Discover more from the examined family
Grow bigger, not bitter
thoughts on the midlife moment and all its promise
The Introductions post last week went gangbusters, with over 100 of you introducing yourselves. Y’all are AMAZING! And live all over the world. And have so many amazing questions on your minds. If you haven’t yet browsed the intros, please do, and add your own. I was especially moved to see people talking about meeting up IRL + even some beautiful modeling of giving constructive feedback and responding to it. This was far richer than I could have ever imagined. (And thanks to for the push to do it. Love you WM.)
Examined Family is written by a midlife, Capricorn queen who sits her big beautiful butt in the chair every week to deliver you something useful, beautiful, and true (or that’s the aim, at least). If you subscribe already, you know all this. And thank you! If you don’t, now’s a great time.
Thought experiment: when you hear the word “midlife” what first comes to mind?
For most of us, at least of a certain age, the answers are rapid fire and in this order:
leaving your wife for a younger woman
Clearly the culture has done its job—tape-worming into our brains and leaving behind a vacuous, narrow triad of images and associations (all White, elite, & male).
But if you start to look around at your own life, as the lives of your neighbors and friends, the people in your church or mosque or surf crew or book club, you will realize that something very different is going on. Sure there are a few dudes living out the emotionally immature script and driving off into the sunset, but they are in the minority. Here is what is actually going on:
People are redefining ambition. Most of us who hit 40 have had enough experiences—winning and losing—to know that it is all actually “winning” and “losing.” The best job in the world can also cause you profound stress. Getting the promotion, raise, book deal that you always wanted, might feel like a hard-won achievement in certain ways, and in others, it is likely to be anti-climatic and send you spinning off into a moment of existential confusion. If you’ve experienced the texture of work long enough, you start to sober up about what really matters to you, what you are really made for, and what you want to spend your precious energy and time on. You understand that the deepest sense of self-realization doesn’t come through paychecks or titles, but through genuine, intrinsic pride that you have done something you are delighted by with people who delight you. Midlife is a moment to seek a more finely calibrated understanding of all of this and start advocating for yourself within work settings (whether that means joining a labor union or saying no more to freelance work or not tolerating assholes). Of course the most insecure your financial situation, and the less lucrative your life’s work, the more constraints you face on living into these truths. Which is why economic disparity is about so much more than “food on the table,” but people’s ability to give the world their best gifts and live their fullest, most realized lives.
People are looking back to look forward. Many of us, spurred by the stresses of caretaking up and down our family line, finally get into therapy at this time in our lives. We start surfacing the scripts of our childhoods, speaking truths that we’ve never dared speak, grieving things that we never had time or space to grieve, getting to know why we are the way we are, and also learning that we can grow and change despite our earliest conditioning. This is hard work. It’s noble work. And it’s generational work. For the loyal among us, it can feel very hard. Even like a kind of betrayal. But as with our work lives, we slowly integrate our own wisdom that admitting what has been hard about our journey, including our family of origin, doesn’t mean that we condemn anyone. For some of us, looking back includes real trauma and it takes tremendous fortitude and the right expert support to go there. For some of us, it’s not so much about trauma, as understanding our early wiring, the dynamics that taught us about control, safety, and of course, love. We can speak truth and still be loving. What a gift of the accumulated years and scars.
People are re-imagining their relationships. For many of us, midlife is a time for looking at our most significant relationships with fresh eyes. Whether it’s a marriage, a circle of friends, or the neighborly vibe where we live, we realize that we want and need different things than we did when we were 20 or even 30. Many of us look around and realize that we have inherited a social life—seeded in new moms’ groups or the PTA at school or even earlier—that we aren’t sure fits us and that we have the power to change it. We don’t have to spend time with people that make us feel like shit. Eureka! We don’t have to be friends with people who match us demographically and professionally, and in fact, some of the richest connections come from bonding within and around stimulating differences. One of my best friends is a queer child-free artist, and I love how her sense of time and possibility are so different than mine. Another is a working mother with a totally different relationship to parenting and travel than I have; bumping up against her sense of freedom is so perspective-giving. For those of us in long-term committed relationships, midlife is often a crucible. We look at one another and ask: Who are we now? Who do we want to be? Can we grow together?
Newsflash: our bodies change! This one is such a biggie, and so little understood. Peri-menopause and menopause are infrequently discussed in our popular media or “polite” conversations and too many of us are left privately googling symptoms or having unsatisfying conversations with rushed doctors, who barely get any training in midlife health issues. The women I know have been devouring articles like this, listening to podcasts like this, watching clips like this, and sharing information with one another so we can support one another. And make no mistake, this is not about binary choices like HRT (hormone replacement therapy) or no HRT. This is about a developing relationship with aging and dying, corporeal limitations and psychic freedoms, advocating for yourself and seeking out collective solutions, pain and suffering, sex and beauty. Holy perfect storm of shit to grow you up whether you like it or not, am I right?
I grow so much inspiration from Mary Pipher’s words:
With each new stage of life, we outgrow the strategies that worked for us at an earlier stage. We find ourselves in an environment that pelts us with more challenges than our current self can manage. If we don’t grow bigger, we can become bitter. When our problems become too big for us, our healthiest response is to expand our capacities. That growth is qualitative. We become deeper, kinder to ourselves and others, and more capable of bliss.
I wish you bliss my friends. Not purchased from an anti-aging guru, but born from the inside-out of the most fecund, complex soil that you’ve been turning and turning for years and years.
So what are you experiencing, seeing, wondering, at this midlife moment? Or if you’re not in midlife, what have you witnessed? How are you hoping it might be re-imagined?