The Problem of “Middle” Age In my search, many of the articles referred to “middle age.” But what exactly is middle age? According to a new survey, most people believe middle age begins at 53. http://www.executivestyle.com.au/you-know-youre-middleaged-when–32v1l (If you have a minute, click on the link—it’s a pretty funny article that gives some other “indicators” that you may want to use to determine whether you’ve reached the stage!) What besides the numbers constitutes middle age? In a word, “transition.” Childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and old age all bring to mind specific goals and tasks. But then we encounter the word “middle.” It feels like a place holder, an empty space between what’s come before and what still awaits us. (I was not a middle child, but to all the middle children of the world, I can now say that I feel your pain!)
Living Our Own LivesWhile “place holder” does not do justice to this time in our lives, there is something to be said for pausing and catching our breath. In middle age, things tend to slow down a bit, or, at least, our responsibilities shift. If we have kids, they have moved on to greater independence (if we’re lucky). Whether we approve of their choices or not, they are living their own journeys. Isn’t it time we live ours? Yes. Our lives. When was the last time you thought about your life? Your needs, desires, and dreams.
Others’ Needs Came FirstGrowing up in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, didn’t prepare us well for considering our own selves when making important decisions. Often, it was others’ needs that came first … and second and third. But as we know, the times “they are a changin”—and just at the perfect moment! Just as we are entering a time of individual change.
What’s Next?Some of the transitions in middle age are thrust upon us. Like menopause. Menopause makes most of us uncomfortable on the physical level, but it can be unsettling on the psychological level too. Our bodies remind us that we are moving from one identity to the other—from child-bearing age to the next stage. We literally run hot and cold, hot and cold. But what better metaphor for our feelings about change? While we’re pretty certain of what identity we’re leaving behind, we may not exactly sure what’s next. That can be really exciting—and terrifying! I am here to remind you that we’ve all danced this dance before. We’ve “transitioned” plenty of times in the past:
- We’ve all left the safety of our mother’s womb and entered this big, wonderful world.
- We’ve all said good-bye to Mom on our first day of kindergarten.
- We’ve all experienced the turbulence of adolescence.
- We’ve all started new relationships and ended others.
Transitions Are UniversalI was reminded of the universality of transition when I read a blog post published last week in Lunch Ticket, the literary journal that I’ve been involved with the past two years. https://lunchticket.org/now-what/ In her piece “Now What,” millennial Lily Caraballo, writes about her own struggle with transition after graduating in December from Antioch, Los Angeles, with an MFA in creative writing: “I graduated two weeks ago, but it feels like a year went by. Blame it on the holidays and their ability to warp the passage of time, but between then and now I devolved into a couch potato. I slept in, binge watching as I laid on my mess of a bed. Doing anything more strenuous than holding a pen was too much to handle. It still is. In truth, my brain is still trying to process the fact that I’m finally finished with school. … Until two weeks ago at graduation, going to school was—is—all I know. What does a person do after all this?” What does a person do after all this? In other words … what’s next?”
We Sometimes Feel Like Hibernating!I think we can all relate to Lily’s experience—wanting to get under the covers and disappear for a while. Transitioning from the known to the brand-spanking new can leave us feeling paralyzed. But in our stage of the game, ladies, remaining dormant is not the best option. We have too much to lose! We are all familiar with the concept of the biological clock. And we’ve all responded—choosing either to have kids or not. But in middle age, we begin to hear the ticking of a very different biological clock—the one that announces—sometimes all too clearly—our mortality! We know, in a way that we hadn’t grasped in our younger years, that our days on this earth are not unlimited. This may feel a bit scary, it’s also great motivation to make all our moments count! But how? What if we don’t know what we want?
Not Knowing is O.K.Not knowing is O.K. It’s actually better than O.K. because sometimes what we think we want is really just what we’ve been told to want. That’s a very powerful force–the voice that tells us what to do, what to think. I call it the “should” voice. I’ve listed a few common examples below. Take a moment to fill in these blanks, and then stop to consider. How many times have you made a decision based on someone else’s “shoulds?”
- You should be more realistic. You should major in _______. It’s practical.
- You should become a ________. It’s a good job for when you have kids.
- You should think of your kids, your husband, your partner, your boss, your dog—for goodness sake! Put your ______, first.
Internalizing VoicesWhen we hear “voices” enough times, we internalize them—along with the messages they carry. It’s hard to overestimate how much those voices impact the way we see the world and the decisions we make. Middle age. We’ve come this far. Accomplished so much. Isn’t now the time to listen to our true voice? The one that’s ours alone? Yes! I believe in my heart and soul that the only answer to these questions is a big, fat yes! Join me over the next few weeks as I attempt to answer the question “how.”
Homework, Anyone?In the meantime, here are a few things you can do:
- Make a list of the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” that have been playing and replaying in your brain
- Next to each one, write down the source, if you can identify him or her. (This is in no way meant to be a blame game. Most of the people who sent us those messages had the best of intentions and did the best they could with the information they had at hand.)
- Write down a specific time that the message stopped you in your tracks.
Here are three of mine:
- “You should be pretty—and thin.” This one is courtesy of my mom. She struggled with her own feelings of not being pretty or thin enough, of not being “enough” on many levels. I internalized this message and have been on a weight seesaw since I was in second grade. I still don’t pass a mirror without passing judgment on myself.
- “You shouldn’t air your dirty laundry.” Ahh … this one is from both my parents. I remember putting up with many toxic situations because I didn’t want to make noise, make waves, share my problems—or ask for help.
- “You shouldn’t draw attention to yourself.” This one’s related to the “laundry” quote but has some subtle and important differences. It is a terribly powerful sentence and may have been the most damaging message to my soul.
Time for Some Fun!Now … here’s the fun part. You can grant yourself permission to change the script!!! Here’s how I’ve changed mine:
- I’ve turned “You should be pretty—and thin” to “You are beautiful just the way you are.”
- I’ve dumped “You shouldn’t air your dirty laundry” and replaced it with “You can share your problems and ask for help.”
- And the last one … “You shouldn’t draw attention to yourself” now reads “You deserve to be seen. Everybody does.”