Midlife set me on an emotional roller coaster – I knew something needed to change
I knew to expect some physical changes at midlife but the emotional upheaval I felt – took me by surprise. I have always been a fairly happy and positive person, but a few years ago my emotions began 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, 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 needed me 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. I had also 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 helping to plan an “After Prom” party for hundreds of 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 outside work world, but worried about the lack of flexibility. I wanted to contribute to something that felt meaningful, not just earn a paycheck.
Should I work full-time or part-time? I could return to the freelance writing I had done in the past, but also liked the idea of working with 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. Once the job question was settled, surely 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 total hip replacement. 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 that story here: Midlife Hip Replacement.
After hip surgery, I was grateful to resume an active lifestyle and appreciated my health in a new way. I realized I could not take it for granted and 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 did some reading about midlife and menopause. I learned that for many women, midlife was the most significant period of emotional upheaval since the teen years. It wasn’t just me! Confusion, sadness and anger are all common, apparently. 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.
Midlife - What Hormones Have to do With It
I learned that our hormones drive us to be caretakers when we are of childbearing age. It’s not a fair fight; we want to care for everyone. And I’d venture a guess that those same hormones 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.
At midlife, the agenda changes: with changing hormone levels during perimenopause (the time leading up to menopause, which is when our period stops), our brains are primed for new perceptions and new behavior. That includes experiencing emotions that we’ve ignored or buried. Unpleasant emotions. I have come to believe we feel sadness and anger because we have put our needs aside. I came to see those emotions as an opportunity – to examine my life and determine what had to change. For me, this did not feel optional – it felt urgent, something I could no longer ignore. I started talking to women about my emotional upheaval 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 I had lost. I, like many women, had willingly enmeshed my identity in my family life — in mothering and being a caretaker. 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 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 that feeling in my everyday life.
Midlife Crisis or Midlife Opportunity?
Home from India, 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.
I realized I had to be more protective of my time if I wanted to pursue new things in my life. It took some time to figure out what was next for me but even taking a first step, sharing with my family that I was prioritizing time to pursue some new projects, made me feel immediately happier. I realized that all of this emotional turmoil or “midlife crisis” was the opportunity to truly change my life. It’s why I dislike the term “midlife crisis” – in fact it was the exact opposite of a crisis. You can read more about some of the practical changes I made in the story: Making Yourself a Priority.
A Travel & Midlife Blog for Women
My midlife upheaval has resulted in some really positive changes in my life. “Midlife Globetrotter” and this website were created as a result, because I wanted to share my experience and create a place where we could get excited about this special stage of life. It encompasses many of the things I love to do and create: writing, photography and design. And travel of course.
My husband Sean has been very supportive along the way, and still, figuring out new boundaries is a work-in-progress for both of us. I write about that in Self Differentiation in a Midlife Marriage.
I realized that while I love to travel with my family, I also enjoy traveling on my own. In September 2019 I returned to Southeast Asia after 25 years. I spent part of that trip with a girlfriend and part of it traveling solo. It felt fantastic. In September of 2021 I spent 10 days solo in Paris; it was one of my favorite trips ever.
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 happily; 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 as my kids needed me less. 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 explore new interests and rediscover things about myself that I had forgotten while I busy was taking care of everyone else. To me that is the wonderful opportunity of midlife.
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.
If you liked this story about navigating midlife please join me! I send the Midlife Globetrotter newsletter once a month with midlife stories, living well resources, & travel ideas and inspiration for women!Subscribe