The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.