The Joy of Midlife
Nearby is the country they call life
You will know it by its seriousness.
A certain age arrives where you believe yourself to be post-surprises. With enough been-there-done-that lodged in your bones, you may find yourself saying out loud, ‘Nothing could shock me.’
But the relief came as a surprise. When I turned 50, my kids were young adults, the vigil of my mothering had finally come to an end and I was still alive. If I died, no-one could rightfully mourn, ‘she died so young.’ At best, they might sob, ‘She died so middle-aged.’ It felt like both an existential and generational victory given how many women in my ancestral family died young.
But more than that, it was a giddy, unexpected liberation that was only the gateway to an ever-expanding sense of freedom I had no idea lay just beyond the trenches of mothering.
I’d always romanticized freedom, assuming it was either, like youth, wasted on those without a prefrontal cortex, or on men who left their wives and kids in the intoxicated fog of a midlife crisis. During the long sacrificial years of hands-on parenting, I’d quietly mourned that the days of wanton partying, shagging and shirking were well behind me, and all that was left was relentless responsibility and respectability and where the hell was the fun in that?
The eight kilos that had climbed onboard with menopause and settled in the apron of my midriff, seemed a minor mortification. So, I’d buy bigger clothes. Suddenly, hours opened up like startling blooms, where once was an endless landscape of (dermatologist, dentist, basketball, guitar) arrangements and appointments (none of which were for me). What would I do with such bounty? And why had midlife been kept such a secret? It struck me that knowing your fifties would be your #bestdecadeever might have come in handy as an incentive to get through the quagmire of the previous three.
I had spent my twenties steering myself towards motherhood like a moth to a flame. Every choice was shaped by the goal: find a man, make babies. Motherhood lay before me, an unconquered territory. That was hardly freedom. It was conscription.
In motherhood, I melted into the lives of other people where I became a blur of a person. I clocked up thousands of decisions about the well-being of others entrusted to my care. I wounded my heart worrying about whether they were the right ones, causing my husband to once remark, ‘Don’t beat yourself up, just because it’s your fault.’ The neurosis crippled me. There is no liberation in watching your children struggle when you’d pay good money to suffer instead of them but are powerless to swap places.
Who knew that at midlife, we come to know true freedom for the first time?
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?
We no longer fret about expiry dates (being left on the shelf or our biological clock). We either met Mr or Ms Right (or several versions of them) or we didn’t. We know – or should by now – that romantic love is a commercially funded and loaded business that sets traps for young women (maybe we were that young woman not so long ago).
We either had babies or we did not. We stop waiting for someone to come and save us, and find we are strong and smart enough to do it ourselves. We cease bitching about our skin/hair/weight because our sister/girlfriend/colleague didn’t make it past forty.
Once we’ve buried people we love, some of whom should have outlived us, (as if ‘should’ has anything to do with dying), we become less cavalier about every moment; and more fastidious about how and with whom we spend them.
We understand time is running out and behave with a sudden-bowel-movement urgency around things that matter.
A woman at this stage of her life is wildly untethered. She’s a terrifying creature if one is fixated on control and containment. She becomes a ‘termagant’ – a term I only just learned: a ‘violent, overbearing, turbulent, brawling, quarrelsome woman; a virago, a shrew.’ In midlife, women shrug off marriages, switch careers, go back to university, start businesses. We stop owing anyone our patience, civility or decency.
Vagueness, a not-sure-what-do-you-think? people-pleasing personality trait lest we not be liked by the average so-and-so, vanishes. Everything blurry clicks into sharp focus, like a lens in those optometry frames which turns an O into a D.
Questions we have delayed for too long nestle in the pistil of our decision-making: where would I like to live, now that ‘near the best schools’ is irrelevant? Do I want to eat meat, since I don’t have to cook for a teenage son? Do I need a television set? A husband? A car? A bra?
Perhaps we find ourselves in our petrification at the rising tide of age, lining up for Botox, facelifts and liposuction, so as not to become invisible. But invisible to whom? We become ever more evident to ourselves as our Emersonian beauty ‘steals inwards.’ Invisibility is and has always been a superpower. Midlife gives us a free pass into our own blessed autonomy.
Behind us lies the rubble and blah-blah of all our successes and failures. We finally have the freedom to leap beyond self-recrimination and bless the work we did even if it did not yield the results we hoped for. We can choose (the zenith of all freedoms) to forgive ourselves for all the mistakes we promised we would never make, and chuckle at the hubris of thinking we could control the outcome.
Then we can toss our greying hair in an insouciant manner unbecoming for a woman our age as we head out in the direction of our ‘at-long-last’ dreams.
We survived our early lives thinking it was our only chance at happiness.
In midlife, we get another go at it.
Joanne Fedler is an internationally bestselling author of 13 books, her latest is Unbecoming (Lusaris, 2020). www.joannefedler.com