I don’t know if it’s a reflection of the circles I’m moving in as I approach the end of my training as a counsellor, but I’m increasingly aware of a drive amongst the middle aged women I know to examine their lives and make some changes. Some would call it a midlife crisis, but it’s not that – it’s more like a midlife reframe. Empty nesters and mothers approaching their children’s teenage years are realising that they may soon have more time for their own concerns, and it’s prompting conversations around what they will do with themselves when the demands of parenting take up less physical time. It’s happening to friends of mine, and I’m noticing it in communities of other midlifers online – a realisation that the world no longer revolves around only their children – they have a right to take up space too.
Things we may reassess in midlife
My eldest child was about 15 when I started to feel an urgency around what my purpose might be when I no longer needed to herd, feed and navigate around young people. My podcast on teenage mental health and my own therapy had already got me interested in listening to people’s stories, so it was a logical next step to train as a psychotherapist and have an actual career again! What I hadn’t realised was how much emotional work I would do on myself when I started to learn how to support other people – or how much of a mindset shift that would bring about in my own life!
The least boundaried person is probably a busy mother. Who else (apart from perhaps nurses and junior doctors) charges through life without a thought for their own needs in quite the same way as a parent? With the lessening of demands from our children, we can finally start to pay a bit more attention to what we want. It sounds simple, doesn’t it, but after so many years of prioritising my kids (and more recently, my ailing mother) I really struggled to put myself first – it just felt so wrong!
It took some work in therapy to reframe my approach to my own motivations and ask for what I needed without guilt or fear (of letting people down or being deemed a bit whiny). I now know that I have every right to get my needs met, even if that involves other people – including my kids – stepping up and doing some of the things I thought of as ‘my job’. I will talk about codependency in another article, but essentially, my self-worth was completely wrapped up in other people’s outcomes (being a parent will do that to you if you’re not very careful) and I needed to give myself permission to be a bit more self-centred. (I deliberately didn’t say selfish, but I know that even self-centred will have some of you feeling a bit apologetic – it did me).
Eventually I learned boundaries: how to know what I needed (and didn’t need – hello wet towels on the floor!); how to ask for what I needed; and how to stick to my requests in the face of being blatantly ignored, without causing world war three.
If you’re struggling with boundaries, especially with your family or adolescent children, I can help. Find out more about how I can support you with challenges in parenting teenagers on my coaching page.
When I hit 50, I re-evaluated my wardrobe. No longer needing to stay in the uniform of ‘clothes that don’t show carrot stains’ and things that make it easier to crawl around on the floor, I went shopping. For me, embracing colour has been the theme of my fifties – dopamine dressing is a real thing and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you fancy compliments from complete strangers about how you look. Whatever you feel good in, once we hit midlife there’s less need for practicality in our clothing, and more freedom to express who we really are.
As I’ve got older, things have started to go wrong – naturally. Menopause has exacerbated my already painful joints, and my sleep has suffered as my fibromyalgia chronic pain has got worse. Basically, I need to look after my body better than I did before, and manage my stress levels more carefully (see boundaries!) I no longer run, thanks to advice from a surgeon the last time I tore a ligament, and I don’t do HIT classes, because I don’t want exercise to resemble punishment. I’ve watched my mum get so frail that she’s housebound, so exercise needs to be about strength for me, not weight or dress size.
It also needs to serve my mental health as much as my body – the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’ has no place in my midlife exercise régime, so it’s all about walking in the fresh air, core strength pilates on a reformer, and anything that stretches my muscles gently. I’m experimenting with yoga. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve found something that works – no boot camps for me!
Our relationship with alcohol
Ok, this is a big one, and I’m owning it. I feel like alcohol no longer serves me. In peri-menopause I noticed that wine was difficult for me to metabolise. Where half a bottle on weekend evenings was perfectly doable in my 40’s, it now upsets everything from my stomach to my sleep, and leaves me feeling gritty-eyed and grumpy the next day. I’ve been through all the usual alternatives – I’ll only have one glass (never enough); I’ll drink gin instead (more than two of those will do the same); I’ll treat myself to one lovely cocktail and then have lime and soda (yeah, right. Plus – all that sugar!) – and I’ve come to the conclusion that alcohol no longer works for me.
As I type, I’m just back from a weekend retreat aimed at exploring my relationship with alcohol and… let’s just say I’m thinking about it. I won’t lie, it was a tough weekend for me as I examined the reasons why I drink and got honest with myself about what I want for my body (and my life) in the next 30 years. But it was also wonderful to hang out with 9 other women who also want more energy and less hiding from their emotions. We talked and walked and sat by log fires, we nourished our bodies and stabilised our blood sugar with good quality food, and we got up at sunrise (I didn’t even recognise myself at the crack of dawn!) to do yoga. If you like the sound of it, and want to find out more about why you crave alcohol, make contact with Lindsey Beveridge, who’s an inspiration.
Okay, I don’t want to panic any of my friends – if you’re in my life now, it’s for a reason – but as I’ve gone about this middle-aged mindset shift I’ve really worked out what I want in my relationships. It’s mostly about contact and connection. As a result, I’ve added more people into my life, but I’ve been selective about how I’ve directed my energy. Learning to be a more empathic listener as a result of my psychotherapy training means I now get really interested in what’s going on for people, and what they think. My own therapy has brought me into contact with people I’d never have gravitated towards in the past, and I now have friendships that are much richer and more varied. My oldest friend is in her 90’s (she won’t say exactly how old!) and instead of going to the pub with one of my friends, we get up at 3.30am to watch the sun rise as we walk and chat. It’s different, and it’s richer, and I love it.
The things that bring us joy
I used to think if I didn’t have plans on a Friday night my life was boring. I sought out bars and dinner parties, alcohol and desserts, restaurants and holidays. Of course, I still enjoy most of those things, but instead of pursuing them all the time I’ve added in things that genuinely resonate with me, not just things I do for entertainment, or because I’m bored.
I go to choir and band practice; I’m exhausted by the evening and I never want to go, but I force myself to do it, because I know that when I finish I’ll have way more energy than I started with. That’s how I know it’s the right thing for me. I was told this weekend that it’s because the things that really mean something to me give me a dopamine hit. Guess it’s singing, then. I get the same from a really good conversation, a cold wind on my face, and the sun in a bright blue sky. The pub is nice, but I’d rather sit on a blustery beach and stare at the horizon with a dog. I’m building up to a cold water swim.
I’m a work in progress, but progress is good. How about you?