May We Talk About Something?

Recently, in a brick and mortar bookstore, I noticed something. If I were planning a wedding, I'd have plenty of books from which to choose. They'd all look bright, pretty, and cheerful. If I were expecting a baby, I'd be inundated with books. It would take me all of nine months to read them all and then, I'd have a ready supply of parenting books at my fingertips. That's as it should be, I suppose. All those books address big stages in a woman's life and we all agree that we can use all the help we can get when preparing to marry or give birth or raise children.

But what if I wanted to read a book on midlife? What if I wanted to learn What to Expect When Your Hair Turns Gray and Your Kids Fly Free? What if I wanted a helpful, hopeful, realistic, but bright and optimistic book on the next stage? There's not much out there. I might pick up a bestseller. And I might read this:

My personal experience, now shared by millions of others, tells me that the perimenopausal lifting of the hormonal veil — the monthly cycle of reproductive hormones that tends to keep us focused on the needs and feelings of others — can be both liberating and unsettling. The midlife rate of marital separation, divorce and vocational change confirms this. I, for one, had always envisioned myself married to the same man for life, the two of us growing old together. This ideal had always been one of my most cherished dreams. At midlife I, like thousands of others, had to give up my fantasies of how I thought my life would be. I had to face, head-on, the old adage about how hard it is to lose what you never really had. It means giving up all your illusions, and it is very difficult. But for me the issue was larger than where and with whom I would grow old. It was a warning, coming from deep within my spirit, that said, “Grow … or die.” Those were my choices. I chose to grow.

For most women, identity and self-esteem are generated by our associations and relationships. This is true even for women who hold high-powered jobs and for women who have chosen not to marry. Men, by contrast, usually get most of their identity and self-esteem from the outer world — the job, the income, the accomplishments, the accolades. For both genders, this pattern often changes at midlife.

Women begin to direct more of their energies toward the world outside of home and family, which may suddenly appear as a great, inviting, untapped resource for exploration, creative expression and self-esteem. Meanwhile, men of the same age — who may be undergoing a midlife crisis of their own — are often feeling world-weary; they’re ready to retire, curl up and escape the battles of the workplace. They may feel their priorities shifting inward, toward home, hearth and family.

It’s an ironic transposition: The man is beginning to look to relationships for his “juice”; the woman is feeling biologically primed to explore the outer world. In married couples, this often produces profound role shifts. In the best of all worlds, the man retires or cuts back on work, becoming the chief cook and bottle washer at home, and providing emotional and practical support for his wife’s new interests. She, in turn, goes out into the world to start a business, get an education or do whatever her heart dictates. If their relationship is adaptable and resilient, they adjust to their new roles. Some are so energized by their newfound freedom and passion that they fall in love all over again. If a woman’s partner is not willing to grow, however, he (or she) may become jealous of her success and independence, and put pressure on her to continue to care for him as she has always done. He may even get physically sick, often in the form of heart disease and/or clinically dangerous high blood pressure. It’s important to note that this is not a conscious or willful act; he’s simply responding to the promptings of our lopsided culture.

A woman often finds herself in the difficult position, then, of having to choose between returning to the role of caretaker to nurture her husband at the expense of her own needs and pursuing her own creative passions. It’s an old story, common to women in many cultures, not just our own. The woman in menopause, who is becoming the queen of herself, finds herself at a crossroads of life, torn between the old way she has always known and a new way she has just begun to dream of. A voice from the old way (in many cases it’s her husband’s voice) begs her to stay in place — “Grow old with me, the best is yet to be.” But from the new path another voice beckons, imploring her to explore aspects of herself that have been dormant during her years of caring for others and focusing on their needs. She’s preparing to give birth to herself and, as many women already know, the birth process cannot be halted without consequences.
Caring for others and pursuing unexplored personal passions are not necessarily mutually exclusive choices, but our culture makes them seem so, always supporting the former at the expense of the latter. This is part of what makes the midlife transformation so much of a challenge — as I know only too well.

Well, now, that was hopeful wasn't it? That makes you just want to rush headlong into this new season, doesn't it? I'm sure your husband will be delighted with this passage.There's just enough ring of truth in it that it is sort of scary. But there's no faith. No foundation in vocation. No honest Christian optimism. 

So, let's discard that book and let's write another. If you were looking for a book on midlife, what would you want to read there? What would you want that book to address? How would you want to come away from the book?

I'm really serious, friends. Really, really serious. Shall we make this book come to life? Together? 

Tell me what you're thinking.