My mother-in-law, quoting her mother, has often said, “a woman who tells her age will tell you anything.” I think the “anything” here she is referring to is sexual disclosure. She may be correct because I am not above or below talking about that, but that is not what I am talking about today. Today, I am talking about age, since I am on the cusp of my fortieth birthday.
Still two months out, I am surprised that this birthday registers for me as much as it does. The experience has caused me to plumb my mind in search for vanities that I had not previously noticed. In the depths as on the surface, I have observed, for example, subtle changes in my skin and muscle tone. I will catch a glimpse of my profile and see my mother or my sister, occasionally even one of my grandmothers. My feet look a little, well, bonier somehow. I had to buy glasses recently. However, when I go spelunking, it is not really these things that trouble me. I actually like myself more as an adult than I did as a child or very young woman. I developed a wonderful sense of my body’s strength when I bore and nursed children as well as a compassion for its limitations when I had surgery. I seem more suited to my own flesh these days, and sometimes I actually feel sorry for my younger self who did not know how to appreciate herself. In twilight moments, I occasionally drift backward mentally to a previous iteration just to offer her a little affirmation. It is not really the getting older that I find myself snagging upon nor (and I think I am being honest here) the loss of youth per se. What is it then?
Here’s my hypothesis:
By the time a person reaches the start of his or her fifth decade, s/he is no longer in the phase of foundations-laying. Of course, anyone can start something anew at anytime… I myself do so all the time. But, those first decades of: surviving childhood, then adolescence, then early adulthood; establishing a career; perhaps early marriage and parenting; love and loss of love; grief, bereavement, sometimes trauma; geographical relocations; apartments and homes; finances, and on and on… these foundational decades have been irrevocably traversed. What is more, it seems to me, it is only in the traversing that one actually comes to know who s/he is. Put another way, these foundational experiences are not so much the freely elected choices of a fully formed agent but the things that produce a fully formed agent. One acts haltingly and imperfectly all the while until a genuine, empirically formed, minded, and voiced self can emerge.
That such a process occurs is not as troubling to me as the fact that by the time one is really comfortable in oneself, life is already greatly defined by obligations and patterns that are inextricable. Even worse, the patterns that inform and often dictate our early choices seem crippling when they stipulate essentialist roles and boundaries. We internalize unwittingly pre-existent, socially constructed norms (frequently writ as divinely prescribed) for career, marriage, parenthood, family participation, religious creed, political identity, and more. By the time we can articulate a vision of self-in-society or self-in-relationship over and against those norms, we have become stakeholders. One cannot un-write the set up or the dramatis personae just because the hero realizes: 1) s/he is in a play and 2) the play is already well into the second act. This is the stuff of the midlife crisis.
Had I been asked a few years ago to weigh in on the apparent madness that can overtake people in these years, I would have had a lot more to say about the purchase of sporty red coupés, marital infidelity, and trading in one’s life to sell daiquiris under the thatched roof of some sea-side cabana. Now, though, I think I get it. Although you won’t find me in Margaretville yet, I do have a revised ethics of disrupting the status quo. Where once I would have felt there was tremendous moral value in meting responsibilities within one’s contingent circumstances, now I would argue that the greater value lies in transforming those contingencies so as to bring one’s lived truth to power. For, surely, this is was it means to be truly human, to be co-creator, to be agential. Wherever possible, one must do more than fulfill functions and enact scripts. One must especially have the courage to ask whom and what ends their assigned, conscripted, and adopted functions serve, especially those deemed ontological, teleological, and essential. How often is some mendacious power or economic dynamic served by the continuance of our role-performances? Who and what stands to lose by our stopping?
I cannot speak generally for the experience of women or men. Not all social locations afford the luxury of midlife, let alone midlife crises. However, where and as they exist, I submit that midlife crises might be reclaimed and celebrated as an opportunity for midlife geneses. Wakeful midlife is an opportunity to take stock of one’s being from the vantage point of adulthood. One here knows herself now well enough to know whether she’s made good choices that fit her skin, whether she was living out someone else’s vision, and what preferences she has in food, recreation, car color, or even room temperature. One now has the weight of her own years to push back against deference to everyone else’s vote and the tyranny of precedence. Frankly, I think midlife is kind of awesome. So, I conclude with this, if you exhibit any of these “warning signs” (wants more passion, has newfound ambition, is concerned about health and fitness, wants to change things in your life that are dissatisfying to you), be fearless. You are not crazy; you’ve just grown up. Be wise. Be You. It may be the first time you’ve ever really stepped onto the stage.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.