Midlife is Only a Crisis If You Make It One

a sign that says danger, do not enter
Photo by Raúl Nájera on Unsplash

The midlife crisis

The other day, I got curious about who coined the term “mid-life crisis.” Mainly, I was curious about the need for such a strong word like “crisis.”

I was betting myself that whoever did this must’ve been unconsciously revealing their own difficulties embracing this change, and was using the word “crisis” to show their disdain, and perhaps their fear, of these changes in their life.

In my research, I learned that it was coined by a Canadian psychoanalyst, Elliott Jaques, who was a sprightly 48 at the time. It also appears that he lived a long and productive life, which throws my theory out the window.

At any rate, I remain curious about why he chose to use the word crisis to mark the series of changes that occur in our 40s and 50s.

Currently, I’m experiencing several significant changes at once: I’m becoming an empty-nester, while simultaneously facing the prospect of trying to find paid work after being a stay-at-home-mom/solo entrepreneur for the last few decades.

Does this mean I’m in a midlife crisis?

Crisis, to me:

  • Sounds like something we would want to avoid at all costs.
  • Brings to mind images of destruction and endings, but rarely invokes images of creation and new beginnings.
  • Is a singular event, like a hurricane or flood, rather than a process of unfolding, shifting, and adjusting.
  • Seems like something you have to muscle through, or hope to survive.

According to this site, a crisis is “a difficult or dangerous time in which a solution is needed — and quickly.” From this perspective, no—I’m not in a crisis. I’m merely adjusting and adapting to the reality of my world. I don’t feel like I’m in any imminent danger, and even if I could “fix it”, how could I, without a time machine?

Jaques said about the midlife crisis that it happens when “we come face-to-face with our limitations, our restricted possibilities, and our mortality.”

Aha. Well, I suppose, in that sense, I am most certainly experiencing a mid-life crisis. I’ll take each of those points individually.


Okay, admittedly, there are more limitations on what I can do now that I’m nearing 50 rather than gliding through my 30s. But, it’s not even so much what I can do, but what I want to do that’s changing. For example, I went to see a Tim McGraw concert this summer, thinking it would be a fun throwback to my country-loving days. But, after spending an excessive amount of time complaining about the cost, hassle, and disorganization of the parking situation, and after having beer spilled on my cute sandals, I was sure that it was the last time I’d do something like that again. Is this really a limitation? Or is it wisdom?

My husband, who is a few years older than I, still struggles to understand that when a new show drops on a Friday, we can watch it anytime that day.

“What time is Ted Lasso on again?” he’ll ask me.

“Seriously, dude, we’ve been through this,” I reply, as I grab my glasses so that I can work the remote. Speaking of glasses, it doesn’t seem that long ago that I could read all day without needing them. Now, they’re the first thing I put on in the morning.

How often do our daughters, when they’re visiting for any length of time, grab our phones away from us when we can’t quite get the information we’re looking for fast enough? But guess what? They still don’t know what it means to roll over an IRA. We had my 21-year-old daughter glassy-eyed in five seconds last week talking about this.

And damn if my husband and I don’t laugh our asses off at the relatability of those Progressive Insurance commercials about “not becoming our parents.” In full disclosure, I did just recently have a Live, Laugh, Love throw pillow in our guest bedroom, but—hand to god— it was only because it matched the rest of the decor.

Restricted possibilities

The sky might be the limit when we’re in our youth, but we get a little more afraid of heights as we get older. Then again, I don’t know if it’s truly because our possibilities have narrowed, or that we’re just no longer willing to be people-pleasers, and have therefore withdrawn ourselves from the nomination pool for many of these so-called “possibilities.”

My daughters might be able to google the location of a restaurant faster than I, but at least I don’t struggle to say “No” when I don’t want to go out like they do. I’m perfectly comfortable canceling plans at the last minute and don’t even bother making up excuses anymore. “Sorry, I accidentally opened a bottle of wine and put on sweats” works well enough with all my friends.

Our mortality

I can attest to the idea that this time of life does invoke more existential questions than at earlier times in my life.

I have had experiences that shook the invincibility right out of my innocent doe eyes. I no longer feel I’m special. I believe that the laws of the universe apply to me, too, unlike what I believed when I was growing up. I understand that life has a certain fragility, which perhaps makes me more boring and less spontaneous. But—it also ensures that I appreciate my life more, and it makes it less likely that I’m doing anything I don’t want to be doing.

You know what other deaths I contemplate at this time in life, however? The death of my “give a shit” about other people’s egos and opinions. If someone can’t manage their own self-worth, what’s that got to do with me? And unless I sought out your opinion, trust me, I don’t care.

I’ve also watched the death of my desire to see the “good” in other people. People can be truly awful a lot of the time. I just finished reading Empire of Pain, and while occasionally my jaw dropped at some inconceivable display of greed or lack of human conscience, we’ve seen this before and we will see it again. My youthful naiveté about the nature of humans has died a slow, natural, but necessary death.

And, I’ve personally put a sword through the heart of my obeisance to police officers, security guards at the airport, spiritual “gurus,” life coaches, and other such people walking around this planet as if they own the place. Good riddance to yes sirs and sitting on the floor with stars in my eyes staring up at some “reknowned” teacher. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

Death is not always a bad thing, which is something you can only realize in midlife. These are good deaths that have made room for humility, reflection, self-respect, and personal integrity. They are the deaths that will birth me into my crone years.

It’s time to reframe and reclaim this time of life

So few of us in our culture experience limitation as anything but a mini-death. Where we believed ourselves to be invincible in our youth, it can take our breath away to realize that human life is so very fragile. Yet, we avoid even talking about mortality, let alone share what it feels like to be the only species on earth that is imminently aware of our demise.

We humans are not adept at change. We don’t want it, we rarely seek it, and we surely don’t understand it. We don’t want to show up changed, and risk being told by a family member, as I once was, that we’re not “fun anymore.” So, we cling to what was, or what is. The devil we know is better than the devil we don’t — that’s the mantra we recite.

It’s not midlife that’s dangerous. It’s our approach to it.

We fight to stay the same, even though we know that’s a losing game. We try to stay aligned with our identities of youth or our identities from some long-ago job or role. We still place our trophies and ribbons in prominent places for our ego’s sake. This is not a midlife crisis. This is an identity crisis, which is a whole different thing.

Too many of us live in ever-constant reruns of the past in our heads. We saw this with the Trump campaign’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” We saw it with the push to return to “normal” after the pandemic hit. Too many of us must be dragged kicking and screaming into the future, carrying our old Def Leppard albums with us, yelling at kids to go and do all the stupid things we did ‘cause “we turned out okay.”

No, we didn’t. Few understand the true power of change. Few understand that human life is about transformation. If it happens at midlife, then I suppose we can call it a midlife transformation. It doesn’t have to turn into a crisis.

But most of us weren’t brought up in cultures or families that taught us about the importance of a rite of passage. We were not exposed to ceremonies and rituals that see and honor change in a person at any time of life. So, for all our mantras about letting go, we don’t have a clue how to do it. All we know how to do, all we are praised for doing, is retaining, maintaining, and holding on until our fists must be forced open.

The clinging is what turns a midlife transformation into a midlife crisis.

It’s a crisis when we avoid and hide from the truth of who we are becoming.

It’s a crisis if we won’t accept our children growing up and moving away, or having to start from scratch learning some new skill, or simply accepting that our demographics have changed.

It’s a crisis when you refuse to accept that you don’t get to be the same, and that life is never supposed to be the same.

It’s not midlife that’s dangerous. It’s our approach to it. In other words, it’s only a crisis if you call it one. Thanks for nothing, Elliott Jaques.

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