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March 31, 2023

The Messy Middle of Life for Women: We’re not Fine. The World Has Gotten to Us.

There was no one particular moment when it struck me; it was more of an accumulation of moments one by one that stacked onto one another over time.

Each single circumstance was just that—a single circumstance, not significant enough to be worthy of holding deep meaning in my life. Rather, it was the snowball effect of hundreds of accumulated moments, circumstances, interactions, and sameness of days that made me realize this phase of life was intensely lonely, confusing, simultaneously dull, and overstimulating, overwhelming, yet empty.

How could I feel so alone; there were people all around me…always.

After the 5,406th day of doing what felt like essentially the exact same thing—juggling motherhood, career, a long, daily commute, and the plethora of household tasks—one tends to look around and say, “Wasn’t it all supposed to be more beautiful than this? Is this all there is?”

Early alarm clock, take care of the dog, the kids, breakfast, pack lunches, drive kids to school, commute for an hour, work all day at a stressful, grinding, emotionally and mentally draining (yet high-paying, esteemed) job, drive an hour back home, dinner, help with homework, manage sports and extracurricular activities, clean up from dinner, prepare for the next day, tuck kids into bed, give hugs and kisses, say goodnight. If we are feeling up to it, perhaps an extremely brief version of “skin care” (read: washcloth and warm water), fall flat into bed.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Over and over and over again.

Layer onto to this, the fact that women tend to carry the emotional weight of the family dynamic. They are typically the ones who talk through the feelings and help manage the thoughts, concerns, and emotions of their children. They listen intently, they respond carefully, they evaluate each situation closely, and they facilitate the dozens of conversations with intentionality.

Women often hold important roles in their jobs, manage the mundane tasks, carry the mental load, shepherd the heaviness of the teenage emotions, plan the vacations, ensure everyone has clothes that fit, plan the meals, buy the gifts—the list could literally go on forever.

The cumulative effect of these moments and these days and the big emotions takes its toll over time.

All of a sudden, it’s now an exponential equation as opposed to an additive one. It happens a little bit at a time, and then all at once. We look in the mirror and suddenly realize the person looking back at us is unrecognizable. Nothing feels quite right. In fact, every single thing feels quite wrong. How did I even get here actually?

This is the female experience of a midlife crisis, though I can’t stand the use of the word crisis in this context. It’s hardly fitting. Crisis implies disaster, catastrophe, emergency, perhaps even defining moment. Crisis implies the situation can be addressed with a defined fix or solution. As in, there’s a fire, call 911, turn on the firehose and blast the flames until they are out.

In this phase, there often is no great tragedy or crisis (although for some, sadly there is). Instead, for most women this phase is more like a midlife detachment or midlife emptiness or simply…the messy goddamn middle.

This period of life has been described by women in the following ways:

Life feels robotic. I’m just going through the motions, trying to get through each day.

I feel so empty and depleted.

It’s like groundhog’s day, over and over and over again.

I’m exhausted to my core. I’m so tired I feel like it’s altered my DNA.

I have no idea who I am anymore. I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize myself.

 Is this all there is? There has to be more to life than this.

Somehow my life is half over. What am I going to do with my one wild and precious life?

I want to rewrite the next chapter in my story to look very different.

To quote Glennon Doyle, “Wasn’t it all supposed to be more beautiful than this?”

This is the phase of life in which we feel like we’ve been going through the motions for so long in our relationships, our career, and in our role as mothers that we’ve completely lost sight of ourselves. Our own individual identity has left the room.

It can feel like we’re running out of time and yet time is the one thing we can never seem to find enough of.

We’ve been serving everyone around us for so long and so infrequently refilling our own cup that we don’t even know who we are anymore. With certainty, an occasional spa day, warm bath, or a once-per-year outing with our friends simply isn’t going to do the trick. Neither is buying a red sports car or finding a younger, livelier partner. There is no material possession or brief fling that will solve the midlife emptiness or loss of identity arising from a lifetime of serving everyone else first.

The level of depletion a woman feels in this messy middle phase of life really requires a hard reset, yet very few women can just walk off the job, walk away from her relationship, or get on a midnight train to somewhere else. Hard resets are rarely possible.

Instead, addressing this level of midlife emptiness often takes form as a slow, incremental, and often painful walk back to ourselves.  It requires a reevaluation of values, goals, and dreams not yet realized. It requires a hard look at our own identity and a complete re-prioritization of ourselves and how we are spending our time.

It means changes in our habits and our daily patterns. It also means that all those she has been serving (her family, the people in her work, perhaps even her kids) may begin to experience a difference in how she shows up in the world from this point forward.

If these feelings sound familiar and it’s not feasible to get on a midnight train to somewhere or issue a hard reset, consider starting with a good old-fashioned journal and pen. Rediscovering what’s been buried in our hearts for years is a process with many personal nuances.

Here’s what’s been working for me.

>> Slowing down and quieting the outside noise. Allowing less influence from others into my thoughts, plans, and feelings.

>> Listening to my own heart, hearing my own thoughts, and allowing myself to feel all the feelings, no matter how painful. These journal prompts have helped to quiet the outside world and acknowledge my own desires.

>> Getting outside and grounding myself with the earth. Taking a walk in the woods, throwing a kayak in a lake, putting my hands in the dirt and gardening, or dipping my toes in the sand. The answers to some of life’s most difficult questions can be found in the solace of nature.

>> Aligning my heart with my body with a beginner’s yoga practice.

>> Doing something creative—picking up a paintbrush, a spatula, or a pen and paper. Painting, cooking, writing, or any other form of creative expression can get what’s on the inside out.

Unearthing our identity in midlife requires us to get quiet and listen to the beating of our heart while doing full-scale exploration of what’s buried deep inside. Rediscovering our identity outside all the roles we hold is a slow go. It’s confusing and not at all linear.

When we feel lost, stuck, or empty in this messy middle of life, acknowledging we feel this way might be the hardest part. In this period of life, we are often saying, “It’s fine, I’m fine, everything’s fine” or “I have a good life, I should just be grateful for what I have.”

The very first step is admitting to ourselves that “it’s not fine, we are not fine, and everything is actually not fine.”

It’s our one wild and precious life; we are not meant to just be fine.

~

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