Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Loss, childlessness, and midlife crisis

I was in an online discussion recently among a group of loss moms (most of them in their late 30s & 40s -- some who have living children, some who don't) debating whether the funk some of the group members are in at the moment can be blamed on loss & grief, midlife crisis, or a bit of both. (And perhaps a dash of perimenopausal hormones as well?) 

So it was timely to find this article from The Atlantic, which puts forward the theory of the happiness U-curve. The data is more or less the same in every country researched: overall life satisfaction generally declines as young adults begin to age, bottoms out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s, and then begins to increase with age again (declining again somewhat in extreme old age, particularly if ill health is involved).  A few excerpts: 
Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: “Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.” In my 50s, thinking back, his words strike me as exactly right. To no one’s surprise as much as my own, I have begun to feel again the sense of adventure that I recall from my 20s and 30s. I wake up thinking about the day ahead rather than the five decades past. Gratitude has returned...
Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness. In my 40s, I found I was obsessively comparing my life with other people’s: scoring and judging myself, and counting up the ways in which I had fallen behind in a race. Where was my best seller? My literary masterpiece? Barack Obama was younger than I, and look where he was! In my 50s, like my friend K., I find myself more inclined to prize and enjoy people and relationships, which mercifully seem to be pushing the unwinnable status competition into the background... 
In my own case, however, what seems most relevant is a change frequently described both in popular lore and in the research literature: for some reason, I became more accepting of my limitations... For me, the expectation of scaling ever greater heights has faded, and with it my sense of disappointment and failure.
Nowhere is infertility or pregnancy loss mentioned, although some of the interview subjects mention the stresses of dealing with children, aging parents, and marital, career, health and financial problems. But I find that a lot of this article resonated with me.

I don't know whether it's the passage of time (16 years) and that time really does heal all wounds (although the wounds do still ache, now & then), whether I've just done my grief work really well, or if grief just exacerbated what would have been a midlife upheaval anyway?  I spent most of my 40s coming to terms with both my daughter's stillbirth and the hard reality that I was not going to be a mother. (And if you haven't figured that out in your 40s, turning 50 really brings that particular reality home...!) Having succeeded in just about everything else I'd set out to do in life, this was a tough, tough pill to swallow.  And it's really, REALLY hard not to compare yourself (and find yourself wanting) when everyone else around you is raising (seemingly) happy families (that they seem to totally take for granted), and there are pregnant women all around you, and baby bumps on every magazine cover. My career, such as it was, was no substitute, and it stalled, as the managers who had known and supported me left the organization (culminating in my termination this past July, after 28 years). 

Turning 50 was a milestone -- and while I've had my ups & downs since then (losing my job, for one), for me, I think the U-curve theory fits. I can feel that upward swing of the curve. While I am sad that my daughter is not here and that I never got to be a mom (to living children), I am grateful for the life that I have right now, and feeling happier and more excited about the future than I have in a long time. My life doesn't include children, but it's still a good one. Yes, I've had to deal with some crappy stuff in my life -- but everyone does, at some point -- and do I really want that to define & set the tone for the rest of my life? 

There will no doubt be more challenges ahead in the coming years. (I still have to go through menopause, for one...!)  But right now, overall, I like my life, and I am hopeful for the future.


  1. I could have written this (and the article too). I'm very glad you are where you are. Life's so much better when we can like what we have, isn't it?

  2. "Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness."

    Yeah, in the thick of it at the moment. I think the hard part about that is that you don't know how all of this is going to turn out and there's a fear of doing something wrong or taking a path that will ultimately lead to unhappiness. But you're right: despite the hardships, if I take a step back and look at the whole picture, there isn't anything I would change. In general, I am happy. Despite the stress of feeling like a failure at the moment.

  3. Glad to hear you feel "the upswing"
    With my infertility diagnosis of early menopause in my mid-thirties and feeling very low then, I wonder if I will feel a U or a W pattern. Or if I will stay happy with the living child and stressed because of a failing career at the same time. And yes to not taking marriage/family/relationships for granted.

  4. Thank you for this blogpost. In some way it is really funny and a bit little bit "spooky" - because just yesterday I wrote one blogpost about this topic - from my point of view (I am about 40 now :-))
    And reading your post is like an answer or a friendly hello from the future and I know now once more that I am thinking the right way.... I hope you understand what I mean - it is difficult for me to explain in English. xoxo, Isa

  5. Hear, hear! Right on when it comes to not comparing ourselves, esp. when we really yearn to have something, yet we never seem to be able to have it within our grasp no matter how much we try.

    Agree with what Mali says on liking what we have. :-)