susan in her garden in denver, happy at midlife

My Emotional Upheaval at Midlife

WELLNESS

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. 

Susan Heinrich walking through a garden with headphones on
Channeling my inner teen with headphones on

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. 

 

Susan with her teenage sons on vacation in Canada
My children were becoming young adults - it's bittersweet but I was ready to focus on myself

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.

Reading about emotional upheaval in the Wisdom of Menopause, by Dr. Christiane Northrup
It was reassuring to finally understand why I was feeling such emotional turmoil at midlife

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. 

 

cocktails with view at peninsula hotel paris
I was feeling like I needed to differentiate myself, within a 20-year marriage

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?

dream trip to india

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. 

Susan sitting at the leheyria spring gate, at city palace jaipur

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. 

Susan hiking as she deals with an emotional midlife

Midlife Globetrotter

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.) 

Susan Heinrich on Cambodia's tonlé sap lake
My husband supports my desire for some solo travel

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.

sunrise from a safari jeep in India
The bumpy midlife road must lead somewhere wonderful

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. 

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22 Responses

  1. I love this, Susan! I think many women will be able to relate to your journey and your discoveries. As primarily a stay-at-home mom, I too have struggled with many of the same questions. As my kids and their schools need me less, I look forward to figuring out where I’d like to focus my time, energy and gifts. Congratulations on launching this site and sharing your journey and talents.
    xoxo

    1. Can’t wait to see how you direct your energy and many talents, Paula. I am glad we were able to share the parenting journey on Clendenan Ave.

  2. Beautifully written and wonderfully thoughtful. I relate to the emotional roller coaster and yearning for new adventures, new sense of self. Going to look for the book here. Looking forward to reading about hour journeys Sue! X

  3. How wonderful of you to share your journey. This “aging” is indeed a journey and sharing all of your experiences kind of you. There were many things I read that are relatable and I appreciate your openness. It helps me know much of what I am feeling is normal. Thank you Susan!

  4. You are such a talented writer I wish I had hired you to write about my bday as the blogger I hired never produced anything due to personal issues. I feel you could have enjoyed the event and wrote about it. I like the fairy godmother as I would love one to tell me .. why am I not dead, what am I supposed do instead. Before cancer I was so badly trying to find myself I was looking for work in europe , I wanted to sell our house move to Mexico , I wanted to make myself uncomfortable so I could feel like myself. Xoxoxo

    1. Karla, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I think the feelings of uncertainty and looking for answers, at midlife, are shared by many women. Me, certainly! Maybe you haven’t found all the answers, but the work you do for the most vulnerable communities, and your passion for improving the foster care system are absolutely inspiring. I would have so loved to be at your birthday celebration. (I was in Southeast Asia at that time.) I was so amazed at how you turned it outward so that it wasn’t about you, but all of the women who attended. You are a gift to us all, Karla. xo

  5. This Essay is fabulous. You have a wonderful style for this format. Your essay explains so much about the bio-chemistry involved, and I’m interested in reading that book you reference. I now understand better how I was also needing to differentiate with my family a few years back.

    I’ve very excited to follow your new website! It’s really needed. The pics are great too!

    xo,
    Geej

    1. Thank you, Georgianna! I am so happy you found it interesting. Differentiation within marriage is a really interesting topic… I think it requires a whole separate story. My photography is a work-in-progress, so I appreciate the kind words.

  6. I can’t believe I incidentally came across this article today on pintrist. What perfect timing, My Angel’s have brought this to me because I have been PRAYING to find some answers on this subject..Even though I new somehow menopause had something to do with my feeling and emotions all over the globe. I HAD ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA TO WHAT EXTENT. My mother did not go through this..my sisters did not go through this and only one of my sister-in-law did but we chalked it up to the fact that she was just crazy because that was in her personality makeup our who lives. We just thought she got crazier, poor girl..LOL. But I on the other hand am having a very difficult time ans this article covered it all and right on target. I read this and began to cry. I kept saying “oh my god, this is me…this is my story..I’m not crazy and losing my mind”. I even sent it via email to my husband to read because he has no idea what is going on. He has even mentioned to others to see if they new something that maybe I wasn’t telling him because it has been going on for MONTHS!!! So I just want to say “THANK YOU SO SO MUCH” for posting this. You may very well just saved my life and my marriage because now I have answers and know that I am truely not crazy or going crazy and can now seek the help I need to cope with it and to pursue my dream as well..which is something I have begun. I hope my husband understands it as well and will be supportive..only tine will tell. So again thank you and god bless you and all of the other women who are experiencing the same problem.

    Sincerely

    Shelly from Pennsylvania

    1. Shelly! Wow, your comment has me tearing up as well… happy tears. It makes me so very happy that my story has helped you in some way. It is why I started Midlife Globetrotter – to share my experience so other women might relate to it. I hope this is the beginning of an interesting and fulfilling stage of your life. I know the midlife road can be bumpy, but I believe we are on it for an important reason. It’s an opportunity to remember parts of ourselves we left behind when we were taking care of everyone else. And hopefully, a chance to discover some new things as well. Please tell your husband to get on board! 😉 I wish you the very best. Susan

  7. What a wonderful blog! I can so relate! I am currently going through exactly what you went though! It’s empowering to read about your experience and how you are finding your way through this very pivotal time in a woman’s life. Looking forward to following along on your journey.

    1. Hi Natalie. I am so glad you like the blog and could relate to my story. It’s so interesting to learn that so many women are having similar experiences. Sending you very best wishes and the hope that any “emotional upheaval” you are experiencing also brings the opportunity to embrace your life in new ways – and perhaps a little adventure as well 🙂 Susan

  8. Thank goodness I found your blog! So glad I’m not alone in this and you beautifully put everything I’m feeling onto paper.

    1. I am so happy that you found my story helpful. You are definitely not alone so I’m glad you found MLG 🙂 I wish you all the best on your midlife journey. Susan

  9. Hi Susan,
    So interesting to read about your journey. In some ways it seems like yesterday that our boys were in kindergarten, but in other ways it seems like an age away. With both my boys moved out now it is time for me to move on from my caregiver role too. Not quite sure what that will look like yet, Jack only left last week. Looking forward to following along with your journey and finding some more inspiration. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Fiona. It’s hard to believe how quickly the years have gone by – “the days are long the years are short”. It’s nice to hear that you are thinking about how your life might change as your kids launch. It’s an interesting and exciting stage of life. So glad to have you following along! Susan

  10. It felt like I was writing your story…the emotional rollercoaster has been the hardest to deal with. So looking forward to reading more 🤗

    1. Hi Heather. I am so happy that my story was meaningful for you. The emotional part can be a real challenge. I hope you are feeling positive about what’s ahead for you at midlife – I believe it’s a wonderful opportunity. Warmly, Susan xo

  11. Wow, Susan, you hit the nail on the head! I was lucky not to experience many physical issues through menopause, but emotionally… yes, like a Jane Fonda 1980s fitness video! I thought I’d found happiness, but something’s not right and I need to fix that. So much to think about – and act on! Thank you for opening a few doors in the thought process, and making me feel okay to think about myself and my own happiness.

    Martine xoxo

    1. Hi Martine – I am so glad you found this story and that it was meaningful for you. Midlife can be a really confusing time. I think if you tune in to the little whispers of your heart, things you want for yourself deep down, but have pushed aside, anything is possible. I look forward to chatting more about this soon! Susan xo

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About - Midlife Globetrotter

Hey there,

I’m glad you’re here. Can we talk about midlife? I reached my late 40’s, realized my kids were growing up, and adventure began calling in a new way: big travel adventures as well as everyday ones. I want Midlife Globetrotter to be a place where we explore how to add a sense of fun, freedom and meaning to these precious years. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and all that’s ahead.

Susan

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