I’m half way through life, and I’m already exhausted by the effort. When social media algorithms recently filled my feed with bleak forecasts for GenX women I became even more unsettled. Am I really going to battle work vs. life for another twenty years? I think brilliant women stuck in the U-bend of life need hope it’s worth it, and ways to get through without wine, not reasons to give up.
As a coach I meet many other women who are frustrated too. I hear their resentment. I feel it too. I sense their anger. Me too.
I can reassure you, you’re going to be OK. In fact you’re going to be more than OK. You’re going to be glorious. Hang in there.
There’s a part of me with more potential, like the latent heat of molten lava, I hold the possibility of new rock. Fragments of who I was have liquidised under pressure. My magma moves under my surface, to fit the impossible space I’ve forced her into. I cannot be compressed anymore. There’s nowhere for this life force to go. It unexpectedly erupts in my tone when I speak to my mum, cuts into my child with angry words and obstructs my husband’s affection. These everyday outbursts bring me shame. Unless I dare to hold them for a little longer, and listen to the burning question underneath. Who could I be?
The answer lies within.
It’s uncomfortable to own up to these moments. I have a lot to be grateful for – three children, a life partner, a home, an education, a career. Who am I to want more?
Then I hear the silent voices of millions of women, who’ve had those privileges denied. They implore me in their reply. Who am I to not want more?
This first world women’s problem is real and difficult to make go away, which is irritating when it’s your life or wife. I coach many brilliant women to overcome these struggles in midlife, but I’m left wondering if privileged, educated, women haven’t got it sorted by the middle of life who else is going to?
Western GenX women have had the opportunity to evolve faster than our culture can keep up with. I grew up filled with possibility, and developed myself to lean in at work, whilst also maintaining unchanged social standards of a “good mother”, “good wife” and “good friend” at home. Divorce, redundancy or illness may have pushed us to our limit, or more commonly and in my case, it’s a slow, excruciating reshape to fit into corporate success criteria, look after the children, do some exercise and squeeze in the other “shoulds” before not sleeping enough each night. By the middle of life we’ve endured the experience of having children, the judgement of choosing not to, or the pain of not having that choice. Whichever path we’re on, life has opened us up to a wisdom we can no longer ignore.
I am invisible.
To move through these unknown lands I advocate a strategy equally suited to the visible mess of housework – recognise, reduce, redistribute.
Having struggled with anxiety, I know my triggers are insufficiency as a mother, competing to be my husband’s equal and not feeling able to be my true self amongst women. If I give up as much as my Mum did to care for her children I become miserable, if I work to achieve the business success equal to my husband’s I become depleted and if I assume other women see me the way I internally see myself I become unlikeable in my own eyes, and riddled with self doubt. I told you. It’s unpleasant. Settle in this dark stuff with me. Stay here long enough to acknowledge your deepest needs. I want to raise good humans, I want to be loved, I want to belong and I want to make a difference.
Now it’s your turn to do the dirty work. Dig in. We can’t expect anyone else to intuit this stuff for us. We have to feel what we feel, only you can do it. Become curious. With consistent gentle attention your eyes can adjust. You can recognise the bubbles when they simmer underneath. When they rise stay with the heat. Watch what makes you boil over. What do you need?
Let it out. Become a hot mess.
Don’t set solid around resentment. It’s always more painful in the end. What we resist persists. Be with the discomfort for a while. Reduce it to a name – insufficiency, competition, not belonging – here they are again. Every time they rise try to soften towards them, step out of the conversation, do some exercise, soak in a bath.
You’re perfect as you are. There’s no problem to fix, we can choose to stop striving and instead accept ourselves a little more. In voicing the feeling with a coach or opening an “if only” conversation with a friend, patterns of discontent begin to appear in our repetition – this is the U-curve. The friend I started talking to about it just “gets it”. She feels it too. We share our fizzes of fury on texts, thrown across the globe between school drop offs and swim classes. No explanation needed, “Did you see this?! She feels it too, maybe I’m not going mad?” Her mess shows me how to redistribute my emotion. My listening allows her to experience resentment without destruction. Our permissive presence moves other women into positive action.
There’s beauty in sharing your limits because it expands the horizon for all of us.
The challenge is that inner wisdom requires women to say things we can’t know, to claim ideas that haven’t been true before and to ask for things we can’t tangibly measure. There are no role models. There’s no data. It’s all on you and there’s no quick fix. It takes years of sustained effort to reroute thought and behaviours – like waiting for a bad haircut to grow out or training to run a marathon. Others help to reflect your success and familiar faces cheer you over the line. Organisations like Lean In offer women’s circles around the world, to support your growth. Many cities have their own badass breakfasts or empowerment groups. In my virtual circle sessions small groups of women experience an intimate bond that allows them to share this darker stuff with honesty. The act of sharing emotions allows us to move through them, without the usual judgements.
The language of “crisis” has a sense of catastrophe. While busting out and burning everything to the ground is occasionally needed, it’s not the only way to brave the midlife heat. There’s an unfolding reality we can play with. Your hot mess of lava can be channelled towards your everyday needs. You can make choices, which set boundaries, and direct the flow of your life today towards the direction you desire for tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be perfectly formed, just let yourself go. Let it fall out over one step.
Become your reason, not your excuse.
I believe your hot mess is all in service of becoming totally you. I dare you to hold your power in the moment, to ask for what you truly need. Allow yourself to see what could come again and live within. Respond to your environment and take a risk on new life growing in the fertile land of not knowing.