The Major Problem With the Narrative Around Women in Midlife
Author Ann Douglas of the much-loved series Mother of all Books blends scientific research and personal anecdotes about midlife in her new book, Navigating the Messy Middle. This excerpt examines the toxic narrative of midlife decline and why it serves no one—least of all women in midlife.
“Midlife is magical: a time of endless possibility.”
“Midlife is miserable: a time of relentless decline.”
You could give yourself a bad case of cognitive whiplash trying to make sense of those two contradictory narratives about what it means to be a woman at midlife. Sure, the so-called “successful aging” narrative is a whole lot more inspiring than what gerontologists describe as “narratives of decline,” but the idea that midlife is sheer magic is not without its pitfalls either.
It’s not surprising that so many women head into midlife burdened by a vague sense of dread. So many of the messages that we’re given by our culture encourage us to look to the future with fear. We’re told, time and time again, “The best is now behind you. It’s all downhill from here.”
That’s the biggest problem with so-called narratives of decline: they cause us to underestimate ourselves. As Margaret Morganroth Gullette notes in her book Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, “Feeling compelled to tell a decline narrative about your one and only life is a stressor, a depressant, a psychocultural illness… Ageism, middle-ageism, sexism, and ableism can make those aging toward old age or chronically ill likelier to feel unwanted—unloved, sad, outcast, isolated, ashamed, helpless, and depressed, and unable to tolerate such distress.”
All this is made worse by the so-called social clock, the idea that you’re supposed to accomplish specific social milestones, like getting married or having children, at a particular time. Research has shown that feeling like you’re not “on time” in terms of the ticking of the social clock can fuel feelings of self-doubt, incompetence and loneliness.
Elsa, 52, admits to feeling seriously weighed down by what she was hearing about midlife. “I’m a Jamaican, and when I turned 50, I was really depressed. I kept thinking about something my dad used to say to me when I was a kid: ‘It’s 50 up and then 50 down.’ And so, when I went to my birthday party, I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, right now I’m at the pinnacle. It’s all down-hill from here.’”
At the root of the problem, of course, is the fact that mainstream Western culture is obsessed with youth. And if you’re treating youth as the standard, the further you move away from that standard, the less relevant you feel. It’s hardly surprising that women start to feel invisible as they heed that call to take a step back and make way for the young. Culturally, you are being treated like you’re invisible.
Julia, a 47-year-old freelance musician and the mother of two teenagers, has picked up on that invisibility vibe too. “From the moment you turn forty, you’re given the message that you need to be quiet, and you need to disappear. That’s how I feel, anyway, and I’m actively working against it. I think it’s harmful to society because midlife women have a lot to offer.”
Emily, a 42-year-old professional and mother, describes it as a narrowing of possibility: “There’s a narrowing there of the ways in which society allows you to be a human being, the older you get as a woman. When you’re a young, single woman, there’s plenty of cultural narratives out there about you. Mind you, some of them are terrible, but there are still a bunch of different ones. But the older you get, the more limited those narratives are. At this stage, it’s like, ‘You’re a mom. That’s it.’ You’re not given all those other ways of being. And it’s very strange to me. It’s just this total erasure.”
“There’s this sense of women at midlife losing their purpose,” adds Andrea, a forty-nine-year-old writer and mother of two. “The culture tells us that we’re not fertile anymore, we’re not sexual anymore, we’re not mothers anymore (because maybe we don’t have to be mothering 24/7 at this point). There’s this sense of being set adrift.”
In other words, you’ve outlived your usefulness to the patriarchy by fulfilling your reproductive duty; now won’t you please just go away? Some of the most common midlife myths seem tailor-made to support the idea that women’s lives become less important—or completely irrelevant—the moment their children leave home. Take the “empty nest” myth, for example—the idea that parents are universally miserable when their offspring leave home. In fact, research shows quite the opposite: parents in general, and mothers in particular, actually report increased well-being and increased satisfaction with parenting once their kids exit the nest.
And it’s not as if every midlife woman’s work as a parent is anywhere close to being done. Despite what midlife myths and narratives and our culture’s ticking social clock might tell us, the fact is that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all road map for midlife parenting (if, in fact, you end up becoming a parent at all). Some women at midlife have children who are getting ready to leave home; others have very young children who will require considerable support for many years to come. Laura, 47, who is currently on leave from her job as a radio host, is definitely in the latter category: “When I turn 50, I’ll have a seven-year-old, not a twenty-one-year- old who is getting ready to leave home. I have girlfriends who are the same age as me whose kids are in their third year of university right now. And meanwhile, when I hit 50, my son will be in grade 3.”
There’s also an assumption that, by midlife, the really hands-on years of parenting will be behind you and you’ll be reaping the rewards of all that earlier hard work. “But sometimes things don’t turn out quite that way. Sometimes there are factors that come up that derail those best-laid plans,” says Sadie, fifty-three, speaking from first-hand experience. “When my kids were going through their childhood and their teen years, I think I expected that, by the time I reached this stage, there’d be some sort of payoff, for putting in all the hard work.” For Sadie, parenting has required a heavy investment, both emotionally and financially. “Just in terms of the financial piece, when people start saving for their kids’ future, no parent is actually thinking, ‘I have to start saving because one day my child might need addiction treatment.’” And yet that’s the reality for many families, including hers.
Just as frustrating as those life-limiting social scripts are the messages that tell midlife women that they no longer have anything meaningful to contribute at work—that they should just step aside and let the younger generation take over.
Lori, 54, has picked up on some of those messages and she resents them. Back when she was younger, she looked forward to reaching an age when she’d finally be taken seriously. She remembered thinking, “By the time I hit midlife, I’ll have earned some respect. I’ll have built up the credibility that will allow me to do all the things I want to do.” The organizer and activist was surprised and disappointed to discover that, when she actually arrived at midlife, her opinions simply weren’t valued the way she’d hoped. “I think there’s a very brief window of time when women actually have the ear of society: when they’re no longer considered to be too young and before they’re considered to be too old.”
Ageist stereotypes about technological ineptitude only serve to make matters worse, which is why Emily, forty-two, has made a concerted effort to push back against those messages whenever she encounters them. “I was reading a book to my daughter when she was younger. It was a picture book, and it featured a mother or grandmother who couldn’t figure out how to use a computer. And I felt a sudden need to stop reading the book and say to my daughter, ‘Listen, I need you to know something, which is that your mother and both your grandmothers are quite capable of using a computer. I don’t really know what the deal is with the woman in this book, but I just need you to know this is not typical.’”
Julia, a 48-year-old small business owner and part-time university student, is convinced that these narratives of decline have gotten in the way of understanding the ability of midlife women to make meaningful contributions. “Society seems to think that midlife is when women start going downhill, physically, mentally, career-wise and in terms of participation in society. My experience has taught me quite the opposite: midlife is when women finally have an opportunity to start doing things for themselves after years and years of putting ourselves last (or at least low) on the list. There is a lot of new mental space to figure out what we want to do and how we are going to do it. Society mistakenly underestimates women at midlife.”
That’s one of the many reasons why Shay, 48, refuses to buy into this narrative—because she refuses to sell herself short. “I don’t want to be erased,” she explains. “I actually like my middle-aged self better than I liked my younger self.”
Navigating the Messy Middle, by Ann Douglas was released on October 1, 2022, and is available wherever books are sold.
Excerpt from Navigating the Messy Middle: A Fiercely Honest and Wildly Encouraging Guide for Midlife Women, by Ann Douglas©. Published 2022, by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.