Two years ago, I was driving up Connecticut Ave. in Washington, D.C., on my way to my therapist’s office wondering what I should talk about. There was nothing horribly wrong in my life.
I was healthy, 45-year-old women with a husband who found me attractive and with whom I could share my feelings. Our neighbors and friends called our two kids, 13 and 8, “delightful and well behaved.” I had steady, well-paid job with phenomenal benefits, and I could go to the store and buy groceries without thinking about the bill. I led a quantifiable good, comfortable life.
Talking about a drizzly feeling of malaise is not worth a therapy session. That’s just, whining, right?
Soon after arriving, I plunked myself in the gray chair across from my therapist and updated her on what’s going on in my life: my 8-year-old son with dyslexia was doing better in his new school and seemed less anxious. My 80-year-old mom hadn’t tried to escape from the Memory Care unit. I spent five days away from my family in California: three days with some current and old co-workers/friends in Monterrey, and then two days at a work retreat in San Francisco.
Telling my therapist about my girls’ weekend reminded me of a conversation I had in the luggage arrival area with my friends O., S., and C. while we waited for other friends to come around with the rental minivan.
We’ve known each other for well over ten years, and though I know how unhealthy it is, I’ve always compared my life to theirs. Why can’t I manage they way they do?, I’d ask myself. O. was always planning a trip somewhere fun with family or other groups of friends (Adventure!), S.’s project management skills and confidence made her a superstar at work (Organization!) C. had pitched story ideas to publishers (Creative Follow Through!) Another had downsized out of a job and found a new position in a few months. I’d been trying to find a new job for a few years.
But as we waited for our friends to come around with the rental car, the revealed another side of their lives.
Since we hadn’t seen each other in a few months, the conversation began with, “How’s life? How’s work?” To my surprise, O. answered with an unenthusiastic, “Eh, okay.” Her boss was second guessing her on some operational decisions O. had made, they’d had to let go a few employees. She just wasn’t feeling her job. “I wish that I didn’t have to work anymore, she said. “There are so many other things that I’d like to do, but we can’t make it on just [my husband’s] salary.”
I’ve reached a point where I ask myself, “Is this all there is?” immediately followed by a stab of guilt for feeling unsatisfied with a quantifiably good life.
“Well, you know that I’ve been trying to leave our company forever,” said C. She’d started to shift into her true passion, writing children’s book, and even had some publishing connections, but summer and back-to-school put the kibosh on making time for that endeavor. Between work, which she truly disliked, and managing kids schedules there simply wasn’t time.
I felt an odd sense of relief wash over me. “I’m sorry that you all feel this way,” I told my friends, “but at the same time, I’m glad to know that I’m not alone,” and I talked about my own failed search for a new job that was both creatively challenging and paid enough to make the leap.
Stuck. Trapped. On the treadmill of life. Call it what you will, but we all seemed to have reached a point where we asked ourselves, “Is this all there is?” immediately followed by a stab of guilt for feeling unsatisfied with a quantifiably good life.
My therapist named my problem (spoiler: its not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness): the midlife slump.
Seeing Life As It Is vs. What I Imagined
There is no crisis here in my middle years. Instead what me and my friends are experiencing is more like a reckoning. I have stopped and seen my life as it is vs. what I imagined.
What I imagined: more professional and creative success. A memoir, perhaps. Or at the very least a list of published articles and stories. I imagined more freedom and more money. I imagined I’d have my own office. I imagined being in a community of creatives.
My imaginings did not factor in practicalities of adulthood: saving for retirement, keeping a job that pays enough to cover the mortgage and expensive private tutoring for my dyslexic son, managing my mom’s health care and finances, negotiating with my husband who takes which kid to work and who stays home during the baffling number of no-school days.
As it turns out, middle age is not a cheerful or carefree time. Barbara Bradley Hagerty in her book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, writes:
If happiness over the life span look like a U-curve—and researchers suggest that it does— then people in their forties and fifties occupy the bottom of the curve. They zigzag between demanding children and frail parents. They shoulder heavy responsibilities at work. They are under-rested, under-exercised, and overfed.
But what we’re experiencing is not a crisis. It’s just. Life.
Now what? Do I just slog through my life? Put on my happy face and trudge down the frozen food aisle of Giant looking for dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets? Feel content knowing that if I stay in my soul sucking job I’m on track to a great retirement?
I’m 40-Something. Now What?
I Google “midlife slump” and find Jonathan Rauch’s LA Times op-ed How To Avoid the ‘Midlife Slump’ and Make Your 40s a Much Happier Decade. He’s made it to the other side, his 50s, and offers four pieces of advice that he would share with his 40-year-old self. In summary, he would…
- Warn himself about the coming challenges.
- Regard the slump as a normal stage not unlike adolescence.
- Not beat himself up for having a feeling of dissatisfaction, but instead cultivate acceptance: it’s not forever.
- Reach out to others and not isolate himself: locking yourself in a negative self-looping echo chamber does not improve your mood.
Ha. Easy for him to say: he’s on the other side. To Rauch’s 4-point plan, I respond:
- Too late. Middle age is here.
- Do I have to go through my midlife slump and at the same time my daughter hits adolescence?
- It’s not forever. It’s not forever. [I still don’t feel better. They’re just words.]
Number 4—reach out to others—seemed actionable.
And then COVID-19 arrived, and isolation became a survival strategy.
COVID-19: My Pause Button
What I didn’t anticipate was the isolation, this pause, giving me the time for introspection.
Once my husband and I got to a “good enough” balance with the COVID-19-Work-from-Home-Rodeo of juggling a full-time job, hunting for toilet paper, making sure that my kids showed up for remote learning, I found pockets of time where I could ask myself, Is this where I want to be? Is this how I want to be?
The answer: no.