My Midlife Crisis — If Only I Had Time for It

(Originally published on Huffington Post Divorce.)

I just realized the other day that I’m at the age where I should be having my midlife crisis. In fact, when I think back, my parents went through theirs right about this same time of life. They separated in their mid-forties and my dad moved out. He bought himself a shiny red MG convertible and started dating a woman closer to my age than his own. Although I don’t recall my dad cooking a single meal during my childhood (except BBQ, which every Texan male does starting at birth), he took up gourmet cooking and started shopping for high-end ingredients at the fanciest market in town, where we had never shopped as a family. He became interested in fine wine and turned one of his closets into a wine cellar. He learned to ski — by far the best part of his midlife crisis in my opinion, since he started taking my brother and sisters and me to Lake Tahoe with his girlfriend.

My mom’s midlife crisis was equally profound, although more a schizophrenic combination of 1980s feminism and “Oh gosh, I better find another man.” Raised in the 1950s, she’d been the typical college-educated woman who left her career upon marriage to become a suburban housewife and mother of four for 20 years. After the divorce, she got a second master’s degree and returned to the workforce. She became a board member of a nonprofit for homeless kids. She attended parties and cultural events with her sophisticated female friends in the city. She started investing in the stock market.

At the same time, she lost 10 pounds and got a push-up bra and white veneers on her front teeth. She dated a judge, an architect, a banker, a physicist. In between her feminist pursuits, she was on the hunt for a man. I remember one night sitting on her bed while she was dressing for a date. It was one of those close mother-daughter moments like you see in a Hallmark commercial. She must have felt it was the perfect moment to pass on some generational wisdom. See, my mom never liked her rear end, so as she hooked up her bra, she leaned over and said to me intently in a hushed tone: “The key to dating is to wear a push-up bra with a low-cut sweater. The guy will be too busy staring at the boobs to notice the butt.”

As I remember this wild ride that was my parents’ midlife crisis, all I can wonder is why I’m missing out on this myself. I’m getting near the end of my forties and I’m still plugging along the same. When do I get to stop being responsible and serious? When do I get to have my second adolescence and do ridiculous things and stop thinking all the time about my kids and planning their future?

I posed this question to a friend. She gave me one of those “isn’t it obvious” looks and replied, “Sure, it would be great, but we just don’t have the time!”

Bingo. I think a lot of us did it all wrong when it comes to midlife crisis planning. Because we spent our twenties focused on school and career, we married and had kids much later than our parents. So, here we are past our mid-forties, with kids still at home (some of us even with a child in elementary school)! Like most of my friends, I am just too darn busy to think of a midlife crisis. Between driving the kids to school and sports and music lessons and overseeing homework and being involved in their class and starting to think about SATs and college, the last thing on my mind is buying a push-up bra or getting in shape and rediscovering myself.

I have only one friend my age who’s an empty nester. She had her kids in her mid-twenties and both are now away at college. And yes, she has lost weight, works out, bought some youthful clothes, looks and feels better than ever, travels with her husband and her two new lap dogs, is having a great time doing weekends away with her girlfriends and rediscovering herself. She even leased a Lexus convertible (“it costs less than what we used to spend on the girls’ dance lessons,” she justified). Is this a bona fide midlife crisis? She and I aren’t sure, although some of it feels like it. Whatever the case, I’m envious. Certainly, I could do some of these same things with kids still at home — but when it comes down to it, it would just be one more thing to add to my To-Do List.

It’s not just the age of my kids, I realize, that’s getting in the way of my midlife crisis. Thirty years ago, my parents still had two teens at home when they launched themselves into theirs. My younger brother and sister had to fend for themselves a lot more than my older sister and I ever had to… and they got away with a lot more too.

At our last family reunion, my 42-year-old brother told us everything he and my sister did while I was away at college and Mom and Dad were trying to recapture their youth: sneaking out after curfew, the late-night rides on his moped to meet friends in the park, the unauthorized party at our house when Mom was out of town with girlfriends, my sister’s boyfriend hanging around all the time. I do remember once driving home from college to find my brother, sister and her boyfriend with several friends in the hot tub, holding big red plastic cups of soda and bags of chips, Mom nowhere in sight. And my sister said Mom and Dad didn’t even ask much about her grades during high school, they were so busy with their own pursuits, and she let her grades slide. Yet, both my younger siblings managed to graduate from high school, get into good colleges and top graduate schools and have successful careers.

Part of me would love to neglect my kids the way my parents did during their midlife crisis, but that just wouldn’t fly today. It’s in our Parent job description now to hand-hold our kids through the over-the-top academic rigors of middle and high school so they can get into a good college, not to mention the endless organized sports and activities that turn us into personal secretaries and chauffeurs for more than a decade. Yes, I think I’m screwed and I’m not going to get a midlife crisis. Poor planning, different times.

To console myself, I thought, perhaps I can have it in 10 years when the kids are gone… sort of a delayed midlife crisis.” That fantasy was shot down by a guy I was talking with while watching my son’s soccer game. He told me he tried this at 57 when he divorced and his son left for college. “The party scene was exhausting… I’d be wiped out the next day… the seats in my convertible had no lumbar support… my dermatologist told me I needed to apply sunscreen every time I put the top down.”

Ok, I officially give up. Fortunately, I can take solace in the fact that my husband is 59 years old. I may be missing my midlife crisis, but he’s going to be missing his retirement.

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Some Thoughts on Grief (and a poem that brought me back to life)

Healing from divorce is a long process.  Everyone eventually recovers and finds happiness, but the first year or two is more about grief than new life.  I wish it could be different, but that’s just the way it is for most people.

Personally I’ve experienced grief twice in my life, and both times it felt overwhelming.  Thanks to genetics (for which I can’t take any credit), it has generally been easy for me to find joy and satisfaction in my daily life without much effort. Yet during those years of grief, I felt lost inside and I couldn’t find that person I had once been.

That’s the scariest part of grief — the feeling that you’re not yourself anymore and you can’t pull yourself out of a darkness that seems to have enveloped your insides and your thoughts and sometimes even your very soul.  There’s a children’s movie called “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” and toward the end of the movie, there’s a scene where Mr. Magorium has died and all the toys lose their color and the toy store becomes shrouded in black and gray.   That’s how I felt when I was lost in grief.  It was paralyzing and consuming and felt at the time like it would never end.

At the point that I was struggling to come back to life inside, when I had just started to take baby steps trying to move forward but was still floundering, a good friend read this Ellen Bass poem to me over the phone.

THE THING IS

The thing is
to love life
to love it even when you have no
stomach for it, when everything you’ve held
dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands
and your throat is filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you so heavily
it is like heat, tropical, moist
thickening the air so it’s heavy like water
more fit for gills than lungs.
When grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief.
How long can a body withstand this, you think,
and yet you hold life like a face between your palms,
a plain face, with no charming smile
or twinkle in her eye,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

-Ellen Bass

At the point my friend got to the verse “. . . and yet you hold life like a face between your palms, a plain face, with no charming smile or twinkle in her eye, and you say, yes, I will take you, I will love you again,”  I felt myself break down into unexpected sobs.

That line did it for me because I realized this is exactly what I hadn’t wanted to do and had been resisting.  I hadn’t wanted to embrace my broken world and my broken heart and all the disappointment and sadness and loss and imperfection that had come into my life.  I didn’t want to take that ugly little face that was my life at that time into my hands and accept it.  I wanted my life to go back to how it had been before, and I was rejecting the brokenness in me and in the world in which I live.

Another truth hit me in the face at that moment too—that rejecting my own life was keeping me suffering.  I couldn’t change or undo the past.   I couldn’t undo the losses I’d experienced or the inhumane acts I’d witnessed that had caused such a spiritual crisis.  I needed to accept that the gaping holes inside me were always going to be there, and were now a part of the fabric of my being.

Acceptance was also about letting go of the innocence of youth.  I hadn’t wanted to believe that bad things do happen to good people.  It broke my heart to see this and accept that it’s a part of life.  The greatest act of courage and hope, I decided, would be to take my life as it was dealt to me and also embrace the world with all its flaws and injustices.

Moving beyond grief is really all about acceptance.  Not resignation, but acceptance. Resignation is giving up.  Acceptance is saying, “Indeed, bad things happen—in fact, sometimes really bad things happen and people are cruel—but I believe enough in myself and in my life that I’m not going to throw it away over what has passed.”  Acceptance is about saying yes to life even when it’s not fair, even when there are wrongdoings and bad actors who have harmed you and others you love.

I wish I could say that once I had that realization, all the grief was gone and I was back to my former self.  Well, you know that only happens in the movies.  It wasn’t that dramatic or instant, but it was definitely a turning point.  My heart cracked open, just enough to let in a little light so I could remember who I used to be.  That person was still there, I saw, just buried beneath the grief.

To get out of the spiritual hole I’d fallen into, I had to follow that light– which meant stopping the pattern of ruminating on the past and the wrongs I’d witnessed, and even those which had been done to me. Dwelling on the past does nothing more than refuel one’s anger and resentment over and over again.  I should know, I did a lot of that and it did nothing more than keep me in a cycle of pain and sadness.

To return to the true self – to regain hope and faith and optimism about the future –  I finally had to accept the past with all its ugliness and sadness, and say, as Ellen Bass would say, “yes, life, I will take you, I will love you again,” in spite of it all.

 

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Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned #2 (My advice is still: try mediation first)

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The Mouse In My House

We have four cats—all hunters who, despite the bell we affix to their collars, regularly bring us catches from the canyon:  mice, rats, birds, lizards, even an occasional baby rabbit and King snake.  As early as six-years old, my kids became adept at either rescuing a still-live animal from the cat’s mouth (which they’d release back into the canyon), or putting a plastic bag over their hand to pick up and dispose of the ones that didn’t make it.

So you can imagine our surprise to discover that we have a mouse who has taken up residence in our house.  We’ve never actually seen this mouse, but we know he’s here somewhere.  Our theory is one of the cats brought him in through the cat door when we were gone,  realized there was no one here to see his prize – then either lost interest or lost hold of the mouse. We’ve named him Supermouse, which seems fitting for a rodent who has successfully evaded four cats for three months.

We first discovered his presence in late January when we returned from a weekend away.  My son had a bag of chocolate coins in his room.  We found the net bag torn open, gold foil and bits of chocolate all over his desk, and a trail of mouse poop on the floor.  Quite a lot of mouse poop in fact.   He’d clearly had a feast in our absence.

Next he moved to the kitchen and for weeks we found bits of food and droppings behind various appliances and shelves—first behind the microwave, then the toaster oven, then the phone and stack of papers, eventually under the cereal shelf, and it continued along these lines week after week.  At first we were horrified, then became gradually desensitized…. to the point that we now just wipe it up, disinfect the area, and carry on with whatever we were doing before we discovered the mess.

I have become quite philosophical about this mouse, not caring whether he stays… in part because life is just too busy to worry about a mouse, and partly because his presence has reminded me of something my mom said to me years ago.  My mother, who is a deeply spiritual person of no specific denomination, explained God to me like this, when I was growing up:

I would ask: “Mom, how do you know there is a God? What makes you believe as strongly as you do that there’s a higher power out there?”

She would say,“Alison, it’s like having a mouse in your house.  You will never actually see it, but you will know it’s there because the cheese keeps disappearing.  God gives you little clues that He is there.  I’ve had it happen time and time again in my life.  At times when I needed guidance or inspiration, when I needed something or someone to come along and provide friendship or support or love or help, at my lowest times, when my mother died, when I was going through my divorce, when I was worried about one of my children or the future – the cheese would go missing – something would happen that was just too much to be coincidence, little clues that God was out there and I should have faith, that I am in His hands.  Sometimes it would be a friend showing up or a person coming into my life right when I needed them.  Sometimes it was an act of kindness.  Sometimes it was a book or cassette tape I found at just the right moment with the wisdom I needed.  Sometimes it was a random conversation with a stranger, or discovering an old card or letter that had something written on it that could have been intended for my current situation. There was always a clue when I most needed it. “

Childhood was so carefree for me that I didn’t really understand my mother’s message until I entered adulthood and began life outside of my mother’s house.  I started to look for the missing cheese during times of sadness or when I was unsure or challenged by life.

I’ve been fortunate to have relatively few crises in my life, but what I’ve realized is we all have unavoidable struggles that are just a part of living through each stage of life.

  • In my 20′s, there were a few romantic break-ups and disappointments, the death of a friend in a freak accident, confusion about what direction to go professionally, getting through law school, and finally the challenge of starting a law practice.
  • In my 30′s, it was about marriage, pregnancy and babies, moving to a new city, having to make new friends and missing my family and former professional life as I worked to establish a new self-identity as a mother and wife.   The loss of two beloved pets.
  • In my 40′s, it has been losing elderly relatives and friends, the intensity and demands of raising children, juggling work and family, the mid-life realization that I and my parents (and everyone around me, including my kids) are getting older and life is moving faster than I’d like, the sad betrayal of a close friend, witnessing malicious politics at our children’s school, and dealing with a pesky health issue.

Through my dark nights of the soul over the past thirty years, the pattern has been the same.  I would feel more and more lost and start to wonder if I’d been kidding myself all along and there’s nothing out there.  And then something would happen— the cheese would disappear.   I’d get a clue, sometimes large, sometimes small, just like my mother described, which would carry me spiritually and give me the strength I needed to regain my inner footing.

This has been a particularly hard couple of months for me, which is why I haven’t been blogging.   I’ve been waiting for a message, a clue that everything will be okay.  It finally smacked me in the face today—there couldn’t be a clearer message than my mouse in the house.  How could I have missed it? –this  literal reminder of my mother’s unswerving faith in life and God.

This mouse gives me the most hope of all.  It has evaded the cats, defied all odds, and has been leaving me clues—mostly in the form of shit.  So I just have to laugh and see the incredible irony in it all.  I’ve got some shit in my life right now, that’s for sure.  And it’s quite clear that God is telling me through all this shit—big and small –to keep the faith.

To everyone — Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Chag Sameach.

(P.S.  I am leaving the patio doors open so Supermouse can make a run for it.)

 

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Happy Thanksgiving, and as we officially launch the holiday season . . .

I am reminded of a quote by Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons):

“Families are about love overcoming emotional torture.”

(And this applies whether you’re married, separated, divorced or single.)

Good luck and hang in there!

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“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” (My advice: try mediation first)

 

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Feed the Love, Starve the Anger


(photo by Anant N S)

You never know where you’re going to get the next piece of wisdom. Yesterday my son and I were at Trader Joe’s grocery store, enjoying a quick morning chat with a store employee named Wendy who runs the sample station. Wendy is one of those persons who knows how to talk to kids and really listens. We’ve become quite attached to her after shopping at this store and exchanging conversation multiple times. On this particular morning, my son was sharing some thoughts about what he liked and didn’t like about his recent 6th grade camp experience, and this was Wendy’s response:

(I am doing this from memory, so may not be exactly word for word what she said)
“My uncle told me when I was your age that the secret to a happy life is ‘feed the love, starve the anger.’ Focus on all the good things that happened at camp and let go of the rest. Don’t think about the bad stuff, don’t dwell on it, think about the things you liked, what made you happy. If you do this kind of thing all your life, you’ll be a happier person.”

I joined the conversation at this point. And Wendy shared how she and her ex-husband were mad at each other for a while after their divorce, but they decided at some point it was time to “feed the love and starve the anger.” She said they both started thinking about all the good times, made a decision to stop replaying in their heads all the fighting and everything that didn’t work. They’ve gradually developed a friendly relationship, something that happened after she “forced herself” to focus on the good.

Wow, I wish I could take this lady home and keep her around. And she should speak at my divorce seminars.

It’s really that simple, isn’t it. Feed the love, starve the anger. And yet it’s so hard to do in life, particularly in a divorce.

I’ve been walking around the past 24 hours with this on my mind, and every time a negative thought comes into my head, I think, “Starve it and think about something positive.” I’m noticing that my mind is like a young, untrained child, not able to focus for very long. It wants so badly to go back to worrying and thinking about negative stuff—stuff I can’t even change! I laugh at myself, thinking how I’m supposed to be an inspirational writer and here I can’t even take my own advice.

Wherever you are today in your process, just start running that line through your head. I’m going to keep trying. And let’s see what happens.

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The Pursuit of Happiness

I just finished The Happiness Project, a book by Gretchen Rubin based on her year-long project to make her life happier. It was a good read with tips I’m going to integrate into my own life. When this book came out in 2009, book clubs started their own happiness projects based on Rubin’s formula. As with most things trendy, I’m a little late in the game, but fortunately the steps from her book can be started anytime.

Taking some of Rubin’s key points and applying them to marriage and divorce, this is what I’ve come up with:

1. Instead of asking, “Does my boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse make me happy?” or thinking “I’d be happy if I were in a relationship,” we should be asking ourselves whether we are pursuing in our personal life the proven factors that bring about happiness. One thing I’ve learned from Rubin’s Happiness Project is that finding happiness requires effort and a daily commitment. It’s a lot easier to be unhappy– that doesn’t take any work. To make yourself consistently happy—that’s almost like a full-time job. My first thought is, “I don’t have time for all this.” But if I want to be happier, I guess I better make the time.

2. If I were going through a divorce, I would use this time for some real reflection on what is missing in my life and what would make me happier. Take an inventory of what you are doing with your time, whether you are pursuing activities that lead to personal satisfaction and fulfillment, and if not, figure out what small steps you could take to get started. Also figure out what will ultimately bring you long-term happiness. Divorce is naturally a time to open some new doors as old ones close, so why not open ones that lead you to where you want to be in 2, 3, 5 years….

3. If you are still married but contemplating divorce, take a good look at what you expect from married life and what you expect to find in single life. Ask yourself: Am I blaming too much of my marital unhappiness on my spouse? Is it truly my spouse who hinders my ability to pursue these happiness factors, or merely the circumstances of family life? Will getting divorced really make me happier in the long run, or are there changes I can make within the marriage that will accomplish what I need to be happier? These questions are particularly important to answer when you have children together. You are stuck with your ex for a long time, married or not, when you have kids.

4. Likewise, I would ask similar questions when thinking about getting re-married. Am I expecting too much of my new mate, which is going to doom this relationship to fail? Will marrying this person increase these happiness factors and allow me the time to pursue them in a supportive environment? Or will getting re-married merely complicate this?

5. Last, I think it’s important to add a reality check to this happiness discussion. It is frankly somewhat unrealistic to expect yourself to be happy when you are in the middle of a divorce. Divorce–even when for the right reasons–is a time of enormous change and upheaval. It is like a death and involves the same grief and healing process. I’ve never had a client who was “happy” during their divorce, and for most of them it took a year or two to regain their emotional footing.

Yes, use the time of your divorce to figure out what will make you happy in the future so you can begin to sow the seeds now, but the reality is that you are in the winter of your life and spring isn’t here just yet.

Putting pressure on yourself to be happy isn’t going to change the difficulty of this time. I wish our lives were as easy as painting an old house–and we could just put a fresh coat of paint over the old paint and start anew.

Instead, there’s a lot of emotional and spiritual clutter that has to be sorted through, such as examining what went wrong and learning from your mistakes and accepting that you married someone who is now hurting you and may have betrayed you. Allow yourself to grieve and feel sadness before you try to jump back into the pursuit of happiness. No one likes this advice and it’s no fun, but think of it this way: you’ve got to pull out the weeds before you can plant your new garden.

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