What A Female Mid-Life Crisis Looks Like

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Working women experience a different mid-life crisis than men. -Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D.

As I explore this question of the female mid-life transition I have attempted to consider all possible scenarios. Of course, being human I often find myself drawn to those friends in similar circumstances. Specifically, the woman who is educated, career oriented and actively balancing the needs of the family with the demands of advancing in her chosen profession. I have also searched for meaning and guidance in literature where I have found a variety of definitions in numerous books, articles, blogs and musings. Each of these poignant and well meaning interpretations often center around the loss of purpose a woman experiences as children launch into the world. But, I personally know of many talented, intelligent, strong, amazing women who chose to focus on their careers and to remain childless, and they are not immune to this phase of questioning at this point in their lives. Conversely, I have rarely seen writings about the male mid-life crisis where child rearing is the main topic of angst. Of course, for many men the family is a tremendous concern for them but the main question they wrestle with is what do to with their careers, should they retire, or change avocation and the sterotypiccal dealing with the inevitable loss of youth (is this all there is?). It is not often that I come across an article that specifically focuses on the women, whether they have had children or not, addressing the question of “what’s next?” with respect to their lives and careers. In What a female mid-life crisis looks like, by Marcia Reynolds Psy.D., she says,

These women have not faced a crisis, but they are facing a mid-life quest for identity.

Reynolds postulates that for the educated, goal oriented woman, this is a particularly difficult time as one tries to first define greatness and then searches to achieve it. Woman are not interested in reclaiming their lost youth, but fear missing out on what they could have accomplished with the time they have left. This resonated for me as I know many women who want to use this next act for more than just the job, being the mom or care giver for those around her.

Most importantly, Reynolds provides the reader with permission. Permission to have these feelings, permission to explore these questions and permission to spend the time and energy on finding what is right for you.

Above all, don’t let people tell you that you have no right to be unhappy with your life.

Funny how a man never worries about this, only women feel guilty for putting their needs above others, for taking time to consider what is best for themselves. Men instinctually believe they have the right to self preservation, yet a woman has to be reminded that she too is worthy of self reflection, respect and consideration.

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What Would Carl Jung Say?

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Carl Jung was the father of modern analytical psychology. He was heavily influenced by Freud and shared his belief that the unconscious mind holds the key to unlocking repressed memories that define our past and help shape our future aspirations. Jung did split from Freud on other matters, such as the Oedipal complex and the over sexualization with respect to dream analysis. Jung’s cornerstone concept was that of individuation, where the self evolves from its two main components, the conscious and unconscious elements. This life long process is achieved by recognizing and blending these repressed memories with the aspirations and wishes for the future. There must be a balance for self actualization to occur or we will feel a disconnect from our authentic selves.

This all leads to a whole lot of dream analysis as dreams are the only source of unconscious knowledge that can be brought to the conscious surface. And this is where I have a hard time with a number of the premises brought forth in James Hollis’s book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, How to Finally, Really Grow Up. Hollis is a Jungian psychoanalyst who uses multiple examples of how dream analysis can unlock what the mind is truly longing for in life. As a biologist I believe that dreams are a direct manifestation of neural connections that have been stimulated, perhaps without your conscious knowledge, to trigger memories, fears and anxiety responses (hence more dreams associated with negative emotions are remembered in greater detail than those associated with pleasant stimuli). Dreams are simply a processing mechanism required for the brain to function in the face of constant visual, auditory, taste and touch stimulation in our daily interactions. I do not ascribe spiritual or religious meaning to dreaming any more than I would any other biological function. I do not urinate more during the day because I secretly hate my parents!

The first half of this book spent a great deal of time outlining the problems we face moving into our mid life. Dealing with parents and their dreams for our lives and the difficulty we have in wanting desperately to assert our individualization without disappointing our progenitors. I did not find this part particularly helpful. I don’t know too many adults who, at this point in their lives, have not already dealt with this issue in some way they deem resolved. Either you have decided to disappoint those family members and let the chips fall where they may, or you have come to terms with the life you chose and the path taken. Either way  the bigger issue is “how do I move on from here?” The past is exactly that, done and done.

The second half of the book is where Hollis is helpful. He addresses the specific issues of many of us who ask “what is happening?, why have I lost my sense of purpose?” He points to Jung’s own memoirs:

I have frequently seen people become neurotic when they content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life. They seek position, marriage, reputation, outward success or money, and remain unhappy and neurotic even when they have attained what they were seeking. Such people are usually contained within too narrow a spiritual horizon. Their life has not sufficient content, sufficient meaning. If they are enabled to develop into more spacious personalities, the neurosis generally disappears.   -Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections p. 140

In chapter 7, career vs vocation, Hollis points out that the choices and paths that worked for the first half of our lives will fail us when we have achieved those early set goals. We need to keep our minds active and moving toward something more fulfilling. Of course, finding that something is hard to do! A vocations is a calling, not just a career, it is from a deeper need than just paying the mortgage. It is what you believe you were meant to do, not necessarily how your current talent is defined.

It is better to do your own duty badly, than to perfectly do another’s: you are safe from harm when you do what you should be doing.   -Bhagavad-Gita, III, 35

It is common for us in this midlife transition to become overwhelmed with the enormity of finding your calling, especially at this point in our lives. We have children and aging parents, spouses and community commitments to consider. Wouldn’t it be selfish to put ourselves first and to ignore those relationships to focus on ourselves to find that calling? I struggle with this everyday. I am a mother, wife and child myself and take those responsibilities very seriously. How can I tell my family that I want to go into the peace corps and help others. Leave for months to “find myself”, would that be fair to them? So, instead what do we choose to do with our unhappy realities.  Self medicate, have an affair, ignore those children. Is that a better choice? How is staying nearby but making disrespectful, hurtful, selfish choices that very well may tear the family apart be better than taking those six months to help others who are less fortunate in a third world nation? All the rest is just distraction. Eventually the drink is gone, the fantasy of the affair is broken and the children move on and you are right back to the original question “What’s next”? and the very people you were trying to accommodate are no longer in your life.

The final two chapters are worth the price of the book, if you read nothing else. They are powerful and everyone will find something relatable. Hollis posses thought provoking questions and encourages the reader to take responsibility for his or her own healing. I am a strong believer in that you cannot control other peoples actions, but you can control your reaction. I have been disrespected, deceived and hurt more than I ever thought possible, but I am not a victim. quote-2

 

 

 

 

6 Remedies for a Midlife Crisis

Make it Ulta, a psychology blog posted an article that I wrote on coping strategies for midlife. If you are interested, you can read it here:
https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/49689215/posts/1306563942
I really respect this blog and its mission, I am honored to be a contributor as they address a number of important issues. Be sure to check them out!

Exploring Your Second Adulthood

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Suzanne Braun Levine’s “Inventing the rest of our lives” was first printed in 2006 and, while is it over a decade old now, I found the material to be fresh, helpful and well beyond the standard list of what ails the average mid-lifer. Most of the literature I have read to date addresses the common issues faced by both men and women. There is no shortage of men out there that are struggling, mightily, with this transition, to be sure. But men and women are approaching this quagmire from decidedly different viewpoints. Men tend to wonder about what is best for them and turn their focus inward while women worry about how their spouse and children will be affected by their new path. We are wives and mothers first, and individuals second. If we are caring for elderly parents or good friends, we may not even rate that high on our own list of priorities.

This work is organized into three sections. The first, Getting to What Matters; Letting Go and Saying No, is an acknowledgment of the changes that have taken place. Whether those changes involve children growing up, a divorce, failing health, menopause or just the recognition that one is unsettled about the future, the point is to embrace that something needs to change. Levine offers the reader the opportunity to identify the change and then offers permission to the reader to navigate the path toward that end. Why do women need permission to seek what they need or want but a man innately believes he is entitled to happiness? No one tells a man he deserves to be happy-he just decides it is so and sets out to acquire it, be it a new job, new car or a new wife!

Levine defines the “fertile void” as the period of time in a woman’s life when she knows something needs to change. The imputes is different for everyone but the end result is the stirring and inner voice that propels her to begin to ask “is this all there is?” This marks the opportunity to begin her second adulthood. In the second section, Finding Out What Works: Recalibrating Your Life, the reader is urged to look at those areas of her life that are enjoyable and affirming and to consider changing those components that are no longer working for her. That may mean reevaluating a career, toxic friendships or an unhappy marriage. Confronting these larger than life topics in your fifties can be riddled with anxiety and fear. Many women still have the “bag lady” syndrome, as described in this and many other writings in similarly themed literature. It may be 2016 but the fear of being alone and unable to take care of oneself is still engrained in most women today.

The author moves into section three, Moving On to What’s Next: Making Peace and Taking Charge and offers the simple, but powerful discussion, about recognizing what you can and cannot change. She ends the book with hope and the acknowledgment that this is an ongoing process. The women whose stories have been shared are not resolved by the end of the text, because they are not who they were before, only older. They are coming into their new selves as stronger, more self-aware individuals. Levine is open and honest about her own path and struggles in each area of the book and I found her candor relatable. I recommend this work to any woman who is searching for a book that will speak to her specific concerns and not just in generalities.

Why Start a Blog Now?

My story is not unique or new, I am just like every other woman who made choices her whole life, worked hard, always with the future in mind, who wakes up one day to find that she is officially middle aged. I knew it was coming. My kids were finishing high school and entering college and my career had been put on hold to help them with the transition. I knew when I resigned my tenure at the college that I would be isolating myself a bit, but I thought when the kids get settled I would just pick back up where I had left off. I didn’t count on the possibility that I would question my passion for teaching and would start the long process of asking myself “what’s next”? This would mark the beginning of the next five years of soul searching, contemplation and waiting……so much waiting.

At this point, I didn’t know that I was in a mid life crisis, because you have to be at mid life for that, right? I was over 40, just like all the other women I knew at the time and most of us were asking these same questions as our families, and purpose, was growing more independent.   It was actually great at the start. I had more time for working out, gardening and experimenting in the kitchen, all activities I enjoy. But over time I found that I wanted more: more human interaction, more purpose and more experiences. I decided to enter a culinary program to see if that industry held any future appeal. I really enjoyed cooking, baking and working in a commercial kitchen and met some great friends that I still see when we can get our schedules to align. However, the thought of “proving myself” all over again in a new field was overwhelming and I knew that I did not want to work the restaurant hours required for success in the hospitality industry. While I was wrestling with these major life adjustments, my husband was entering his mid life crisis and where my crisis was a quiet, internal struggle, his was a category 5 tornado that ripped apart the trailer park. Any woman who has dealt with a man in crisis knows how self absorbed and all consuming his world becomes. There was no room for my problems or concerns at that time, and how could I figure out what I wanted until he decided if he would retire? He spoke of moving to another country, changing jobs, retiring and traveling the world….and so on, and so on. So, I waited some more. I know how hard this question is and that there is no quick answer and I wanted to be supportive and give him the space and time to work this all out. That was three years ago and he has yet to pull the trigger on any clear decision, and I am tired of waiting.

This blog is an account of how I continue to cope with both of our mid life issues and where I find an outlet for those times when I am overwhelmed and feel weighed down by the enormity of these difficult problems. I have found that exercise has been critical for my mental and spiritual health. I have always enjoyed physical activity but at this point in my life, I have really come to understand the benefits of regular workouts.  I signed up to train for a half marathon on a whim, and have finished two this year, I have started rock climbing (indoor and outdoor) and find that both of these challenge me and evoke a sense of pride upon completion. Pride in myself has not always been easy to find, so I have a new appreciation for it now that I am older. Another area that I find myself gravitating toward is time in the kitchen, cooking and baking are fantastic creative outlets for me.  I find it calming to work in the kitchen and really enjoy challenging myself with difficult or new recipes. Gardening is another way for me to relax, create and connect with the outdoors and I have spent considerable time and effort building structures, experimenting with different plantings and weeding (so much weeding!). And, like so many others, I love to travel and explore new areas and cultures as often as possible.

It is my hope that I will be able to connect with others to share ideas, stories and life lessons and, maybe, provide some support to those of you who are also in this interesting phase of life.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”                              -Dr. Martin Luther King