The Call of Midlife
What is it about midlife that makes us radically rethink our lives, our dreams and our desires? Why do we question the carefully laid plans that we worked so hard to achieve? And what exactly is a midlife crisis?
Our Developing Self
In a complicated world we grow up with all sorts of mechanisms to help us survive and adapt to our changing circumstances. We develop protective armour, suppress parts of ourselves that are judged as undesirable, strengthen or exaggerate the parts that society likes and tread the delicate path of relationship making, identity formation and ensuring our basic needs are met.
Much of this is done unconsciously and begins when we are very young, from our first foray into the world when we leave the safety of the womb and discover our separateness and vulnerability. If we are fortunate our parents or primary caregivers are sensitive to our needs and teach us about trust and healthy dependency, but for some strong survival mechanisms are required early on.
Throughout life we become socialised, in other words we find ways of adapting to our social environment with varying degrees of success and satisfaction. None of us do this perfectly, that would be impossible, but we learn the general rules and conventions. Some of this socialisation includes gender conditioning which starts early and is incredibly pervasive.
The impact of gender conditioning
Recent research has explored the impact of gender conditioning and its impact. Robert Blum, director of the Global Early Adolescent Study, based at John Hopkins University says, “We found children at a very early age – from the most conservative to the most liberal societies – quickly internalise this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent … And this message is being constantly reinforced at almost every turn, by siblings, classmates, teachers, parents, guardians, relatives, clergy and coaches.”
When my first daughter was born I was shocked by the aggressive marketing of shops divided into pink and blue, boys were sold tractors and cars while girls were sold princess dresses and dolls.
These messages can be confusing too. Although western girls are encouraged to develop ‘softer’ skills with a focus on caring and nurturing they need to survive in a society which prioritises reason, rationalism and judgement over qualities such as empathy and intuition.
Once out in the world of work we quickly learn that we must not show weakness or vulnerability. We must embrace ‘male’ qualities and behaviours if we wish to succeed or be taken seriously. In my twenties I worked in a pressurised working environment where, on a daily basis, women (myself included) would take themselves off and cry in secret – in the loos, with friends, on the walk to work – but they wouldn’t dare show this to their managers, the very people holding the power to either support or condemn them.
I frequently meet interesting, smart, talented women who lack confidence and wonder how much gender conditioning has taught them to minimise who they are. They question their value, avoid risk and feel they have to be perfect before they can show themselves or their work to the world.
Qualities that are typically viewed as masculine such as reason and rationalism have been dominant for many years, while so-called feminine qualities such as empathy and intuition have been seen as lightweight and trivial. Women’s literature is often disparagingly referred to as ‘chick-lit’ and serious debate must never be diluted with emotion, god forbid! Yet if we look at some of the most powerful political speeches in history they draw on both reason and emotion. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech is a good example. The teenagers speaking out against gun control after the US Parkland shooting used their emotions to reach people and get their message out there.
The Call of Midlife
Cutting ourselves off from our emotions and intuition in order to pursue status and external measures of success leaves us feeling detached from our deeper selves. It is often at midlife when we feel the call to return to more authentic versions of ourselves.
Once we wake up to ourselves we might discover that we are tired of our current circumstances, we feel we are more than our job, we are worn down by caring or stuck in a relationship which limits us. Perhaps we have a gnawing sense that we can be more but don’t know how.
The sense of time passing and the greater awareness of our mortality provides the urgency to live more meaningfully. Some may call this a midlife crisis, others may call it a process of deep transformation.
I felt this keenly when I turned 40. So much energy had been spent keeping things going, earning a living, keeping up socially, staying healthy and in more recent years raising children. With so much to juggle life often felt like a treadmill and I became aware of how much I was investing my energy into others rather than myself.
This triggered a search for more meaning and greater fulfilment which led me to rediscover some old passions and dreams; I began journaling and creative writing again, I saved up to travel to India – something I had wanted to do since I was a teenager, I studied herbal medicine and developed a regular meditation practice. The emphasis shifted towards things that bring me joy and peace in my life. I am even learning to drive at the age of 47, something which I find terrifying and exhilarating, but I crave the freedom it can offer.
One feature of my own journey was honouring my intuitive, emotional and spiritual nature rather than hiding it, feeling embarrassed by it or mocking it. This has allowed me to feel more whole. I recognise this with many of my female clients who have been told they are oversensitive, overemotional and have helped them to embrace what these qualities have to offer.
Like driving midlife can be terrifying and exhilarating, calling us to discover more expansive versions of ourselves. The process twists and turns and it can bring fear, elation and be uncomfortable at times. You may choose to kill things off – versions of yourself that don’t serve you, roles you play. But when we kill these off we invite rebirth and transformation.
Any change in ourselves can create ripple effects in other areas in our lives and this can make the journey bumpy at times. Being able to share your experience with a friend, partner or a professional like a psychotherapist can be very helpful as they support you to explore new horizons.