I went from happy to feeling unmoored; something needed to change,I had to figure out what that was
I knew to expect some physical changes, but the emotional upheaval I felt at midlife, I never saw that coming. I have always been a fairly content and positive person, but a few years ago, I noticed my emotions had started bouncing around like Jane Fonda in a 1980’s fitness video. I went from content to feeling lost in my own life. I fluctuated between happiness, and feeling anxious and sometimes even angry.
And I was irritated, by pretty much everything. Cue the noise cancelling headphones I took to wearing. My husband Sean once joked that it was like having a third teenager in the house – probably a fair comment. But teenagers are teenagers for a reason: They need to differentiate themselves and create a healthy autonomy. But I am jumping ahead, because I hadn’t figured that part out yet.
Feeling Anxious & Emotional at Midlife
My emotional roller coaster was made worse by the fact that I did not understand why it was happening. I had no obvious reason to feel unmoored in my own life. Yes, my life was changing. My two boys were in high school and my older son was starting to think about college. They still needed me, but less, and in different ways.
It is bittersweet to watch your children become young adults, but I was actually excited to have more time to focus on myself. After putting a career in newspaper journalism aside to be an at-home parent, it was almost as if I woke up one day and wondered where the last fifteen years had gone.
Like many women, I gave much of my time and energy to my family: endless grocery shopping and food prep, chauffeur services, and generally managing the lives of the kids and the house.
And I had volunteered at the boys’ schools for the last 15 years. (My first assignment was dressing four-year-old kindergarteners in their snow suits, my last was organizing an “After Prom” party for six hundred 18-year-olds.) A shoutout to all school volunteers; their support helps buoy underfunded schools and overworked teachers.
Confused About What Was Next
The prospect of channeling all that energy into my own life and interests was exciting, yet confusing. I loved the idea of rejoining the work world but worried about the lack of flexibility, and wondered who would hire me. I wanted to contribute to something that felt meaningful, not just earn a paycheck.
Should I work full-time or part-time, and continue volunteering? I could return to the freelance writing I had done in the past, but also liked the idea of working for a non-profit that supports girls’ education in developing countries, a passion of mine.
I thought it was the career uncertainty making me so unhappy. I believed that once the job question was settled, I would be as well.
Meanwhile, several things happened that prompted me to begin to look at this phase of my life in a new way.
A Health Scare
I had been dealing with declining mobility, and it came to a point in the spring of 2016 where I could barely walk around the block. I had spent months thinking the problem was my back, and then learned that I needed a hip replacement.
I had no idea that I suffered from hip dysplasia, a genetic condition which had led to the loss of the cartilage in my hip joint. (Cartilage… another thing we don’t appreciate until it’s gone.) You can read the story here: Midlife Hip Replacement.
After hip surgery, I looked at my health in a new way. I had always been healthy and now realized I could not take that for granted. I vowed to take care of myself in an even more significant way, and never put my health, mental or physical, behind any other obligations.
The Wisdom of Menopause
I also came across a book by Dr. Christiane Northrup, a medical expert on women and midlife health. In The Wisdom of Menopause, she talked about the common physical changes at midlife, but far more interesting to me was what she said about the emotional changes: For many women, midlife was the most significant period of emotional upheaval since the teen years. What!?
Confusion, sadness and anger were all common, she said. How had I never heard that before? The women I knew were talking about hot flashes and sleep disruption, not their emotions, other than maybe some irritability. Meanwhile I felt like midlife was shaking me by the shoulders, trying to get me to pay attention.
What Hormones Have to do With It
I learned that when women are of childbearing age, our hormones drive us to be caretakers. We can’t help ourselves. It’s really not a fair fight; we just want to take care of everyone.
As far as I can tell, they also enable us to be great purveyors of the smooth over. We are able to push our own needs aside to keep everyone happy and hold it all together.
Then suddenly at midlife, the agenda changes: a hormone called GnRH primes our brain for new perceptions and new behaviour. It allows us to experience and express emotions that we’ve pushed aside. Unpleasant emotions. And Dr. Northrup refers to this change as an opportunity. Negative emotions are signs, she says, a call to examine your life, and determine if or what needs to change.
This line really struck me: “The need and desire to assume more dominion over our lives becomes a burning issue at midlife.” Burning issue, check. I started talking to women about the emotional side of midlife and heard that they too wanted more control over their own lives.
I realized what I was feeling was more complicated than deciding between freelance or traditional employment. I needed to recover some of the autonomy that many women willingly lose as we become enmeshed in family life – in mothering, if we have children, and more broadly, being caretakers. I needed to differentiate myself, but how?
A Midlife Trip to India
In the fall of 2017, I had the chance to go on a trip to India – without my family. Visiting India had long been a dream, one I had missed out on in my 20’s when I had last travelled in Asia. After initially deciding it would be too hard on my family to leave for almost three weeks, I decided to go (with their enthusiastic encouragement).
That trip was incredible for many reasons. India was fascinating and beautiful, yes. But more importantly, with my usual obligations 12 time zones away, I had the time and mental space to remember how it felt to be Susan. Just Susan. Not mom, wife, daughter, or volunteer. And it felt AMAZING.
It also reminded me all the ways that travel inspires me and makes me happy. The discoveries, the new people – travel invigorates me. I returned home knowing I wanted more. More travel sure, when I could, but more importantly, I wanted more of how travel made me feel and I wanted it in my everyday life.
Embracing the Opportunity of Midlife
Home from India and with a new appreciation for my health, and the ways that I was changing in midlife, the penny dropped. I had been trying to figure out how my passions and career goals might best squeeze into my family life, with minimal disruption to everyone else.
I had to ask myself a new question: If I could create a life I loved, what would it look like? And what would have to change to make room for it? These are not easy questions, when you are married with children. Whether my dreams would be convenient for everyone else, had to be irrelevant, for now at least.
Sharing with my family that I had new goals, and was prioritizing my interests, made me feel happier. In small practical ways, it meant I was cooking less and exercising more. It meant I didn’t want to entertain as much.
On the surface, my life looks similar. But many things have changed for me. My husband Sean has been very supportive and still, figuring out new boundaries and differentiation is a work in progress for both of us. He understands my desire to travel without him. In September 2019 I returned to Southeast Asia after 25 years. I spent part of that trip with a girlfriend and part of it solo. It felt fantastic.
With the career dilemma, given that I wanted more autonomy, having control over my work-life made the most sense. So I am pursuing freelance work as a creative entrepreneur (more coming on what that means for me).
This website is the initial step in my new adventure. It encompasses many of the things I love to do and create: Writing, photography and design. And travel of course. (Although we are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as I write this, so international travel is on hold, other than a summer trip home to Canada, for my Mother’s 80th birthday.)
With a new career focus, I have had to embrace a growth mindset: Believing that when I don’t know how to do something, I can learn. Making the time and commitment to challenge myself and acquire new skills has been fun and rewarding.
Midlife Globetrotter also reflects the enormous appreciation I have for all of you, for all that women give and do for everyone else, for so much of our lives. Our hormones make us caretakers, and I know we do it willingly; we want to care for the people we love. But what about caring for ourselves, as much as everybody else?
I took me a while to realize that I was overlooking the obvious, as I struggled with where to direct my time and attention. I could be the recipient of it. It wasn’t selfish to prioritize my health and goals, it was exactly what I needed to do. This reframe made me feel optimistic and excited about the future.
If you’ve sailed through midlife without any emotional upheaval, that’s wonderful. If you are feeling confused, angry or sad, I hope it will help you to know you are not alone. And from what I’ve learned, it’s happening for a reason.
Still, life might feel pretty bumpy right now. I am still travelling the midlife road, so I get it. But bumpy roads often come with beautiful scenery. For me, that has been the chance to rediscover things about myself that got pushed aside for too many years.
And I forgot to mention that my favourite chapter in Dr. Northrup’s book is Chapter 3: “Coming Home to Yourself”. That’s where I’m headed, home to myself, the ultimate midlife travelling companion.
If you are looking for practical ways to put yourself first in your own life, I share the 5 things that have worked for me in Making Yourself a Priority at Midlife.