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When (mid) Life Gets in the Way

By Anne Elder-Knight

This is not the article I intended to write.

That one was to showcase the opportunities midlife has in store for us women.

That one was orderly, hopeful, practical and wise.

That one wasn’t messy, unplanned and unfinished. But then that one, as it turns out, also wasn’t real (mid)life.

Woman plans, God laughs…

I’ve spent much of the last week sitting by the bed of my 86 year old mother, first in hospital and then at home as she convalesces. Fortunately for our family, the prognosis is now good, but that didn’t stop the roller coaster of emotions and the all-consuming focus that go with the concern and lack of sleep when someone you love is seriously ill. Throw in a family funeral and back trouble and life as I know it has gone on hold: the roots don’t get retouched, the washing doesn’t get done, nor does the grocery shopping or the writing or the endless ‘To Do’ list that comes with launching a new business, let alone delivering on the day job commitments.

If I look at these events in isolation, I can almost convince myself that this is just a blip, and life will soon return to normal. But when I step back and really look, I can see that life, as I have known it, has changed.

Midlife Challenges

Midlife is characterised by flailing hormones, patchy sleep, changing hair and skin and bodies, supporting (and increasingly losing) loved friends and family members, juggling often high-stakes and public careers, a desire to “give back” by volunteering, caring for adolescents and ageing parents simultaneously, maintaining or changing intimate relationships – all the while keeping one eye on the financial needs of both now and later life. Midlife by its very nature is hard work!

And yet many of us carry on barely holding it together on the inside, as if failure to juggle it all without seeking help or support is a sign of inadequacy.

Rather than continuing to do what we’ve always done, or be who we’ve always been, midlife calls us to acknowledge the finite aspects of life, energy and time and then to make some self-honouring decisions about how we want to be spending these resources.

Doing it Differently

Ironically the calling for us at midlife is the antithesis of what most of us have learned to do up to this point. The very nature of midlife demands we:

  • Slow down and treat ourselves with more care and compassion
  • Treat our dreams and desires with more urgency
  • Become more selective in the activities and relationships in which we engage
  • Increasingly trust and act on our hard-earned wisdom

Despite how this may appear, I’m not trying to elicit sympathy. I’m just pointing out what I think most of us who have reached midlife already know. Although life is never plain sailing, at midlife the sailing becomes even more challenging for most of us. While we may have realised some of our life aspirations – having a family, forging a career, saving for retirement – there are many other aspects of our lives that feel increasingly less certain.

Midlife brings us face to face with our own frailty.

Messy Midlife

I still have a fantasy that I can live an orderly life. I have a dream that if I can just structure my days better then I’ll overcome the unexpected twists and turns, the impact of the patchy sleep and a body that is increasingly sensitive to what I put in it. I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the books I read about how to do this are either written by people considerably younger than me – or by men!

For me, and most of the women I know, midlife is messy. Unexpected stuff, large and small, happens all the time. It’s no longer a case of getting through this crisis and then everything returning to equilibrium. It’s learning to hold true and steady in the midst of the hurly burly.


And yet, there is hope … Midlife forces us to face up to ourselves and what is most important to us. At this point, it is a case of only doing what we can do, which means making some tough and important choices about what matters most and then focusing our time and resources on this.

Time is no longer on our side. Well, not in the way it was when we were in our twenties, when it stretched out endlessly in front of us and we were angst-ridden about what we’d do with it. Now time is finite and there are multiple reminders of this around us. Now is not time for angst. Now is the time for humility and deliberate reflection.

The challenge of course is to live through it and at the same time figure out what is really important and what is not, at the same time letting go of what ‘might have been’.

Anything… but not everything

For me at midlife the essence of ‘I can do anything but not everything’ rings so true. The challenge is sorting out what I really want to do from my long list of what ‘anything’ could be. It turns out that what matters most to me doesn’t involve changing the world. It does involve:

  • being there for the ones I love to the best of my ability in every conversation knowing that there is no guarantee how many more of those conversations there might be;
  • being happy eating the same meals over and over, not because I can’t have something else but because they nourish my body and free up my mind to focus on the things that matter;
  • accepting that sometimes pushing hard to meet a deadline is less useful than admitting temporary defeat, pushing out the deadline and enjoying the process and promise of a better outcome slightly further down the track.

Midlife with all its glorious challenges and distractions, is also a gift if we heed its inevitable nudging. It is the time in our life when we are called to recognise and honour the wisdom already within by paying attention to what really matters to us. Making that our priority going forward can bring joy, peace of mind and a wonderful sense of self-mastery. Finally!

Ask Yourself

  • As a service to midlife women, here are some questions to aid your contemplation as you embark upon or navigate midlife:
  • Given the changes in the person that looks back at you from the mirror, what can you do to take exquisite care of her?
  • Which of your dreams do you still wish to realise?
  • What resources, financial and otherwise, do you need to see out your days in comfort?
  • What do you have to offer and what do you want to receive from those who matter most to you?

How can you, unapologetically and deliberately, craft your ripening years to be your most fulfilling yet?

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