Such a loaded word, isn’t it? It lands heavily because it comes with all kinds of (anxious) thoughts that trigger all kinds of (awkward) feelings.
Simply put, midlife is the middle of our lives. It’s that phase we enter after we are done, thankfully, with young adult life and before old age.
Conventionally, it means our early forties to our early sixties — although that age range is inching upwards because we’re living longer. Some now say midlife begins at 45, not the classic 40. Brené Brown said she considers middle age as any time between the mid-30s and death.
The word that often accompanies midlife is … crisis. Sounds like it should come with warning bells, doesn’t it?
With our happiness hitting rock bottom at 47 (47.2 to be exact), research seems to support the ringing of warning bells.
It makes sense that — in the happiness curve theory — our happiness level plunges down in our late 40s or 50s. We’ve got lots of responsibilities to shoulder (aging parents + our own families). Our bodies are changing. Not to mention, we’ve been slogging away at a career and we’re beginning to wonder what’s next.
Despite this, many dispute the inevitability of midlife angst. They declare, “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
NOT A CRISIS, BUT…
I take the view that it isn’t a crisis that we experience in the middle of our lives. It’s something else.
The word crisis to me feels like an event. Something that happens that we have to overcome. Like the financial crisis. Or the pandemic. Or the housing market crash.
Back to Brené. She uses a different word. She calls it a midlife unraveling. Something we cannot control.
“The truth is midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together…”
I agree with this description.
It is in the middle of our lives when we tend to do a lot of questioning and re-assessing. It’s when we feel the resistance to the “givens” and the “It’s always been this way.” When we feel the urge to push back and ask (sometimes uncomfortably), “Does it have to be?”
Midlife is when we consciously unlearn things we’ve learned in our youth. We admit to ourselves, “I can’t believe I was that way – or thought that way – once.”
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We look at this puzzle that is our life, turning it ’round and ’round, and we ask, “What if?” And we ask this of ourselves quietly, in the pages of our journals. Or we ask it loudly and proudly and then worry about what to do with all the inputs. Until our senses — honed from years of being agreeable — kick in and we remind ourselves that we don’t have to accept all or any of it.
In our midlife, we reconsider things we’ve put aside in the past. And we find the courage to consider new things we’ve just now discovered. “Should I do this? Can I? How can I possibly?”
Mid-life is when we wonder about what else – or what more – we can do. When Mary Oliver’s words take on a different tone and significance.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
MIDLIFE ISN’T A CAKEWALK.
We might say the young’uns have it easy. But they won’t say that! They look at us and think we’ve got it all figured out. (I certainly thought that about people in their 40s when I was in my 20s!)
Of course, the secret that only we midlifers know is that we haven’t AT ALL gotten things figured out.
“Relax. No one else knows what they’re doing either.”― Ricky Gervais
Good thing for us too.
We’re better equipped – now – to be trying to find the answers and to be figuring things out.
We know ourselves better. We have the benefit of experience and disappointments and failures and successes and rejections and recognitions and tears and belly-laughs. We’ve faked it until we made it. Or we gave up because it never happened. We’ve had doors slammed on our faces. But we’ve also been invited and welcomed in with open arms.
We’ve won some and we’ve lost some. And we’ve got the battle scars.
Midlife. No, it’s not a cakewalk. Yes, we’ve got this. Haven’t we?
ADDITIONAL SUGGESTED READING
- What Midlife Isn’t. Let’s clear up three pervasive myths about midlife that make us think we are losing all that we’ve gained in our younger adult years.
- Ryan Holiday’s 33 Favorite Pieces of Advice for Life. He isn’t in his midlife, by any definition. But many of the advice he lists on the occasion of his 33rd bday came from others who are/were in their midlife. The ones I highlighted: #7, 10, 15, 22, 24, 27, 31.