When I was a teenager, I loved taking quizzes in my YM magazine. Any particular insight I could get into myself was validating and slightly thrilling. To be honest, I loved labels. “What Type of Friend Are You?” “How Confident Are You?” “What’s Your Vacation Style?” I seriously loved learning more about myself, and instead of feeling limited by these labels, I felt comforted and powerful.
It’s no surprise that I soaked up the Myers-Briggs personality test with great enthusiasm. Not only did I take the test, I read every article I could get my hands on about how my personality type affected my friendships, marriage, work relationships, and parenting style.
As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my own skin, the question has become less “Who am I?” and more “Where am I?” Like, in my life. I, like so many other Gen X women, have arrived on the doorstep of 40 feeling slightly bewildered. Surely, we aren’t “middle aged” yet, right? When precisely does that happen, because I’m still wearing the same jeans, tank tops, and Converse that I did in my mid-twenties. (OK, well not the same ones, because, childbirth.)
And shouldn’t we be feeling more sure of ourselves, clearer on what comes next, and confident that we have adequately navigated our adult lives and will continue to do so? Because, no. So many of us still grapple with the impostor syndrome that leaves us feeling like we have no idea what we are doing on a regular basis. And most of us thought that would have resolved itself, I don’t know, ten years ago.
So what is this part of our lives? I suspect it might be midlife, but I just don’t feel ready for that yet. How do Gen X women — born between approximately 1965-1980 — categorize ourselves at this phase of life? Gen Xers have long been dubbed “perpetual adolescents” who are reluctant to grow up, so maybe that’s part of this hesitant slide into the nebulous next phase.
Additionally, our generation can’t exactly follow the roadmap of our mothers before us. Many of them confidently entered adulthood right after college (or high school, or marriage) and prepared themselves for the years of stability that would follow. The world is a vastly different place than it was then, and many of us feel like we’ve been dropped in a strange land with nothing to point us in the right direction. It is literally uncharted territory.
And with the uncharted territory that many of us tentatively (reluctantly?) refer to as “midlife” come many challenges and stresses. But back to that label thing. It seems for once we lack an adequate label for what we are going through. Is this what it looks like to be a Gen X woman at midlife? A label, some definitions, and some direction would be greatly appreciated right now. But there is no magazine quiz to help us navigate this. So we look to each other.
However, Gen X women are wildly all over the place when it comes to life stages. Mothers in their late 30s, 40s, and early 50s cannot claim child-raising stages as their common thread. Some women in their 40s are sending kids off to college, while others are just beginning their families. The choices we have that our Boomer mothers didn’t have has opened the door to myriad family and lifestyle possibilities.
I distinctly remember my father’s 40th birthday. We delivered an array of black decorations to his workplace, “Over the Hill” balloons adorning his office. 40 was old. Of course, my opinion on such matters is vastly different from this perspective. Women in their 40s and 50s (and beyond!) are vibrant, relevant, powerful, and free. A recent Telegraph article, “Women In Their 40s and 50s Are the New Ageless Generation” introduced me to the term “perennials” to describe women in this stage of life. When I read the article, I felt a flood of relief: I was given permission to continue wearing my jeans and tank tops and Converse forever! And there was that little flicker of recognition that I used to feel when “finding myself” in a magazine quiz’s tidy definition. There I am. I am not alone.
Several years ago as I floundered with my career aspirations and home duties I jokingly mentioned that I was having a ⅖ life crisis. Because at 37, I certainly didn’t want to believe my end point was 74! Even as my 40th birthday looms, I’d like to think I’ll live a little bit longer than 80! But I don’t think that lifespan is really the issue here. This, right now, where we are, whether it is a “geriatric pregnancy” or empty nest syndrome, whether it is balancing our health with a fast-paced career, whether it is nervously entering a second marriage, this is midlife.
A few months ago we at The HerStories Project read the compelling viral article“The New Midlife Crisis: Why (And How) It’s Hitting Gen X Women” by Ada Calhoun, and it really fired us up. Sharing it with our community, we were blown away by the degree to which it seemed to resonate. So much so that we sent out our survey to find out what other women’s (mainly Gen X women) experiences of midlife looked like. We had questions; we wanted to know what the biggest common challenges women had with this stage of life.
And many of us are struggling. With financial worries (we really are the first downwardly mobile generation when it comes to money), our health, the health of our parents, our children’s needs, anxiety about the state of the world, and myriad career concerns, we need support. From each other, mainly, as that aforementioned roadmap to midlife is nowhere in sight.
So many women have told us that midlife is “nothing like they expected.” I wholeheartedly concur. I suspect that again, this is partially because the example of midlife we witnessed from our mothers in the 80s and 90s is nowhere to be found now. According to Neil Howe in the Salon article, “Generation X Gets Really Old: How Do Slackers Have a Breakdown?”: “The Xer in midlife is facing the opposite midlife than the Silent Generation,” Howe says. “The Silent experienced claustrophobia. Xers experience agoraphobia — everything is possible.”
I was with a group of women recently at a class, and we were sharing our occupations, as many of us were not yet acquainted. One was a doula, illustrator, and graphic designer. Who also did bodywork. One was a hair stylist, astrologer, and yoga teacher. One was a part-time accountant and massage therapist. The instructor herself home-schooled her children and taught martial arts as well as philosophy and ethics at a local college. I shared that I am a music therapist, freelance writer, and co-editor of this website.
It was striking that in a group of five women, 100% of us had cobbled-together careers woven with several entirely unrelated skills. And it seemed to encapsulate yet another way in which midlife is different for Gen X women than it was for our Boomer mothers: that fearful and freeing combination of everything is possible.
Add in the Internet, and it’s hard to fathom what midlife actually felt like in 1989. The freedom and choices we Gen X women have now is of course a good thing, but with increased options comes increased uncertainty. Many of us feel financial stress or are pulled in too many directions. Many of us have left jobs or even careers to pursue something entirely different; sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Some of us balance raising children with working part-time or full-time. We do all this, while also juggling our own health, friendships, and marriages and wondering why the hell we didn’t know it was going to be like this. I keep waiting to have “arrived,” but I’m starting to think there is no arriving.
I have come to accept the fact that this stage of life may come to be defined for me by a distinct lack of definition. I am not going to find a relief-inducing description of where I am, what I should be doing, and what is coming next. Rather than following the tidy and well-worn map I would prefer, I am going to be paving my own way and keeping company with other women who are doing the same. We may be making it up as we go, but we won’t be alone.