According to some experts, you can’t have a midlife crisis until you are 40. Supposedly you have it because you suddenly realize that life as you know it is at least half over. Presumably you deal with that realization by doing something that makes you feel younger-such as buying a sports car, having an affair with a college student, or going to a Hannah Montana concert.
I don’t buy it, especially that part about Hannah Montana. That, in particular, would make me feel only one thing: ancient.
More important, I’ve already have two so-called midlife crises-both before the age of 38. Neither one of them had to do with my biological age or the realization that I was going to kick the bucket at some point in the next 40 years. These crises did not cause me to buy a sports car, try skydiving, get a face lift or do anything else to make myself feel younger.
Rather they triggered me to reassess my life and my happiness. Based on my own experiences and those of other women who have contacted me through Project Happily Ever After, I think women potentially can go through three life crises or transitions. They are:
The quarter life crisis: This usually strikes in your 20s. I had mine around age 24. This is when I no longer wanted any of the life goals I’d worked so hard to achieve. I’d majored in journalism, but found little joy as a newspaper reporter. I’d dated my college boyfriend for 4 years, but did not want to marry him. What to do? What to do?
The early midlife crisis: This hits around the mid to late 30s either a few years after having children or a few years after not having them. The triggering factors behind this crisis differ slightly from woman to woman. Some working mothers find that they crave more time with their children, but can’t find a way to balance that craving with their careers and the need to earn enough money to pay the bills. Stay at home mothers generally have it as the youngest child enters first grade. Non-moms have it as their fertility drains away.
No matter the triggering factor, however, the basic sensation is the same. It’s goes like this: I worked so hard to get this job title, marry this man, have these 2.5 kids, and buy this house-but is it really what I want? Where is the meaning in my life? I have everything I thought I ever wanted, but I am not happy!
For me, this particular crisis started around age 36. I found myself eyeing up every single remotely attractive man. I considered getting out of my marriage. I started going to bars alone-just to see what would happen. I began writing essays, a novel, a memoir-all sorts of things that had nothing to do with the writing career I’d built for myself.
The late midlife crisis: I’ve been hearing from a number of women who experience this life shift in their 50s. The kids are grown. They may have been forced to retire early from their careers. Some have survived a health crisis, such as breast cancer. They find themselves trying to find the woman they once knew. They wonder, “Who was she and where did she go? Who am I now?”
After 20 or more years of marriage, these women are also finding the idea of singlehood very attractive and the idea of having an affair even more so.
Now that I’ve survived two of these life transitions, I can tell you this: the midlife crisis is nothing to fear. It’s a good thing. It’s that kick in the pants you need to get yourself to reassess your marriage, your career, your friendships and your identity. Here’s what to do:
Stop fearing it. Use the malaise, disappointment and disillusionment as a wake up call. Ask yourself, “What specifically am I unhappy about and why?” Ask that question about your:
- Hobbies and other interests
- Family relationships
Trust the answers that rise to the surface.
Make a decision. When faced with midlife malaise about any area of your life, you have three choices:
Choice #1: Improve the current situation. For instance, if we’re talking about your marriage, then go to counseling.
Choice #2: Get out of the current situation. Ask for a divorce. Change jobs. Find new friends. Tell your family of origin that they are toxic, and then get an unlisted number.
Choice #3: Do nothing and accept misery.
The vast majority of people opt for choice #3. This choice is so self-destructive though. When you accept misery, you increase the likelihood of making other people miserable, too. You slack off at work, forcing your co-workers to work harder. You are checked out at home, so your kids lose out on having a close connection with their mother.
DO NOT GO FOR #3. JUST DON’T DO IT. Get out of the indecisive spot. Go for #1 or #2-and stick with it. Once you’ve made your choice, do not look back.
Make a plan. Start a Project. Let’s say you’ve decided to stay in your marriage, but you no longer find your husband exciting. Work on teaching him how to excite you. Go to marital counseling. Read martial improvement books. Take a vacation together, without the kids.
Let’s say you are miserable at work and you’ve opted for Choice #2. What will you do next? Think about those career dreams that you’ve always wanted, but have been too scared to try. Allow yourself to envision that future. Once you see your future, figure out what you need to put in place to get there. Do you need any training? How can you find out more about it? Start networking with people in that field.
Tackle one project at a time, focusing on the area that gives you the most grief first. Break each life improvement project down into small steps. For instance, if you are working on your marriage, work on your sex life, then on romance, then on communication, and so on.
Embrace failure. No one ever achieved success without first skinning a knee or two. You will fail. When you do, embrace it. What can this hardship teach you? Use it to reassess your goals, your methods, and your plan. Then pick yourself back up, strap on a Band-Aid or two, and move forward.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Have you gone through a midlife crisis? What helped you get through it?
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.