There was a period during my youth in which having a midlife crisis seemed like a thing that all the dads were doing. Exact dates may vary, but you could probably chronologically soundtrack the era as starting with Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life and ending with Santana’s Supernatural (or, if you prefer, roughly The Sportswriter to American Beauty) and really hitting its stride around 1989, the year that produced the both the Mazda Miata and Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire.
In those days, the phenomenon of the midlife crisis was so prevalent that we just accepted it as an inevitability of the male aging process. Like ear hair, bald spots, and shouting at you over dinner about fiscal responsibility. Like, at some point all men went from being young dudes at college seeing classic rock bands in 1969 to being normal dads to being creepy dudes making very weird fashion choices and embarrassing you by talking endlessly to your babysitter about those classic rock bands they saw in college in 1969. There was an enormous amount of filmed, audio, and print media on the subject. There was Iron John. There was Bill Clinton’s saxophone. There were Jimmy Buffet fans. There were stoned grown men in unbuttoned polos, riding around in golf carts at a mid-level beach resorts in the swampy twilight of a Lowcountry summer during the Bush Sr years, filling the damp air with the sound of a tinny boom box asking passing, mortified ninth graders in R.E.M t-shirts whether their love would still be strong, after the boys of summer have gone.
Clearly there were exceptions. The midlife crisis as popularly portrayed was a phenomenon concentrated among usually white, middle-class adjacent, mostly (though certainly not all) heterosexual men. And among practitioners, there were plenty of deviations. Some dads bought Harleys or took up crossbow hunting or high stakes poker or painful blues rock cover bands. Among my immediate sphere, there was a heavy tendency toward Wilderness Adventure—either Outward Bound or thru-hiking the AT— and new age spirituality, which oftentimes served as Single Let’s Mingle events for newly divorced fathers eager to meet a sandalwood-scented romantic partner named after an alcoholic beverage or a large body of water. We, children of the zeitgeist, quietly compared our respective circumstances at the food court, tried to roll with it, channeling our own non-verbal, pre-hashtag version of OK Boomer into a lot of eye rolling and ironic distance I know Dad’s new socks and sandals, ponytailed faux yogi persona is kind of weird. But, like, did you hear that Stephanie’s new stepmother is technically younger than Stephanie’s oldest sister. I mean, is that even legal? It is? Really?
Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.
On the bonus, as teenaged girls, having a midlife crisis felt like a thing that would never happen to us, even if we reached the advanced age of oh my god, like, so old, like, forty, gross without perishing in some Plainsong-soundtracked exquisite tragedy with a guy that looked kind of like Christian Slater or maybe James Hurley. But even if we managed to evade the reaper for a few more decades, the whole concept seemed so inherently masculine, and specifically so suburban, lawn-having, over-tanned polo-shirt masculine, we would-be urban sophisticates believed we were safe.
After all, our mothers did not appear to have midlife crises. I mean, they might briefly invested in drinking wine and emotionally applauding the end of “Thelma and Louise” or maybe drop by a Wicca Welcome Book Club on “Fried Green Tomatoes” night (note: magic doesn’t have to be real for a well-deployed hex to feel empowering), but there was nothing of the wild, shameless abandon of their male peers and partners. Somebody had to pay the bills and make sure we got to school. A forty year old dude that quits his banking job, cashes in his retirement, leaves his spouse, and runs off to Oaxaca/Grand Cayman/Long Boat Key to spend nine months flirting with younger women and journaling about self-actualization, could be seen then, at least by other men (and, if the books were to be believed, a coterie of impressionable young women in creative writing programs) as an inspirational figure, bravely casting off the shackles of his soulless suburban existence and seizing freedom from the maws of a small-minded and uncaring capitalist machine. The forty year old woman who did the same was a cautionary tale, a lunatic, a criminal, whose behavior could be possibly explained by the tragedy of her never having become a mother. And if she was a mother? Well, god help her and maybe we should call the authorities. I mean, how could anyone woman be so selfish?
Seriously, how could anyone?
I’m forty-effing-@#$ years old. We’re calling it midlife, but it’s probably only the middle if we’re looking at a “Holy Good Genes, Batman! You must have a healthy savings account and be plenty optimistic about climate change” timeline. (Nope). And to my nearly immeasurable chagrin, I’m pretty sure I’m having a midlife crisis. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve been having a midlife crises for at least, I dunno, three years now?
As a single lady with no kids, you might imagine I’d be flying high, cruising the Wayward Isles from my (literal or figurative) sailboat like a post-modern Stede Bonnet, free from expectation, spousal scorn, and the guilt of having allowed my thankfully non-existant children to “literally die of embarrassment.” But you know, Covid. Also, house payment. The security of a wholly fine life it feels stupid to ditch just because my pants turned antsy around the time strangers started nodding and saying something kind of patronizing about the change. There are the big questions I probably need to sort out about identity and desire and whether, if thing things you thought might make you are happy are wholly out of range, whether you can settle without resentment into something that is not unrewarding and mostly comfortable, even if it’s not what you’d choose. But there’s also a war in the Ukraine, a global pandemic, and it feels pretty petty so invest a lot of time in the wallow. I mean, I’m not dying or starving because I’m not so secretly pretty sad and a little bored with my life.
There’s no practical guidebook for women in midlife. We may get hot flashes, hormonal shifts and sanctimonious lectures from other women how much of a shit we should or should not be giving about how we present ourselves. We probably get advice about diet, exercise, mindfulness, clutter, finances, how stressed we are for doing too much, how we should be doing more, how one glass of wine is more than enough, how we shouldn’t forget our screenings, our vitamins, our therapy, self-care, treat yourself, you be you, but not too much, not all the time, and certainly not like that. HAVE YOU UPDATED YOUR GRATITUDE JOURNAL TODAY? WHAT KIND OF UNGRATEFUL A-HOLE DOESN’T UPDATE HER GRATITUDE JOURNAL?
We’re supposed to responsible and practical and way too tired to go out and way over making new friends, contented, settled, far beyond the petty, privileged whining about how sad we are that we didn’t age into Tilda Swinton or whatever. We’re also supposed to be confident by now. We’re supposed to be out of fucks to give. We’re supposed to be good with where we are. It should be enough to be reasonably healthy and housed. It should be enough to have friends and family and decent insurance plan. It should be enough. And besides, anything can happen. You have the rest of your life ahead of you. You can still publish a novel. You can still sing with a band. You can still see elephants in the wild. You can still commit to bad tattoos, worse hairstyles, tumultuous relationships, useless degrees, demeaning jobs, overpriced tickets to see terrible bands play. You have decades. Have you considered a bucket list?
But, friends, it feels like exactly zero time—zero time—has passed between being a seventeen year old who believed herself on the threshold of an excellent life and the fat lady in her mid-forties still terrified she might miss out on something, because she’s absolutely, positively, 100% sure she has. I don’t feel like I’ve gained any arcane wisdom over the years, or aged into myself in a cloak of radical self-acceptance. I mean, as person who came up in the 1990s, I’m still trying to deactivate some decades-retrograde attitudes about how (or even whether) a person can even be successful or satisfied and not be some kind of sell-out. And this is where I am, at long last, kind of, vaguely sort of sensitive to the dads of my youth and their desperate attempts to try again, to fail, and fail, if not better, then at least in a Hawaiian shirt doing all the shit they missed out on in the mid-1970s. Maybe dial the Steely Dan down a notch, but on some level, I feel you.
So what does all this look like for me? Well, right now I’m shopping my way through it. I’m not yet going broke on dresses and cardigans, another pair of sneakers that feels for a second like they might imbue me with superpowered cool, or at least the ability to walk miles fashionably, which is, if I’ve learned anything since age 17, a kind of superpower. I stand in my closet trying on still tagged outfits trying to work out whether I can summon some of the old swagger back if I just embrace the high-waisted boyfriend jean or a slip dress or a pair of platform-soled Doc Martens that look exactly like the ones I would have sold my soul for when I was seventeen.
It’s not enough. It won’t last forever, this business of trying to find a version of my life I like through looking at myself in a different outfit in the full length mirror. For now, though, it’s cheaper than a sports car, easier than falling in love, and probably smarter than rocking the boat at a time in my life, in this place, at a moment in time when everything, all over, feels so breathtakingly uncertain.
Tomorrow, who knows?
Maybe I’ll hit up the Wiccans.