Treading the Turbulent Midlife Waters

by ©Donna Henes

Aging and changing might be inevitable, but it ain't easy. It precipitates in us a great uncertainty. The myriad dramatic disturbances of modern middle life — menopause, health concerns, the empty nest, divorce, death, and career shifts — create an overwhelming crisis of identity and purpose for us. What follows is an intense period of questioning absolutely everything — our goals and achievements, our priorities and our operating systems, our morals and our values, our fears and our fantasies. Some of us spend a considerable amount of time — easily 10 or 15 years — swirling in the upheaval of this middle age reassessment. What exactly is our role as older than young and younger than old women who are still active and more effective than ever? Who are we supposed to be at this stage of our life when we are less likely to be bound and identified by our kinship connection to someone else — as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a lover?

This middling transitional shift into the next stage of our being promises us a vast world of positive possibilities for the second half of life. But, first, before we are able to avail ourselves of the advantages and rewards of maturity, we must cross the Grand Canyon of midlife change, steep, rocky, shaken, and ripped asunder by a whole panoply of seismic ripples — mental, emotional, and spiritual — beyond the obvious physical ones. We climb and climb, and still we lose ground. The earth that we once trusted to be solid under our feet is slipping away and we are dragged out to sea where we bob along in uncertain waters, in a leaky boat with no map.

In her book Goddesses in Older Women, the therapist Dr. Jean Bolen, says that menopause is "A time of great spiritual and creative unfolding — although it sometimes feels like great unraveling." Unraveling, indeed. The whole damn sweater is falling apart and we are standing here naked in the cold (and we are still hot). Nothing has prepared us for this landslide of transitions that greets us as we enter our middle years. There we were, going along as always, then one day out of the blue, we discover ourselves to be middle aged. Blindsided in a youth-conscious culture, we never saw it coming, but the overwhelming evidence of our aging can hardly be ignored.

The profound changes in the chemistry of our bodies and in our intimate relationships, the terrifying disruptions of our status quo, the daily life-and-death dramas, are incredibly disorienting. Not only are we burning up physically, blasted with flashes from our out of control internal furnace, we are also, many of us, burnt out on an emotional level after years of tending the home, the hearth, and usually a job as well. Society tells us, and our own experiences have verified, that we will lose now that we are menopausal, everything that has so far defined us: our power of reproductively, our youth, our sex appeal, our children, our parents, our spouses, our time left on the job, our very visibility. This grim prognosis is frequently internalized by midlife women as loss of direction, motivation, enthusiasm, and self-esteem, our fear, our grief, expressed as confusion, depression, and furious rage.

The relentless bombardment of losses that batters us in every area of our lives effectively strips us of any unrealistic, immature confidence that we once might have had that we were safe in an unchanging and dependable world. We were shielded by our youthful sense of indestructibility as well as by our notoriously death-defying culture. We now understand, because we have lived it, that nothing and no one stays the same forever, that all things must end sometime, that shit, does indeed, happen. We have seen what we have seen. This rude lesson is brought home, more often than not, on the wings of death. When our parents sicken and die, they leave us standing alone on the last rung of the ladder of life and we cannot help but notice that we will be next to kick up our heels in the ancestral conga line. It is also common for us to start losing our husbands, friends, and contemporaries now, which forces us with a mighty shove to confront our own fragile mortality.

Our watch sports a much larger face these days — not only because we have trouble seeing it, but because we are uncomfortably aware of time running out. In a flash, we see that life has been moving along without us for quite some time now. We just weren't paying attention. We were busy, distracted by our responsibilities, lulled and dulled by our routines and addictions, deluded by denial. And, lo, before we realized what was happening, we had reached, no, probably bypassed, the halfway mark of our lives. From now on, we swear, we will make every precious second count.

The notion that 50 years of age could be considered a "halfway" mark is unprecedented in history. We are blessed with an inestimable gift of many more years of life than anyone who ever lived on Earth before us could ever have imagined. Our future looks bright; it is only the present that seems grim. It is crucial that we wend our way with great concentration and care through the crises of our midlife passage, so that we can learn how to turn our losses into the very lessons that will help us to achieve the life that we want for ourselves as we age. If we ignore our unresolved problems, chronic irritants, and resentments, we can be sure that they will surface as toxic stress that can cause cancer, heart attacks, substance abuse, depression, and other debilitating and life-threatening problems. How successfully we handle our changes will determine the quality of our health and wellbeing for all of our future years. Our life literally depends on it.

At midlife, we are at a major crossroads in our lives, and we can choose to move ahead, turn right or left, stay where we are, or go back where we came from. The Queen, my new archetype for mature women in charge, is an inspirational role model for us as we make our way through our middle years. The Queen chooses always to choose, to involve Herself fully in the process of Her life and living, and to actively direct the drama of Her myth. She urges us take up the challenges of changing, of aging, of engaging in all that life has to offer, and She reminds us to look upon the difficulties, disruptions, disappointments, fears, and failures we have experienced as important life lessons, without which we could never hope to ascend to a throne of responsibility and rule. She encourages us to entertain the entire palette of our emotions, for there is where we find our strength and knowledge and true value. Some things in life just have to be learned the hard way and evading them is counter-productive and eventually destructive. The only way to get through them is to go through them.

The roads leading to Queendom are diverse and many, The way to Self-esteem can be complicated and long. Each woman must take her own path, make her own trail, clear a passage for herself through the thick brambles that reach up to trip her. What roads do exist are unmapped, bumpy, and full of potholes, tumbleweed, and road-kill. There are no shortcuts along the Queen's Highway, no services, no shoulders, no signage, but many detours and cul-du-sacs. And the fare can be exorbitant. As Dear Abby, Abigail Van Buren, once noted, "If we could sell our experiences for what they cost us, we'd be millionaires." Like any grand journey, the trip toward self-dominion requires stamina, determination, and the passionate desire to travel. But if we pack properly, check our tires frequently, and take time for picnics, the adventure is incomparable. And the destination of Self-empowerment is majestic.

Menopausal women are now reaching maturity just in time to shape the new millennium for generations of women to come. Possessing both the vital stamina of youth and the experienced wisdom of age, our pioneering generation is anxious to work through the debilitating panic of aging and its negative, derogatory cultural connotations with at least some measure of good grace. And, as a generation, we are especially suited to such a task. Unique in history for our unprecedented freedom, education, individuation, worldliness, health, wealth, and longevity, we now hold positions of hard-earned authority, responsibility, and influence in ever-wider realms. Though certainly not perfect, nor perfectly safe, our power is unparalleled. Moreover, weaned on freethinking, idealism and independence, we have been prescribing the parameters of our lives, inventing and reinventing our culture and ourselves for decades.

And there are more of us every day. One third of all the women in America are over the age of 50, and one woman reaches that milestone every 7.5 seconds. More than 4000 women enter menopause each day. As a matter of fact, climacteric women, 50 million strong, now comprise the single largest population segment of American society. Silent no more, we are reading and talking and conspiring about how to best traverse this profound transitional time in our lives. We are determined to transform ourselves, and in the process, redefine the parameters and archetypes of middle age. We look to the past for grounding, we look to the future for courage, we look to each other for inspiration, and we look to ourselves for the answers. This is definitely not our mothers' menopause!



You don't get to choose how you're going to die,
only how you're going to live.

—Joan Baez
American singer and songwriter (1941


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