What Is Midlife, Really?

For the past 5 years as a writer, editor and conference organizer focusing on midlife women, I have been talking about, thinking about, and having heated debates about what exactly “midlife” is. When I Google “midlife,” the predominant word that comes up in conjunction with it is not transition or change or improvement or happiness — it is, of course, crisis. From what I have seen, and what I have experienced, the midlife crisis as it is commonly thought of — the man running off with the younger woman in a sports car, waving goodbye to his kids and wife, or the woman getting a boob job and a facelift and rediscovering her dormant sexuality — is mostly a thing of the past, if it ever really existed at all.

So what is midlife? When does it start — and when does it end? What are the experiences of midlife that are most common?

Rather than refer to the remarkable awakening that occurs when one is confronted with the midpoint of life as a crisis, I prefer the more elegant ennui, as it’s described by Elliot Jacques.

Elliot Jaques, a psychologist often credited with coining the term “midlife crisis”, attributed [midlife ennui] to “the adult encounter with the conception of life to be lived in the setting of an approaching personal death.”

In other words, we realize that we are cresting the hill and heading down the other side.

What age defines midlife is another topic of debate, an argument I have come to believe is pointless. As I see it, midlife is not so much an age — since you cannot know when you will die, there is no way of knowing when the midpoint of your life is — as it is a state of mind. Some people, particularly those who are parents and have their children when they are young, may find they feel the creeping up of midlife angst as early as 40, while others, perhaps better adjusted or far more optimistic, may not give it a thought — if they ever do — until their 50’s.

For me, midlife began in 2007 when I was 45 years old. That was the year my father died of cancer at the age of 67. My 17 year old daughter was a senior in high school and was in the thick of college applications. My son, at 15, was learning to drive. I had no more little kids. It hit me hard that my children were nearly all grown up and that my father, who had been a big part of my life, was gone. I was a stay-at-home mom, and my home had been the place where my extended family gathered since my daughter was born. I started to realize that everything I had been doing for the bulk of my adulthood was going to be over soon. I mourned my father terribly, but in retrospect I think some of my deep sadness was for all that was fading away in my life. In the next few years my beloved grandmother would also pass away, my father-in-law, like my father, would succumb to cancer, and I would become an empty nester.

Midlife is more about realizing that this is it — this is your life, this is what it’s been, and this is what it will, for the most part, continue to be — than anything else. So many of the exciting milestones in life have already occurred for most of us by the time we reach our personal midlife point. Midlife is coming to terms with who you are and letting go of some of the dreams you may have had that may be impossible now. Midlife is when you may be rethinking your marriage or relationship as the realization that your time really is limited becomes more profound. Midlife is often when your parents die. It’s when you begin to see friends — people your age — get seriously ill. Midlife brings on a whole lot of moments that remind us that there is an end to all of this — not for a while, with great luck and good health — but it’s out there, on the not-as-distant-as-we’d-like horizon.

And yet — midlife is, perhaps, the best time of our lives. Unlike during adolescence, which is, like midlife, a time of great change, those at midlife are certain of who they are — if not when the ennui first hits them, then by the time they have settled into this phase of life. After letting go of youth as part of their identities, midlife men and women are able to begin to appreciate themselves — even truly like themselves — despite — or because of — their quirks and oddities, mistakes and failings, cruelties and disappointments. For many at midlife, being part of a crowd isn’t nearly as important as having a few meaningful, deep relationships to sustain them. No longer looking outwards for acceptance and affirmation, those who find themselves content at midlife have learned to give themselves the approval they need to feel confident in their choices and lifestyles, no matter what others may be doing. Finding your own sense of purpose and happiness becomes more important than ever.

While some people’s careers continue to flourish at midlife and well into their 60’s and even 70’s, and many people begin a second or third career now that they have the time and financial stability to explore their interests, for most at midlife the peak of their job trajectory has already been reached. This can be a huge factor in people’s loss of self-esteem at this point in their lives, but it can also be liberating, as they come to realize that they no longer need to work, work, work to get to the next level and can instead be content with what they have accomplished.

Most of all, if the process of going into and accepting being at midlife has gone well, people at this point in their lives will ultimately feel grateful. They will see that they have done the best they can, that they have succeeded in ways they may not have realized before this point in their lives, that being loved by others and loving others is truly what life is all about. Having the awareness of the limits of time can be an exceptionally good motivator. Letting go of the extraneous, the painful, the unfulfilling — midlife teaches us to do this. More than anything else that has happened to me since the fall of 2007 when my midlife began, feeling appreciative — really, genuinely grateful — for all that I have in my life has been the most profound and important change.

Midlife is the youth of old age — a time to reflect on what has been accomplished while understanding that the future holds the certainty of, at some point, slowing down. Knowing this may at first be disturbing, but after the initial shock of no longer being young, midlife can be the most personally rewarding period life. For me, and I’m sure many others, it’s the first time we are the center of our worlds in a long, long time.

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