Monday, August 13, 2012
The Bullet I Dodged
This morning on my drive to work, I was listening to our local public radio station and this story about women and midlife crisis came on. Dr. Dan Gottlieb (a family therapist) explained that just as many men go through a midlife crisis in their middle years, so do women. He explained that a woman's midlife crisis comes about when her children leave home and she is faced with "empty nest syndrome". With feelings of loss, confusion and resentment, she is faced with an identity crisis: she has done everything society expected her to do (i.e. have kids) and now that her kids are gone, she doesn't know who she is or what she wants to do with the rest of her life. She is lost.
I have heard mothers talk about empty nest syndrome and the mourning they go through and I have always thought with relief, "there's one more bullet I dodged", but I never considered that I also dodged the larger overriding bullet of falling victim to the dreaded midlife crisis.
I am 46 years old and in only a few months, I will be 47 - just 3 years shy of the big 5-0. Assuming I live to be 90, I am already past the mid-life mark. Yet, I feel more vibrant and self aware than ever. My life is in high gear, just as it always has been, yet with age I have gained some wonderful things that I lacked in my younger years. My identity is firmly intact. I know exactly who I am, I like who I am (faults and all) - and with the exception of some improvements with age (and a few gray hairs, I am sad to say), I am pretty much the same person I was 10 years ago. I like what I am doing with my life and I can easily envision my future and how I will fill the years I have left. I don't worry if everyone likes me. I don't ask "who am I?". I don't feel empty, depressed, lost, confused about my identity (or reliant on another person to give me one). I am proud of the fact that I have never needed to serve as a host to a parastitic being in order to feel fulfilled as a woman or to give my life purpose. And I am even happier that I will never fall into despair because said parasite no longer needs to feed off me.
Many people envision a life without children as a huge, sad, gaping hole - a lack, a loss, a meaningless existence. I have always seen it as the opposite - a beautiful, inviting space to create exactly the life I want and to share it with the people I love the most - people with whom I share mutual caring, support and devotion. And lucky for me, none of these people are leaving me in the dust after draining my life's savings.
I admit that when I first heard Dr. Gottlieb define the female midlife crisis in terms of motherhood, I was annoyed. Once again, the childfree perspective was altogether ignored and as usual woman was equated with mother. Dr. Gottlieb might argue that since female midlife crisis is related to empty nest sydrome, it simply doesn't apply to childfree women. But wouldn't it have been great if he mentioned that fact? Wouldn't it have been great if the interviewer asked, "What about women who do not have children? Are they less likely to go through a mid-life crisis?" Wouldn't it be great if non-mothers were even acknowledged to exist? Considering that 20% of American women end their childbearing years without giving birth to a child, we're not exactly part of an invisible minority anymore, despite the fact that the media still treats us like we are.
Putting my annoyance aside, what I mainly felt after hearing that story was intense relief and gratitude. I am grateful that age 46 is just a wiser and more self-aware version of 26, and that age 50 will hopefully find me a slightly better version of who I am today. I am grateful that I am self-defined, know what I want to be doing today, tomorrow and 5 years from now, and I am relieved that I won't wake up tomorrow, or next year, and ask myself who the heck I am.