We are in the middle of our life. We have kids and teenagers and parents who are getting older. We have jobs. Houses. Responsibilities. It is our generation that is keeping the world running right now, the ones still young and strong enough to bear the brunt of the work and responsibility yet old enough to start making the hard decisions.
We are the axle in the wheel of the world so to speak.
This is not a comfortable position to be in. There is a lot of pressure. A lot of wear and tear. If something is off just a little bit friction occurs, sparks fly. Parts explode and we begin to lose pieces of our wheel until we find ourselves on a road littered with blown tires and rusty cogs.
Or we maintain the wheel, take care of ourselves and keep it going as best we can. Patch leaks when they occur, grease the axle regularly, keep rotating the tire. Listen for any warning sounds from the engine. Manage to keep rolling until our passengers have all disembarked and moved on to their own journeys and our load is a little less heavy to carry.
I am 42. Most of the people I know are close to this, give or take a few years. And we are all going through the same thing: attempting to navigate our responsibilities with our own needs and aspirations, the duties we have to our loved ones with our own hopes and dreams.
To do this gracefully with as much integrity as possible is difficult. The road isn’t an easy one – there are a lot of potholes, even sink holes. The pavement is uneven; sometimes pavement is a distant luxury and we have to off-road it. We are constantly jolted around, our suspension getting a run for its money, our chassis always threatening to come apart.
We work full-time. We have kids. Our backs start to go out and the grey hairs appear at an alarming rate. One day bleeds into the next and we go and go and go with no time to sit and think about where we are going. Rents need to be paid. Groceries bought. Permission slips signed. Taxes done and oh yeah, the toilet is backed up again. And so it goes, with no time to pause and take stock until it is too late and wham! We hit a wall. We don’t know where we are anymore, let alone who we are.
It is the mid-life crisis.
When we think of a mid-life crisis, we think of that middle-aged man with hair extensions and flashy clothes in a new red convertible. We laugh and make fun of them.
But the reality is very far from funny. A mid-life crisis is real and hard, as real as a snake shedding its skin or a caterpillar going through the difficult process of metamorphosis. It is both a biological stage of life and a cultural, societal, gendered response to one’s imminent mortality, a grieving of the care-free days of our youth and a dreading of what it means to be an adult, to grow up. It is, in many ways, a time of reckoning, the ultimate existential crisis.
My world exploded because of my partner’s mid-life crisis. My story is far from unique. In fact, what happened to me is so common that it is downright cliché; there is a whole book about the phenomena entitled Runaway Husbands. And just in case you feel like reading 60+ personal stories on this topic, including an abbreviated version of my own (I am #49), you can pick up a copy of Planet Heartbreak, an anthology of abandoned wife stories.
And that is why it is so troubling. What is wrong here? Is it the traditional model of marriage? Is it, as too many men have claimed, that we are not supposed to be with the same person for so long (a thesis I reject)? Why is it men that are the overwhelming majority who leave their partners in a sudden and brutal fashion? What is going on here?
I believe gender plays a big part in it and that it is not serving anybody anymore.
We grow up, fall in love, enter into long-term partnerships, have children while dragging the carcass of these centuries-old roles that fit us so badly it’s like we’re trying to squeeze into the musty old suit of our four foot nothing, 100 lbs. great grandfather.
And we don’t even realize it. We bend ourselves in two, live with our pants too short and our shoulders constricted. We think to ourselves, “I guess this is how it is. Best make it work.”
And we do make it work until it doesn’t and our pieces are scattered all over the highway.
In the next few posts I want to talk about the emotional labor gender gap. I want to talk about the mid-life myth of freedom and most of all of shame and the tendency to blame one’s loved ones for our own unhappiness.
Mostly, though, I want to appeal to all those who think that the only way to save themselves, to feel more free and less trapped, is by leaving their partners and their families.
It is not necessary. Don’t do it. There are better ways of using this existential dissatisfaction, this yearning for more. In fact, I think it can be an enormous gift if we choose to approach it with curiosity and a humble, open heart.
Happiness and freedom are not to be found on the scorched remains of our loved ones, but inside us. We have the choice to look inside ourselves and confront those patterns and stories that are no longer serving us, or to remain trapped within a prison of our own making by not taking responsibility for our own unhappiness.
Which do you choose?