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.


CFVixen said...

Wow...awesome post!

You see it all of the time: women without an identity unless they are raising children. I don't know if it makes me sad or angry. Probably both.

Like you, I CREATED a life for myself that I wholeheartedly enjoy. Between being married to my best friend, having a fulfilling career, keeping up with family and friends and having several varied interests, I'm never bored or wondering what I should do with my life.

I don't understand the mentality of putting your body through hell for nine months, scaling back your dreams, ambitions, and pleasure for 18 years, spending many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and losing your identity on top of it....just to raise a child who will not appreciate it.

Like you said on the poster you created awhile back...the childfree KNOW what they are missing! And thank goodness for that!

marin said...

20% it's quite a number! But unfortunately I'm not treated as I were invisible, anyone who feels like question my choice an my identity.
Latest example, man in the neighborhood yelled at me:
"Stop walking that dog, make babies!"

Maybe could be an idea for your next post:

Happily CF said...

Wow, this is very interesting. I (childfree) would argue that plenty of non-mothers will go through midlife crises. Are they less likely to go through non-life crises than are mothers? I'm sure more research would need to be done.

But, I think it is very likely true that the midlife crises of both women AND men are in part due to their status as parents. Men often feel trapped and miss their freewheeling younger days, and I think this trapped feeling is probably much less prevalent among non-fathers (including married non-fathers.)

At base, midlife crises seem to be rooted in some sort of identity crisis - the father who feels trapped by responsibilities, or the mother who feels she has no identity beyond being a mother, and likely, the mother who feels trapped by responsibility, even if she has an identity outside of being a mother.

I think it's great if you as a childfree woman have your life totally figured out and everything is wonderful. But I also think that plenty of childfree women still wrestle with the whole "what am I going to do with my life" question. I'm married, don't have kids, don't want kids, and the kid issue does not at all come into play when I feel dissatisfaction with my life. But I do still feel dissatisfaction.

I have a masters degree and had a professional career and it just wasn't what I wanted to do, so I quit and I have been taking various courses and trying to "find myself." (I hate that expression but I guess it best sums things up... I'm trying to find a career which is more fulfilling.) I guess you could say I'm even having a bit of an early mid-life crisis. (I'm in my mid-30s.) But here's where being childfree comes in... I have the freedom to "find myself." It's an ongoing process and I don't have to wait until I'm 50 or whatever to start to create an identity outside of my children.

So, I guess my point is that I don't believe being childfree eliminates midlife crises, but perhaps they hit less hard because of the freedom we have to "take action" against them.

Unknown said...

I am so grateful to have found a community with childfree people. My husband and I have yet to "come out" officially to our families as childfree, because we are afraid of the anger and judgement. But after reading things like this post, I get the feeling that once we do finally come out, we will feel free and very happy about it!

Happily CF said...

Just to clarify an earlier point I made... in case parents suggest my dissatisfaction is due to not having children... the idea of children has NEVER entered into my "quest" for fulfillment. I've travelled abroad a lot, and I've begun to realize that I wish I could somehow find a career which includes travel, I've wanted to become fluent in another language rather than the usual school/college study which is easily lost and rarely leads to fluency... I've lived abroad but now that I am married we are not as mobile, due to my husband's career. (I had a professional career and a decent salary, but he makes over twice as much as I ever did, and is the one who really supports us, so he can't give up or dramatically restructure his career. Plus, he likes it as is.)

I think maybe there are some people who would feel most fulfilled not only as CHILDFREE people, but as UNMARRIED people... (a group just as ostracized!) I love my husband and we're best friends and he provides emotional security, but it's hard for me to balance my aspirations with the reality of his career. He's supportive but not about to throw away his career ro pursue a totally different lifestyle.

I wonder about the rate of midlife crises in childfree unmarried people? Is it the lowest? Or do unmarried childfree people wake up one day, freak out, and pursue adoption (rather than buying a sports car?) I'd say unlikely, unless the person was simply childless, not childfree. (Does the term "childfree" apply to unmarrieds? I know a lot of people would insist that unmarried people who claim to be "childfree" are only childfree out of necessity because they're not yet married (not that you need to be married to have children.))

Happily CF said...

Sorry to seem to monopolize comments...

Here's another question I have about the study. How do the women feel before the children leave the nest? Are they perfectly satisfied in their roles as mothers, and then only when that role is (largely) taken away, they feel lost? I'd bet many mothers have a "crisis" well before that point... they're not satisfied having no other identity. (We know this from the many "I hate being a mom" posts you've shared!) But I guess the "good" mothers bury that feeling (delude themselves) in the interest of remaining there for their kids (and not going insane.) Or maybe a crisis at a younger age isn't considered a mid-life crisis, or women that age are excluded from the study of midllife crises?

To the credit of some mothers, I do know that there are some women who have enjoyed being mothers, but feel a huge sense of relief as their children grow up and leave, and have a whole plan mapped out for what they want to do at that point. (Still, who wants to wait until age 50 (or later) to finish college/go to grad school/start a career/travel/whatever? While I applaud some mothers I know who are level-headed and won't feel like they have no identity when their kids leave, I can't wrap my brain around completely giving up one's prime years to have children.)

Childfreeeee said...

Happily CF, from what you describe, I don't think you are having a midlife crisis. It sounds like you have just been having a hard time figuring out what career would be the most fulfilling for you and you have been dissatisfied with your career path so far.

I see midlife crisis as a sudden, drastic decline that happens with some people when they reach middle age where they go from feeling generally satisfied with their lives, with a sense of identity and purpose to a complete loss of those things and a feeling of "what now?". They have done everything that was expected of them - the education, the marriage, the house, the kids - and now in mid-age, they are faced with the question of "what is the big payoff for all this?". "Who am I?". With women it usually happens with their kids leave the nest because many women base their own identities and sense of self-worth on their role as mom. They supplant their own identities for their childrens so when their children leave, it is almost as though they no longer have an identity.

I think with a midlife crisis there is also a deep fear that life has passed one by and what do they have to show for it? It sounds like you have a lot to show for your life so far and life certainly has not passed you by. You just haven't found the right career yet.

Elizabeth said...

Hi, I'm 46 too and I'm definitely having a midlife crisis! I don't have children and am not married and the past few years have been very painful as the awareness has fully come home to roost that my life has veered completely off course. I DO take comfort from the fact that my self-awareness and self-confidence have deepened considerably over the past few agonising years however the way forward is very unclear and quite scary in many respects.

However I also take comfort from the fact that there is no 'empty nest syndrome' waiting round the corner to leap out at me and that perhaps I am just going through a scenario that many mothers will have to go through when their children eventually leave home, with the exception that my "existential angst" has been reached without the instigation of children growing away from me.

It is insulting that a woman's 'mid-life crisis' is only seen as being attributable to mothers; us child-free do also have our own soul-searching and dark nights of the soul to go through, in fact probably more intensely given that we have had to work harder and dig deeper to try and make some sense of purpose for ourselves in the absence of children.

Temujin said...

I had something of a midlife crisis at 38, brought on by my being forced to face the fact that I really did not want to have kids. My crisis was not caused by lacking kids but by avoiding the fact that I didn't want any.

Childfree people can feel just as trapped in their lives as childed people, just that CFers tend to have more options to deal with it.

For a lot of mothers there is the _opposite_ of the Empty Nest Syndrome. It's the "Thank God They're Gone" Syndrome. For a lot of people there's a silent relief when the kids move out, because they feel like they can start to be individual people again.

Blondie said...

Thank you SO much for writing this. It's lovely. I am single, childfree, and 35. Thank you for giving me something to look FORWARD to if I do not have children.

Lady K said...

Thank you for a timely and eloquent post.

I have been dating a man who says he is "not fussed" about having kids...but the other night, he commented quite flippantly and as though it was not even up for question, that the reason I don't want kids is that I have some sort of psychological "problem". I just shrugged and laughed it off, but thinking about it later I realised something.

I don't "not" want kids because I have a psychological problem. It because I "don't" have any psychological problems. I don't need them to define me, to give my life purpose, to feel as though I will be remembered (which is silly - how many people know the names of their ancestors even 3 generations back?) I don't have ANY problems that I need kids to solve.

I am happy just as I am and happy with my life just as it is. And when I am 47, I too will be far too busy enjoying my fulfilling life to feel even a twinge of regret.

lauracarroll said...

Agreed it is annoying that the perspective of women with no children was not brought up at all. When mid life crisis is referred to in men, whether they are fathers or not does not seem to enter the equation - does it? I think the mid life crisis can happen whether you have kids or not. People can reach an age where they begin to look back on their lives and the things they wished they had done and did not, and feel that the chance (s ) have passed them by...It also seems a time when one begins to confront his/her mortality and underlying fear of death, which inspires behaviors that will make them feel younger, eg., the hot car, seeking younger partners, and the like. One thing for sure, childfree women don't face the identity crisis that mothers can!

Anonymous said...

Such an awesome post! I am 36, but I feel 24, there abouts, and I put this down to one fact: I don't have children. Every day that I'd watch my children grow, I would observe myself getting older - I think. Without that comparison, I don't even realize I'm aging! I am not completely immune to feeling the age, some days I look in the mirror and wonder how in the world... But at the same time, even if I have had some identity crisis along the way, they were due to things that I could change and control. Figure out where to go and go there. With children, you're stuck... Hopefully you like where you are, but not too much because there's that end date.

firefly said...

I too am childfree and can say with relative assurance that 'midlife' crisis is not connected with children. Empty nest syndrome may be the triggering event for some (especially women who had babies in their 30s), but I think this is more about aging and realizing that all possibilities are no longer open.

When I was 46 I didn't think about it much either (didn't need reading glasses until I was 48--that's a nice little kick in the pants, not being able to read tiny print any more), but I will be 51 this year. With an elderly mother, a partner whose hair is salt-and-pepper, and the approach of menopause, you can believe I am thinking seriously about my life course and making adjustments, even though every minute is pretty much full of living.

I don't regret that I didn't do the expected -- degree, career, marriage --- but all the same, "who I am" changes over time whether I'm happy with my current self or not. There are things that I can do now that I may not be able to do in 10 years, like lugging a 50-lb bag of cat litter, or all my own garden design and maintenance on 5700 square feet of land. My mother still carries her own groceries, but she has to stop every few steps up to her second-floor apartment. Thinking about the loss of certain abilities is sobering whether or not you have had children.

I think it may be worse for parents because they see their own bodies aging while their kids are just starting out all fresh and young and able to stay up all night (we still do that, but we have to take naps the next day).

There is a big problem in thinking, talking, and considering aging in this country, so it gets euphemized into "midlife crisis" and red sports cars -- but it's all about gray hair and wrinkles.

And unfortunately that's a bullet no one dodges in the end.

Freelance Feminist said...

From my own personal observations, I think I would say the reverse is happening:

The "midlife crisis" of not having an identity comes while a woman is raising children. Once her children leave the nest, all of a sudden there is room for her and she comes into her own once more. It's sort of like the midlife crisis comes early.

You once wrote that when a woman becomes a mother, she declines in her value as an employee. She becomes less reliable. She becomes softer and loses her edge.

There's a woman I know who totally exemplifies that. She was a high-powered attorney before she had kids, and once her two boys were born, she had to give it up to raise them. She was still an atttorney, but she had to be an independent one instead of working in corporate law, and of course made less money. I can't speak for her when it comes to her career and whether or not she found it satisfying, but I will say that even with a reduced schedule, she was still stressed out and found it hard to cope. She turned to binge eating as an outlet. She was literally "softer" for the entire 23 years her boys were at home, as she was 70 pounds overweight. I also found her to be much more passive and insecure while her kids were still at home.

Today, her kids have been out of the house for seven years, and she has definitely changed A LOT. I noticed just in the first year of her not having kids at home, her weight just started to melt away. If you saw her now, you would never guess that she used to be obese. Her "edge" has come back, both literally and figuratively. Her face, which used to be round and pudgy, now looks sharper. She is now much more assertive and outspoken. Her hair has changed from a big, curly blob to a short and sharp-looking pixie cut. In other words, she is a completely different person. Oh, and she looks 10 times happier too.

In the interviews of childfree women you posted, one of the women said that people are taught to dread the "empty nest syndrome" but the biggest symptom of this "syndrome" is a big SMILE. I see the exact same thing with other "empty-nesters" around me.

What I'm looking forward to as a childfree woman is being able to keep my identity for the rest of my life, and not ever losing myself to motherhood. When I am 60, I will have been through 20 more years of personal growth and maturity than my fellow child-rearers have. That's the opposite of an identity crisis--that's identity fulfillment.

Esley said...

Definitely an awesome post. It kind of hit home for me.

I just turned 49 last month. I also feel "more vibrant and self aware than ever". Not to say that I'm not struggling with some issues right now. I just recently got out a of 12yr relationship with someone who had kids (grown now and I never thought of them as mine) and I finally see 'me' again for the first time in years.

I never wanted kids and knew that pretty early on. And now at my age people don't expect it which is great. I guess you could say I'm going through a sort of mid-life crisis but it is something I actually look forward to now. I would not want to be 20's again and I would probably choose the last 12 yrs differently if I could but I look forward to living my life as I choose now and I hope everyone else can do the same.

I am really enjoying catching up on blog as a newbie. Thanks for creating it.

beatlefreak81 said...

I think I am going through something similar to a midlife crisis period now. I think it all started with deciding (at least internally) that I didn't want to be a mother. I guess I had been unknowingly baby brainwashed into believing that there wasn't much else to life. In some way, realizing deep down that I didn't want that for my life left a huge hole. I kept wondering, " What now?" and, "Is this it?" I always had a plan before but I didn't this time. I have to admit, it was a little scary at first, but I'm happy I didn't become a parent. It's something I never really wanted and I think if it was I would have made it happen.

I have noticed that it might seem like having a child gives a woman an identity, but viewing it from the outside to me it looks like once a woman has a child she LOSES her identity. Does anyone here have Facebook friends whose profile pictures are of their children all the time? I have several and it's kind if annoying to be honest. I'm not friends with your child I'm friends with you. While your child may be wonderful I'd like to know what's going on with you. I wouldn't be happy living like that.

beatlefreak81 said...

Exactly. It was almost like, " what now?"