Midlife Crisis?

I recently saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which stars Ben Stiller in the role of 42-year-old Walter Mitty. Walter is a quiet, mild, play-it-safe kind of guy who frequently escapes into vivid daydreams in which he is a superhero doing all the daring and admirable things that he can’t or won’t do in real life. And then one day he changes. It was a sweet, silly, funny, inspiring, predictable Hollywood movie which the three middle-aged people in my party enjoyed, in large part because we could all see a bit of ourselves in it. Or, perhaps, I should speak only for myself.

I was that quiet, play-it-safe kind of gal, for a very long time. Circumstances created her just as they had created Walter Mitty, who was a mohawk-bearing, skateboarding teenager until his father suddenly died. Left with little savings, Walter picked up two part-time jobs that same week, and the seed of the risk-averse and conservative adult was planted. Early on my immigrant parents had drummed into my head that security was #1. Save money and stay close to home. Find a career that offers lifetime stability. Marry a husband from the same ethnic group and same city. Change was bad, as were uncertainty and excitement.

I went along with all of this, until I no longer could.

I still remember a recurring dream that I had for a year, one that awoke me with my heart racing every time. I was in an enormous place – a building, or a house – with no visible exit. The owners of the place were planning to kill me, but they would also kill me if I tried to escape.

At the end of that year, a series of opportunities fell into place and I won a one-year traveling fellowship to Japan. The moment I made that decision to move, my recurring dream stopped. The owners in my dream were my parents, whose expectations of me to stay close to them and to follow their instructed path were beginning to stifle me.

One year in Japan turned into eight, and it was there that I met Max, became a mother, created a professional name and started a business. Because of what I experienced and how much I grew, I will encourage Fred to one day consider living abroad, even if it means having him an ocean apart.

So I have my break-out adventure under my belt, a handful of experiences checked off my bucket list. But now, in my 40s, I feel that I’ve come full circle. For the last ten years, ever since I became a parent and a work-from-home business owner, I’ve retreated…retreated from the larger world I used to be a part of and from the larger person that I used to be. Instead of wanting more, I want the same. I wonder where that hunger has gone, that almost insatiable craving to live out of my comfort zone.

It’s a natural progression, you might say; maybe evolution or biology requires me to crave and create security during my early mothering years. In Japanese the word for wife is okusan, literally, “the one deep within/inside.” Without conforming to anyone’s expectations, I have become her, the one deep inside.

The other reasoning, equally valid, is the fact that my eight years in Tokyo were so intense. 70-hour work weeks. Constant pressure under the gun of being terminated to produce and to add to the company’s bottom line. Elbow-to-elbow everyone and everything and everywhere. Language barriers, cultural adjustments. Every minute of every day was a trip beyond my comfort zone. I think I’ve since swung the other direction because I’ve been seeking equilibrium.

The problem now is that, after nine years of this quiet life – which, to be quite honest, I very much enjoyed the first eight years – I’m starting to feel a bit Walter Mitty-ish. I like my lifestyle but I don’t; I’m comfortable but I’m not. What I do know is that I don’t want to go back to my previous life. I don’t want to work 60 or 70 hours a week; I don’t want the stress of networking and being “out there” and making a name. Maybe my life cycle is eight years in one direction, eight years in another. Maybe it’s also the fact that my son is turning ten. He no longer needs my constant care; he’s growing, and so am I, or so I have to. The question now is, in what direction do I go? How do I want to live? Because that young woman in Japan, the one who reveled in being free and unencumbered and in securing each new professional rung on the ladder, no longer exists.

Image courtesy http://my.opera.com/dhaiphong/albums/showpic.dml?album=389738&picture=5877907

Image courtesy http://my.opera.com

32 thoughts on “Midlife Crisis?

  1. On the Walter Mitty front, the movie seems so unlike the actual short story that I don’t think I can go see it. Cecilia, maybe since it sounds like you are mostly happy, you are hearing the call from your youth and subconsciously think you are under-performing. It’s hard to tell how busy your home business keeps you, but if it is a part-time endeavor, maybe you just need to ramp it up a bit or find something else you like to do that can occupy some of your time and make you feel more fulfilled. It could even be a hobby that you really enjoy or volunteering or something. Or maybe you’re busy enough but just don’t feel like you’re doing something as worthwhile as you could be. The other thing is, I think that unless you absolutely love your job, almost everyone gets tired of doing the same things all the time. So, maybe you just need to do more for yourself that you enjoy. This is just some ideas you could think about.

    • You raise really good points here, Kay, especially this: “you are hearing the call from your youth and subconsciously think you are under-performing.” I have wondered about that, that maybe I am holding myself up to some kind of standard from the past (and from society in general) that says I have to be going going going all the time. I’m living the kind of (slower) life that so many people have started writing about and advocating, and yet I find myself restless and antsy, as if I should be doing more. I have some ideas about what I’d like to do, and I’m conflicted because a part of me is so used to being in my comfort zone…somehow I need to find that surge of energy to get back out there, even if it’s to pursue something small.

  2. I feel like you are describing me exactly. The part about liking my life, but feeling like I need something more, but I don’t know what it is. I’ve only felt this way the last couple of years, and I have thought that it is to do with my kids getting older. When they were little, they took up all my time and head space. But now that they don’t need me constantly anymore (my youngest is now 8), I have time to actually think about myself and my own life. I’m starting to realize that I am still me and I still want things for myself apart from my kids. I had no idea that this was going to happen. For a long time, I couldn’t see past being a mother to 3 little ones. Now I can, but I can’t quite figure out what to do about it. This is one of the reasons I decided to start a book blog. My greatest passion is to read, but I had nowhere for it to go except around and around inside my own head. And, being a shy quiet person, starting a blog took me a bit out of my comfort zone, which is a good thing. But what next? I’m a little afraid there might not actually be an answer. Or it could be that I just have to wait a few more years, until my kids are even more independent. Now I know that it really will happen (my kids will actually grow up!) , and I want to be ready for it with some kind of a plan. So, because I feel in the same place as you, I’m afraid I’m not much help, except to say that I remember Gretchen Rubin say in one of her books (The Happiness Project or Happiness at Home), that in order for us to feel happy and content with our lives we always need to be ‘growing’ in some way. This makes sense to me.

    • On the contrary, Naomi, you’ve helped a lot, simply by being able to relate and for sharing your own feelings! It’s huge. I imagine there are plenty of people out there who are going through something like this, but I haven’t met any yet or had a conversation with someone who is feeling the same way. I can also relate to what you said about being shy, and about loving to read. That’s where I’ve taken my energies too – reading and discovering books has become a very fun and big part of my life, as has been writing this blog. But like you I wonder what else I can do. Maybe I’m looking for something less than a career, but more than a hobby.

      This is maybe the 3rd time this week that I’ve heard someone citing Happiness at Home – I think I will get myself a copy! Anyway, I’m not offering any help to you either…but now it looks like neither one of us is alone! 🙂

      • No, we are not alone. And yes! Less than a career but more than a hobby! I hope you come up with something more easily than I have been able to do.
        The Happiness books gave me some good ideas on how to improve my life in little ways on a daily basis. I’m not usually a self-help person, but I do get drawn into books with Happiness in the title, and I did really like these books.

  3. Loving your post:) I really think we are sisters from other mothers – ha! I am looking for direction in my life right now too, especially professionally. It is hard to find that balance and what works best for me when my see saw is truly heavier on one side than the other. I am trying to go more with the flow and not just keep trying to figure it out. I am trying to just see what happens! Happy Thursday:)

    • Ha ha, love that – “sisters from other mothers” 🙂 Going with the flow sounds good too, as maybe sometimes we can inadvertently paralyze ourselves by overthinking and worrying. I’m glad you can relate and I hope things come together for you before long!

  4. I read somewhere recently (in one of the many New Year’s resolutions articles floating around) that to change the trajectory of your life and bend it towards what you envision or want, you should make small changes slowly. I like the idea that change does not have to be on the Walter Mitty scale (superheros and saving lives) or on the scale of what you previously experienced (living in a different country). But of course, this begs the question: what kind of change would you like to see or experience?

    • That’s a really good question, Ngan…my husband and I were both saying that we want to do something that will have some impact on others, and I think this is probably a fairly common “dilemma” at our age. We do make some impact in our work, but in large part we have been working for money and for survival up until now. We actually need to make even more money as we have to build a path toward retirement and college (ugh) and yet my/our interests point more toward things that don’t bring a lot of money. I really like what you said about making small changes slowly. I think that is what I need to do. I don’t want to make huge changes – just small ones, and to feel satisfied with them. (It might also be my mindset that I need to change…) Anyway, thanks so much for offering your thoughts here!

  5. What an amazing post!

    I think the really strange thing is that it reminded me of my own long ago desire to escape, which I had forgotten because so much of my focus has been on untangling myself from *my* own net of my own making.

    It’s interesting the way some people swing from one extreme to the other. I guess they go together; the more intense something is for you, the more intense is the reaction against it.

    • Thanks, Denise! And now you’ve piqued my interest about your own story of “escape”….;-)

      I think I am kind of crazy for the way I swing in such extremes! I think I held back for too long, and when I let go I really let go. I remember feeling that even California, which is on the opposite coast of where I was living at the time, was not far enough, and that I had to go to a whole different country.

  6. I love the way you write! I second Kay’s idea that maybe volunteering is a good way to feeling like you’re pushing outward while remaining secure and in place. Also, I could see you writing a book of essays based on your blog posts! 🙂

    • Aw, I really appreciate that, Carolyn! I have fantasized about writing something…I don’t have a lot of confidence in my writing, actually, plus I feel kind of lazy. But I have a dream of trying my hand at writing a short story. I figure that it might free me to talk about all kinds of personal stuff, but I can fictionalize it or escape into the life of a fictitious character…I just get nervous about the idea of really writing because I can get into my “zone” and totally ignore my family. Are you writing things besides your blog?

      I really do want to try volunteering! Maybe do something that involves reading and books. And I had this idea about teaching a writing class to kids my son’s age…I’ll need to give that one some more thought…


  7. Cecilia,

    So much of this post resonates with me. I, too, wonder where my ambition and drive have vanished. Since quitting my work as a lawyer, I am finding that my purpose has evolved. At the time, leaving my job made sense. Ailing father, infant child, and a husband who accepted a job in another state took up so much of my space. Fast forward 7 years: My father is no longer here. My daughter turned 8. We’ve settled in AZ for the last 5 years. I ask myself, what now? There are parts of my life that I adore, but there are days I feel I am in a hole. I am trying to reconcile all these different selves and it’s been a struggle. I understand so much of what you said here that it moved me to tears. Thanks for letting me know that I am not alone. I have no concrete advice, but know that you are not alone.

    • Your words here are a *huge* comfort to me, Rudri…just knowing that there is someone else who feels exactly the same. As I mentioned in some other comments, I haven’t had this conversation with fellow mom friends. I don’t know if it is just me or if others feel the same and we just haven’t yet connected on the issue. I hope that in our writing and reading we will continue to explore what is meaningful for us, and in time find (again) our purpose.

  8. I, too, find myself deep inside. And it is really a struggle to open up and put myself “out there” in the world. I understand your struggle. It is sometimes hard to find meaning now that I am not working, not a teacher. I have to remember that my purpose, for now, is with my three kids, but like yours, my boys are older and not needing me quite so much. My daughter is just about three already, and I am already apprehensively wondering about the years ahead after she goes to school.

    • I’m so glad that you can relate, Heidi. I haven’t had this conversation with any of my mother friends yet, but I suspect that many feel the same way, if they’ve been out of the work force long enough to feel a bit alienated, and yet the kids are now old enough for them to begin feeling the new holes or gaps opening in their lives. (oops, sorry for the long run on sentence!)

  9. What a beautifully written series of musings-and inspired by a less-than-stellar movie, no less. The sort of complacency you describe is something that I would like to avoid – thus, my plan to move to New Zealand before the end of the year. Even if I’m not doing anything extraordinary there, the leap to move across the world will hopefully satisfy a persistent feeling I have that what I’m doing isn’t enough.

    I do think, though, that there is something quintessentially American about the anxiety of not having a life that is “special” enough. So, the other part of the challenge to myself is to distinguish between things I truly enjoy doing (blogging, analyzing films) and those that I have been taught to perceive as exciting (knowing all the latest music releases, going out every weekend). Best wishes to you on this introspective journey.

    • YES – thank you for bringing up the cultural tendencies. When I googled “midlife crisis” I read that there is no such phenomenon in Japan, for example. I think there is definitely something very American about needing to live life to the “fullest” and so there is constant pressure to keep moving at lightning speed and/or to climb higher and higher. I’ve finally achieved the life that I’ve wanted, so why am I feeling restless? Why can’t I just enjoy my reward? Anyway, thank you for this comment.

      I think that is great that you are planning to move to New Zealand! I agree that you don’t need to do anything extraordinary – just making the move is huge enough, and then doors and doors will open.

  10. From my own experience…just know that it’s okay–you’re okay. This is not so much a crisis as a bump or curve in the road perhaps. We should grow and develop throughout adulthood! Not so long ago it was thought that an adult remained static until they died, never changing in personality, desires, etc. But we now know that is simply not true. As we live ever longer lives, we undergo more adjustment and change throughout adulthood. You have opportunities now to make decisions about your near future. It is rather intimidating and I admit I am in that same stage of “flux” at present, but one thing I have learned in 57 years…relax and allow time and process to occur. The Universe will work it out… 🙂 You will be fine! My biggest fear is financial security; probably the most motivating factor for my continuing to work a full-time job outside the home. I am considering many different possibilities, as my own children now have their own young families keeping them intensely occupied as they did me over 30 years ago! One thing that has helped me cope with this is meditation. I use a program my husband had purchased and I find it helps me remain a bit calmer with less daily anxiety about the future… Hmmm…I must check out Rubin’s books! I discover that as I get older my overall energy level decreases somewhat, though exercise and diet help overcome that somewhat, I prefer to think of it as a change in energy concentration; I can now use my time to be more reflective and creative in areas other than those previously explored. As James Markert said during a telephone interview with my book club, “Just write.” Even if for only 15 minutes per day, use your time to write, if you really want to do that. So, as you and others have stated, small steps…

    • I love your thoughtful comment and wisdom here, Lynn! Thank you so much! I always love to hear from those who have been there, done that. If I could say one thing to my 20s and 30s selves, I would also tell them to relax, that things will work out. We tend to worry more than any situation warrants. I too am very interested in meditation. I have one program on my phone that I listen to if I have trouble sleeping or if I wake up feeling anxious. It is quite amazing! I will check out Rubin’s books too, especially the new one about happiness at home. I hear you on the financial security, and hope that you find good options, Lynn.

  11. I think when things are going well, it is easy to accept the easier, less intimidating, more familiar route, especially when you are not forced to make a change. But the fact that you recognize a need to accept something new in your life is perhaps a great start to invite new adventures just to mix things up a bit. Who says you have to be a superhero to do something different with your life? Just changing wall color can do that sometimes, as you know from my story. They don’t have to be life-changing, routine-halting changes, so I say, go crazy, paint a room and revel in the fresh view. You don’t have to move to Tokyo to do that 😉

    • I am definitely working on the house this year!! And yes to small steps. That is all I can handle right now, although the idea of decluttering our home is OVERWHELMING 😉

  12. Is it possible to have a midlife crisis at 30? Because a midlife crisis is exactly what I had a year ago. I think part of my problem came with the realization that so much of my life was born out of a desire to do what I thought others expected of me, a desire to please, a desire to be a kind of woman that, I imagined, others needed me to be. So there I was with these thoughts and this aching feeling of unhappiness, unhappiness over where I was and uncertainty over how to get where I wanted to be. I am working on making my life over again, and it hasn’t been painless, but it has been worth it.

  13. Your writing is beautiful, Ceci, and I don’t think it’s a midlife crisis, I see it as more realizing our mortality. The finiteness of our days. And when we’re gone, will we leave with a smile, thinking back on that life that gave us so much joy? I hope so.

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