Defining Midlife

What, exactly, is midlife?

This was the question some of my friends asked when I announced on Facebook that I was starting a blog about entering midlife. They wanted to know was it was an age range, a turning point in life or something else?

middle-age-that-time-when-you-finally-get-your-head-together-then-your-body-starts-falling-apart

I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. All I knew was that I wasn’t young anymore, nor was I old. I was somewhere in between.

Hoping to get a definitive answer, I did what any reasonable person would do: I Googled, “What is midlife?” The results were 1,690,000 hits. I determined from the first few pages that the average age range is 45-65, with some variations.

Many of the sites offered tips and advice for coping with middle-age, as well as signs you’ve finally hit it. Some I could relate to, such as finding more gray hairs and needing reading glasses. Others were just plain silly, like being obsessed with AM radio and not knowing who Justin Bieber is.

Seriously, you’d have to live in a cave not to have heard of Justin Bieber, at least if you’re American.

In the midst of my non-scholarly research, it occurred to me how complicated and relative the concept of middle-age is. Once upon a time people married in their early 20s, had babies right away if they were able, and were empty nesters by the time they hit their mid-40s.

Nowadays, some people don’t have their first child until 40. As such, at an age when their own parents were likely getting ready to retire, they are forking over huge college tuition payments.

Times, indeed, have changed.

So what does this mean for middle-age? Is a man or woman who is 40ish with small children not considered middle-aged, even though he or she might have gray hairs, need reading glasses, and listen almost exclusively to AM radio?

What about a 67 year old person who is active, still working, and not only knows who Justin Bieber is, but has a crush on him? Has she passed some threshold into the Golden Years based on age alone or is she considered middle-aged?

It is all so very confusing, and I still don’t have a definitive answer. All I know is that despite having a young child at home, I consider myself middle-age. The reason is that at age 46, unless I live to be 92, my life is more than half over. This, in my book, constitutes mid-life.

Then there is the matter of gray hairs, wrinkles, sagginess, and receding gums (yeah, I know, TMI). I also get tired more easily, don’t recover from injuries as quickly, and have to work really, really hard to maintain some semblance of fitness.

On the plus side, I am more confident than I used to be, which comes from knowing who I am, and what and who really matters. I value my friendships far more than I did when I was younger. I appreciate the little moments in life because I now realize how precious they are; truly they are the stuff life is made of.

Middle age is a mixed bag, a time of contradictions. I have a growing intolerance for bullshit, yet at the same time I’m more patient. I feel emotionally and psychologically freer, yet physically tied to more responsibilities. I still pursue my passions, but with a greater sense of control than I did when younger, because now I have other people and things like mortgages to consider.

Whereas once I was too busy striving, acquiring, pursuing, and achieving to live in the moment, I am now doing my best to live a fuller, richer life by being present in each moment. Before, I wanted to become so many things. Now, I just want to be.

I’m not sure if this is part of being middle-aged or simply personal growth. Whatever it is, exactly, I’m down with it.

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With Age Comes Freedom

I was raised to care what people thought of me. I knew instinctively that my actions and behaviors were not solely my own. They represented my entire family.

I understood that I was supposed to be good, follow the rules, be an asset to my family and community. Instead, as a teenager, I was naughty, broke rules, and became a liability.

In my 20s, sensitive now to disapproval, I became a people pleaser. Desperate for acceptance, and to prove I wasn’t a royal screw up, I adapted my personality and goals to meet others’ expectations. Convinced that my true self was fundamentally flawed, I buried her, deep.

It is only now, in midlife, that I am beginning the process of excavating her.

I want back some of what I buried. I want the passion, the creativity, the wildness. I want the ultimate feeling of freedom that comes with being one’s self regardless of whether or not others approve. I want these things with the benefit of life experience and without the teenage drama.

I understand now what I didn’t for years: When you are authentic, you attract like-minded people and the right set of circumstances. This is more important than trying to win the approval of people who will never understand or appreciate the real you.

Thank You, Ma’am

If you’re a woman of a certain age, you probably remember the first time someone called you “ma’am”. Maybe you can’t recall the exact date, time, location or culprit, but you do remember the feeling. Suddenly you were aware that you’d officially crossed over from the youthful world of “miss” to the more sedate land of “ma’am”.

It can be shocking when we are faced with someone else’s perception of us.

For me, it was a teenaged boy who uttered the word. Probably he was a bagger at a grocery store or a busboy. I can’t recall the details, but I remember thinking, once the initial shock wore off: Ma’am? Who do you think you’re talking to, buster?

The poor lad had no idea his attempt to be polite was so offensive to me.

I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent moment for men. It might be the first time they’re addressed as “sir” or “mister” instead of “dude” or “man”.

Since that defining moment, I’ve been referred to as “ma’am” many times. I no longer get offended. I realize it’s the natural progression of life.

Lately, though, an interesting phenomenon has been occurring: People are starting to call me “miss” again. Granted, they are mainly elderly gentlemen attempting to be complimentary.

I also had the surreal experience of being carded while buying a bottle of wine at a liquor store recently. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I said point blank to the young clerk, “Seriously? Is this some kind of marketing ploy to get middle-aged women to keep coming back?” He gave me a confused smile, but said nothing.

It just goes to show you that life has a way of coming full circle.

Entering Midlife

On May 3 I turned 46 years old. Unless I live to be 92, my life is more than half over. Such a sobering thought prompts one to examine one’s life. For me, this turns into an inventory of my major accomplishments thus far:

  • Four beautiful sons
  • A 20 year, mostly happy, marriage
  • Multiple college degrees
  • A solid position in my current profession
  • Dear and amazing friends
  • Homeowner
  • Certified yoga instructor
  • Certified Reiki Master
  • Trips to the Bahamas, Ireland, London, Rome
  • Pretty perennial gardens

As I review the list, I can’t help but ask: Is that all I’ve got so far?

I thought I would have accomplished more by now. Still on my bucket list is a summer in Europe, a beach house, writing and publishing a novel that people actually want to read. There’s the hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley, the business I’d start if I could just figure out what. And always the fantasy of being debt free, financially free, just plain, damn FREE. Permeating it all is a nagging feeling that I’m not quite living the life I’m supposed to, that there is something still missing.

My lamenting is quickly met by a harsh Inner Judge who admonishes: Quiturbitchin and be grateful for what you have.

I hate that judge sometimes. She just doesn’t get it. I am grateful for what I have, but according to Maslow I’m supposed to want to self-actualize. It’s the only way a human being can reach his or her full potential.

This must be how midlife crises begin, with an examination of The Road Not Taken, followed by an Inner Judge assault for daring to be so shallow as to want, dare I say it, MORE.

Inner Judge: There are people starving, desperate, oppressed, and imprisoned in this world and you’re whining about a beach house and self-actualizing and wanting MORE? Quiturbitchin!

Looking back, there were failures, of course. Poor choices made. Regrets. Most midlifers have them.

We are born, we live, we die. As many of us get closer to The End we realize that we’ve been living on auto-pilot, going through motions, doing what was expected of us by others rather than following our inner callings. Suddenly it seems so obvious that we should have done more of the things we wanted and less of what we didn’t. That we shouldn’t have been so afraid.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be grateful for what we have or demean our accomplishments, however small and insignificant they may seem at times. Duties and obligations to family, friends, work, and the human beings some of us bring into this world are real and they matter. There is much to be said for finding joy in the simple things, with taking pleasure in the moment. A beautiful sunset, a family gathering, a baby’s smile, a grandmother’s reminiscing — all have deep meaning.

At the same time, there is nothing wrong, selfish or ungrateful in asking ourselves: Am I selling myself short? If so, why? And what am I going to do about it?