Roughly five years ago, when I was working on my own book about women’s experiences of midlife, I was introduced to another woman who was doing the same. Once connected, we couldn’t stop dialoguing about what we were each going through and trying to help other women navigate in their own journeys of midlife crises. This lovely woman is Camilla Joubert, a lifestyle coach whose own midlife “unravelling” inspired her to collect stories from real women who had navigated the often-murky midlife experience. Her intention is to connect these stories to other women in midlife so they feel less alone at this time. Her book is called Unravelling and includes eleven essays tackling many issues. Click here to read a more in-depth review of the book.
I was lucky enough to be one of the eleven women given the opportunity to share my story in this lovely little collection. With Camilla’s permission, I will share it with you in the hopes that you find it helpful in your own journey through midlife. Please keep in mind that I wrote this over five years ago, and am at a very different place than I was then. For a more current update on how I’m managing midlife, read this and this.
Esther’s Story in Unravelling:
As I write this, I am about to turn 41, an age that I am surprisingly okay with. I cannot say I felt okay about turning 40 last year as that particular birthday culminated in what I now most definitely see as a “midlife crisis”. As a women’s psychotherapist, I am somewhat ashamed to admit that it took me at least five years to realize that I was even having a midlife crisis, but luckily, I get paid to help other women through difficult periods of life, and not my own. If that was the case, I’m sure I’d be broke!
Before I get into the nitty-gritty details of my own particular crisis, I’d like to share with you some observations I’ve made lately-seeing countless women in my role as therapist-complaining of something that I am most assured is nothing less than a tsunami of 35-45-year-old women who are experiencing full-fledged, no-holds-barred, downright nasty and merciless midlife crises.
I’ve noticed similar things happening to men, but at older ages. In my experience, men seem to have their midlife crises (from now-on referred to as “MC”) from the age of 45-55. This is the decade when a lot of long-term married men (and often fathers of teens as well) kind of ‘lose it’ and leave their wives and kids and run off with a much younger woman, become party-animals, and regress to their rebellious early 20’s self, and god forbid, even get giant tattoos plastered on their extremities which they often regret later on when they come to their senses. I have heard an amazing array of such stories with fascinating variations on the same theme but I will get back to talking about women, as that is the topic of this book…
We women do some crazy things as well while in the throes of midlife crises, such as: getting dangerous plastic surgery procedures done to various parts of our bodies and faces, overdoing the Botox, having wild affairs, and even riding across the country on a motorcycle.
While the details of each woman’s story may vary (some are married, some divorced, some with kids, some with no kids, etc.), the common thread seems to be that this group of women are feeling a seismic shift within themselves that leaves them feeling lost, disillusioned, and even wondering who they are. They’re often scared and confused and don’t know where to turn for help. When I suggest that perhaps they are in the midst of a MC, they often laugh and say, “I’m too young for a MC- that doesn’t happen until you’re fifty!” I can completely understand this way of thinking as I was convinced of the same thing too until I felt that my whole life was turning upside down around my 40th birthday a year ago.
For instance, when nearing my 40th birthday, I started to question every sound decision I had made up until that point, which had previously given me great joy, stability, and peace. During the course of one day alone, I would ask myself:
On being married:
Do I like being married? Why did I get married in the first place? What’s the point of being married? Why do so many people do it? What would my life have looked like if I’d remained single?
Maybe I should have a child. No, I never wanted children. But maybe I have missed out on something fantastic and should try it out just to see…no, that’s ridiculous.
Being a therapist is hard work. Maybe I could have had another calling, besides a career which was the result of a dysfunctional childhood. Maybe I should have studied interior design instead? What if I was meant to be an interior designer and missed the boat?
Why is this person my friend? Do I even like him/her? Does s/he even like me? Did I choose this friendship because I thought I couldn’t do any better? Did this person choose me and I have just gone along for the ride? What would I like in a friend? Have I ever had a really good friend? What kind of friend am I?
On where I live:
Why did I move to this Godforsaken island and leave big city life? I don’t belong here. But I don’t belong in a big city. Where the hell do I belong anyway?
At this juncture, I am left thinking that perhaps women have their MC’s a decade earlier than our male counterparts. I am just starting to seriously research the subject in-depth and am working on a blog aimed at helping women navigate this rocky part of life, often referred to as “midlife”, although I don’t think that’s an accurate description if it starts at the age of 35. I consider “midlife” to be more around the age of 50.
My Midlife Crisis Story
When I think back to when my MC officially started, I would have to say it was when I turned 35. I had been happily married for six years, was finally comfortable and confident as a therapist in private practise, and had moved to a small community on Vancouver Island three years previous. I was able to afford both a house and an office for my practise. My husband and I had met while both living in Vancouver (I was there because I had completed my Masters in Social Work at UBC just before I met him), and were finding it really tough to make ends meet in the most expensive city in Canada.
Before we moved to the island, we had reached what we realized was our ‘financial peak’ living in the city- we owned a 2-bedroom condo and could just pay the bills even though we both had good professions which paid decently. We hated condo life and being in the middle of a bustling city and fighting for good work, so we made the move to the island which has proven to be much more affordable, slow-paced, and financially sustaining. We have both done well at setting up our own businesses here, and they are thriving.
I should also point out that we are a Jewish couple who consciously chose not to have children when we first met (I have known I didn’t want kids since I was in my 20’s). This was very tough on us for many reasons, but mainly the pressure we felt from family to have kids. It was made very clear to us that we had deeply disappointed family through our decision and that was hard to swallow and move through. We were openly guilted in only a way that Jews can manage, with comments such as: “Too bad I’ll never be a grandmother. I was so looking forward to it-long sigh- oh well. I guess I’ll live”.
Then everyone our age started having kids en masse, and we have now spent over a decade ‘losing’ our close friends as they have built their little families. The losses for both of us have been huge. Even though we feel we definitely made the right choice by not having kids, it’s been extremely difficult fitting in with our friends who now have little ones running around. And we don’t blame them- child-rearing is all-consuming and there’s not much left for friends at the end of the day when you’re looking after little people 24/7.
I still know we made the right choice by not having children because when we are with friends with kids, we can’t wait to get home to our quiet peaceful home and feel exhausted from being around bouncy little ones for hours at a time. I know that we wouldn’t have been energetic parents and probably would not have relished the things kids do just because they are kids (some examples that come to mind: making lots of noise, keeping you awake, running around the house, and needing lots of attention).
For most of my childbearing years, my husband and I were judged harshly for openly admitting we didn’t want children. Many people called us “selfish” for not wanting to raise a family and this hurt us deeply. We thought it would be selfish to have children that we didn’t really want and not give them the time and adoration they wanted/needed from parents who weren’t all that into child-rearing. But now that we’re moving out of the childbearing years, it feels like a huge weight has been lifted because people have for the most part, stopped bugging us about reproducing and seem okay with our decision even if they don’t totally understand it.
So, I guess the end result of this decision has been extreme isolation and loneliness and not knowing how to fill our time meaningfully. In retrospect, I feel that this was partly self-inflicted due to our no-children choice and that we were partly pushed out of certain social circles due to lack of common factors by friends with kids- even if it was not intentional on their part. That’s where it had come to when I turned 35-I had accomplished so many things before that- finished two degrees with honours, met my husband, gotten married, started a serious profession with a lot of responsibility and stress, moved from Toronto where I’d lived all my life to BC, then moved from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, bought a house, an office, opened a business and got it up and running and then…. the dust started to settle and I started to feel really uneasy.
All the other women my age I knew were doing these kinds of things plus raising children and were absolutely run off their feet. They didn’t have the luxury of indulging in thoughts like, “Am I happy? Is this how I wanted my life to turn out by this age? What else do I want? Why do I feel so lonely and unsatisfied?”
Luckily, I had (and still have) a wonderful connection with my husband and we have always had a solid relationship. I think it precisely because I had this foundation that I was able to comfortably question certain aspects of my life without fear of losing him or what we had. And conversely, because we have such a wonderful relationship, I think I questioned the whole child issue because I knew in my heart that we would be good parents and had what it took to do a decent job of raising children. When everyone around you is questioning why you aren’t producing children because you have all the foundations in place, it’s hard not to question yourself as well.
I tried my best to have a positive attitude and decided that I could put my “mothering” energy (which most women my age were putting towards actual mothering) into my work and managed to write three self-help books over the course of two years while working full-time as a therapist. I really enjoy writing and had a lot of fun writing these books and realizing that I could help more women via the written word, rather than helping one at a time in therapy sessions. I launched websites, did press releases, got on national television, radio, and was written about in women’s magazines and got to travel extensively as a result. This was all thrilling and fun, but I still had this emptiness gnawing away at me all the time.
So, I decided that what was missing in my life was FUN…I was really good at working hard, but not so good at slowing down and doing things just for the shear pleasure of doing them. So, I started going to hot yoga 3 times a week, took up knitting (and subsequently joined a weekly knitting group), and most recently, have learned to play the ukulele and joined a community weekly ‘uke jam’ which makes my inner child beam with delight.
Learning to have more fun and doing it regularly has certainly helped, but I’m not convinced that the emptiness won’t return once more. I feel that it’s an ongoing journey and that we continually come back to questioning our own happiness and quality of life as we age. I’m okay with that because I figure that as long as I’m questioning, I’m still growing as a person and that is more important to me than finding some emptiness here and there.
Another factor which I think greatly contributed to my MC was that I started to really notice signs of aging in my face (appearance of wrinkles, peach fuzz, neck fat and loss of tone in the chin and neck) hair (more gray hairs sprouting up than would be safe to try and tweeze away), and body (to sum it up- gravity!). I also noticed that my metabolism had noticeably slowed down and that I could gain a lot of weight from eating the exact amounts I had previously eaten with no such consequences.
As a therapist who specializes in treating women with disordered eating, this causes a lot of inner angst and at times I feel like a total fraud: On the one hand, I spend all day teaching women to appreciate their inner beauty and love themselves and yet on the other, I am feeling completely conflicted with the aging process and its toll on me. There is such a clear dichotomy between who I am as a psychotherapist (I am woman- hear me roar!) and the internal angst it creates in the plain everyday woman in me who is bombarded by the media all the time.
I cannot say that facing the facts that my body is ageing has gotten easier with time, I think I’ve just gotten more used to the fact and am more comfortable with accepting the aging process the longer I’ve had to deal with it. What has helped tremendously is reading other women’s thoughts on the topic and staying away from the ‘doom and gloom’ outlook on aging, and instead, to try and be as positive as possible about the whole thing- the whole ‘cup half full’ idea…
Overall, it’s taken me roughly six years to find my footing and to feel the great fog of my MC lifting. But I’m definitely feeling lighter- physically as well- I managed to lose that extra 20 pounds I put on during these tough years by becoming much more conscious of what and how I eat and how much. I am pleased that I have made some good friends and found hobbies I find fun, challenging, and energizing. I’m not sure if I’m completely out of the woods yet, but I do feel more confident in my abilities to handle inner angst.
Helpful Self-Talk to Help You Navigate Your Mid-Life Crisis
To end, I’d like to leave you, the reader, with some things you can say to yourself when you start the negative self-talk about your weight, face gravity, losing beauty, gray hairs growing in strange places which often swirl around our heads in midlife. Say them to yourself out loud, preferably in the morning upon wakening and again, in the evening before bed. They are positive reminders that have helped me and many of my clients successfully navigate the downs of midlife crises:
My body is changing as I get older and that is a normal, natural part of spending a reasonable amount of time on this earth- while I may not like all of these changes, I am willing to accept them as a trade for the inner beauty and wisdom I have gained in midlife.
I am beautiful and gorgeous at every stage, age, and size.
I am so much more than my physical body and how it looks and as I age, I blossom into the immense range of possibilities that I can be to myself and others.
Instead of focusing on how my body looks, I am choosing to revel in what it can and does do for me each and every day.
I am proud of how far I’ve come in my life and look forward to who I will become in the future.