An event at midlife: crisis, challenge, breakthrough, or opportunity?

This blog was originally posted at Women Writers, Women’s Books on May 1, 2019.

When I was 26 years old, my 54-year-old mom received her doctorate. She had divorced my dad a few years prior, moved from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, and enrolled in a Ph.D. program that seemed crazy to some of her friends: women who, like her, had married in the 50’s, living life as they knew it, or sometimes believed was expected of them. Even if they sometimes questioned why they gave up what they had, to do so. Mom traveled to Asia — India, Japan, China, and Thailand — with her fellow mostly twenty-something students, explored East-West Psychology, and all kinds of new ideas. A few years later she was a favorite college adjunct professor at Marylhurst College, a non-traditional Oregon institution that didn’t seem as bothered then, as a traditional university, that her psychology degree was non-clinical. Mom specialized in courses that attracted, especially, women at mid-life. A few years later when I was busy with my own career and raising two young daughters, she even published a book titled, Mythmaking: Heal Your Past, Claim Your Future.

For the first time, last month, I cracked open her doctoral dissertation. I had come across it while helping my now 86-year-old mother downsize again, perhaps, for a final time. The title of the tome astounded me: “The experience of a critical event leading to dramatic midlife career change for women – A phenomenological investigation.” How had I not known or remembered the details of this lengthy document? Is it perhaps akin to how we can read the same book a second time, later in life, and experience it differently than the first read?

The dissertation is filled with experiences, a few similar to my own, thirty years after hers. And while Mom’s abrupt jump into her next life change followed a divorce, ending her 28 year-long marriage, my own soul-encompassing entry at mid-life into something new was my response to the death of my dad, almost five years ago now. Holding so much sadness, and yet acknowledging the beauty of the long life he had led, all I could do was write. I wrote early in the morning and late at night, during my bus commute to my day job, and in my brain when on foot or bicycle. (For authenticity I must add, Mom and Dad did remarry shortly after her dissertation was published, and together they supported each other until his death: that’s another story, captured by a beautiful Boston Globe podcast. (See Writing About the Bad.)

Popular dictionaries remind us that a midlife crisis is a transition of identity and self-confidence that can occur in middle-aged individuals, typically 45–64 years old. The Canadian psychologist, Elliot Jaques, was credited in 1965 as coining the term “midlife crisis,” referring to a “time when adults reckon with their own mortality and their remaining years of productive life.” And while many may not experience what we would consider to be a “crisis”, we may, however, encounter challenges to our mental health and well-being, including feelings of distress, depression, and anxiety.

We do know, certainly, midlife isn’t the only time people take to publishing a book: some are born knowing it is all they can do, others meet other events along life’s journey that compel them to write, evidenced by the wide variation of memoir topics –  deaths, births, remembering childhood trauma, or, change or loss of health or ability. Nor is writing the only thing we are drawn to as we seek new feats or challenges as we age. And while we might acknowledge our own “midlife” crisis, or, perhaps unkindly, a partner’s, what if rather than look at this as a negatively contrived “mid-life crisis” we imagine it as a potential opportunity, even when accompanied by sadness and loss. Whateverthat loss might be: a death, in my case driving me inward to storytelling, or a divorce, in my mom’s case, or loss of job, loss of child, loss or change of health, all coupled with the recognition of our own mortality.

The time is now to do what it is that our soul needs to do. Not that we shouldn’t grieve and be sad, but can we also imagine what else might come from it? To expand who we are and what we are doing here, and what we might become? To, perhaps, even allow us to climb out of whatever bad fairy tale that has consumed us so far, to age into a new view: maybe filled with challenge, acceptance, and contentment. I think of what happened to the people I love at midlife: my mom got a PhD, traveled to Asia, and wrote a book. My dad stopped drinking and became “the man I loved most.” My spouse became a mayor. And I wrote. And keep writing. First a memoir, now a novel. I ponder: what next?

Three Lakes near Pacific Crest Trail, Mt. Rainier National Park, 1981, shortly before Mom enrolled in her Ph.D. Program.

5 thoughts on “An event at midlife: crisis, challenge, breakthrough, or opportunity?

  1. Nice post. That one hits close to home for me. But, no regrets. Always better to try new things and expand yourself. Hope all’s well, Alden


  2. Thank you so much Dede for writing and writing! I appreciate sharing this journey with you. This story is so inspirational for those of us contemplating the next chapter in life following the pandemic that I know is not over yet. So many transitions going on in our lives- your mom was ahead of her times! And it’s nice to see that it’s ever too late to follow your dreams.


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