Sunday, September 22, 2013


A year and a half from my fortieth birthday, it occurs to me that I have no idea what it means to be middle-aged. The term itself is part of the problem, suggestive as it is of being stuck in a place that's neither here nor there: not youth, not early-career, not the beginning of anything--but not the culmination or fulfillment of anything, either.

This is not how I regard my actual fortysomething and fiftysomething friends, all of whom lead the kind of rich and interesting lives that I'd be lucky to emulate. But I haven't thought much about how they got to where they are--and, more importantly, I've never had any vision for what I wanted my life to look like at that age.

Maybe popular culture is to blame, with its scarcity of interesting midlife characters (unless you're a parent or having a midlife crisis, there's not much place for you on stage or screen), or maybe it's academia, with its prolonged deferral of adulthood; I'm only just now at the place of personal and professional stability that most of my nonacademic friends reached five or ten years ago. But mostly, I think it's that the interesting things that happen in midlife are less dramatic, less external, and less predictable than those that occur in one's younger years.

Up to age 30 or 35, there tend to be clear paths to follow or clear milestones of achievement. These vary somewhat by profession, peer group, and domestic choices, but one generally knows both what the "expected" next step is (get married, buy a home, have kids, make partner) and what one's own desired next step is (get divorced! move abroad! go back to school!). I was always impatient to be a grown-up, eager to be 18 and 25 and 30. I knew the kind of person I wanted to be and the kind of life I wanted to lead, at least in general ways.

But now I. . . don't know. I don't fear turning 40. I just have no idea what it means to be a fortysomething woman, or how I want to be a fortysomething (and eventually fiftysomething) woman. I don't have the kind of hard goals I've had for every other stage of my life. I mean, living in the same place as my spouse is still something I'm striving for, but otherwise it's more of the same: I want to keep doing the stuff I like and find meaningful, and discover more such activities.

When your life has been goal-driven for so long, with every goal the plausible and satisfying end of one particular storyline, this approach feels vague and aimless. What's the point? What's the payoff? Who benefits from my learning Italian, or resuming music lessons, or remodeling my kitchen?

At the same time, there's something freeing about realizing there's no script and nothing I have to do. God willing, I've got, like, decades and decades to figure it out. I don't yet know how to exist in the world as someone who's not a young woman, or a junior scholar, or any of the other things I've been for a long long time. I never imagined myself as middle-aged. But now that I'm starting to, it feels like a gift.


Belle said...

It is liberating, a time to realize where you are, discover who you are, revel in where you are and enjoy the now. Congratulations, and enjoy!

meg said...

I dunno... I got here by not thinking about it. And by having friends from all age groups. Also, considering pop culture an aspect of civics, ie, something one ought to be aware of.

A few years ago I stopped worrying about being part of a category ("childless middle-aged female professors" or whatever) and decided that I will just continue to think of myself as a one-off. It worked for me in my 20s and 30s -- why stop now?

Flavia said...


Well, that's partly what I mean by saying that middle age is less "predictable"--it can be whatever one wants it to be, less firmly tied as it is to specific markers of progress (met or unmet).

But perhaps you're right that it's better not to designate it as a particular stage at all.

Flavia said...

Oh, and the part that I left out of this post (not for any particular reason; it just didn't make it in), is that perhaps one reason I never envisioned myself as middle-aged is that I always assumed I would die young. Not because I was ever doing anything risky, and not because I'm (unduly) neurotic--I think it was just a side effect of wanting certain things so badly, many of them time- and labor-intensive, and feeling it would only be suitably Murphy's Lawish for me to die just short of achieving them.

Well, guess what? I didn't. I've actually done pretty much all of those things I feared never finishing. That's awesome. But it means now there are at least a couple prime-of-life decades I wasn't really imagining having, which I have to figure out how to use--as well as what it might mean not always to be focused on one goal, or always fearing missing it.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I am totally fucken loving my forties!

Shane in Utah said...

I'm about to turn 43, and apparently middle age is the period when I bike and ski like crazy, and stop being such a workaholic in a career that offers few material rewards for working so hard. (I'm trying to be just productive enough that I don't feel like "dead weight" or retire as an associate prof...) It could be worse, so far.

Susan said...

My version of Belle's comment - as I careen towards 60 - is that in middle age you live life, and figure out who you are as you do the everyday things, not the dramatic ones. As Meg says, you don't think about it.

Historiann said...

I find myself confronted with my parents' and in-laws' aging, and it's difficult. It's like I never really took seriously the finite nature of the human lifespan until I hit my 40s.

I find myself doing a lot of premature mourning, which is weird.

DDB said...

@Historian -I kind of feel the same way. In the last year or so, I have had a profound send of mortality, especially when considering my parents, who, in my eyes, are finally starting to actually age.

I have an exceptional sense of time flitting away, and this definite sense that I am losing time as a resource that is not being replenished. I feel the opportunity cost of not living life to the absolute fullest.

@Flavia - I never thought I would die young, but as I've neared 40 and have more of the aches and pains associated with not being a twenty-something anymore, I've become a bit obsessed with my own mortality. I've had a colleague or two diagnosed with terminal illnesses with short prognoses, and that has driven home the need to live each day in the moment but also the sometimes cruel twists of fate that can seemingly randomly cut life short.

Altogether uncomfortable if you ask me!

Flavia said...

Historiann and DDB:

That's exactly right. Contemplating being 40 and 50 also means contemplating being 80. And having everyone I love be those ages (if they're lucky). It's not that I never took death seriously, but I never really thought about what it meant to age, or to have others die and keep living oneself.