The other day I turned on the new Netflix series “On the Verge,” and had to cringe a little at how discombobulated the characters appeared to be.
I have noticed that in many shows featuring middle-aged women, the characters are portrayed as painfully insecure and frazzled as they navigate life’s challenges while desperately trying to hang on to their youth. They’re usually surrounded by ride-or-die gal pals who they’ve known since college, and who can be relied on to drop everything at a moment’s notice to help keep the main character from falling apart.
My first introduction to this genre was watching “The First Wives Club” as a teenager. The movie features some amazing talent; however, its overall message seemed to be that your husband may leave you when you get older... but you can get revenge. There’s been some progress since the ’90s, but many of the stereotypes about midlife women in movies and television remain.
When I look around at the middle-aged women I know, however, I see something entirely different than what’s depicted in the media. I see confident women who are coming into their own. I see women who may not necessarily have a “tribe” they’ve relied on for years, but who have learned the importance of holding tight to relationships that facilitate growth. I see women embracing the aging process gracefully, and all the experience and knowledge that comes along with it.
More women today are celebrating their gray hair, and seeing wrinkles as the etchings of many years fully lived. Women know there is more to life than youthful beauty, despite what the anti-aging cream commercials would have us believe.
At 39, some may argue that I don’t qualify as middle-aged yet, but I already find that my perspectives are shifting. I’m not dreading the big four-oh. Rather, I am more confident and secure with myself than I have ever been.
Author Brené Brown brilliantly describes midlife as an “unraveling” rather than a crisis. It’s a time when we stop pretending. “It seems as if we spend the first half of our lives shutting down feelings to stop the hurt, and the second half trying to open everything back up to heal the hurt,” Brown says.
This healing takes work, but it can be transformational. Midlife isn’t easy. As I neared the midlife years, I found myself lost in postpartum depression. It was a darkness that permeated my entire being, until I went to therapy and came to learn that I could no longer live my life to make other people happy, being who I thought they wanted me to be.
So, I started a writing career after being a stay-at-home mom for nine years. I left a religion that had been causing me cognitive dissonance and was actively hurting some of the people closest to me. It’s taken me until now to learn how to make and maintain boundaries. The changes I have made have not felt chaotic so much as empowering.
This has been the time of life where I’ve learned who my true friends are, and also made some new ones ― but I don’t need them to constantly rescue me. A lot of women I know don’t feel like they have a close-knit group of female friends to meet and travel with regularly, as is often portrayed in the media. But that doesn’t mean something is wrong with us. Midlife is a very busy time!
There are more issues that come up in midlife than just the familiar stories of spousal affairs and PTA drama. It can be a time when people recognize that something is no longer working for them, a time when relationships and careers may change.
Our bodies change, too, in ways that transcend wrinkles and gray hair. When I was 36, I suddenly felt as if I was aging at an accelerated rate. Crippling fatigue, joint pain, low-grade fevers, and an overall feeling of being very unwell eventually led to a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Since being diagnosed, my life and overall health have drastically changed. It’s made me much more cognizant of life’s fragility, and it’s made me savor the days when pain is not my constant companion.
My ambitions have also changed. Now I make goals such as “spend money on experiences rather than things.” Time has become infinitely more valuable, especially the time I spend with my husband and children.
It’s helpful to know that the unraveling at midlife tends to lead to more happiness in the older years. Research has found that “older people are happier than other age groups and far more productive than commonly believed.” Midlife can shake things up, but that seems to yield more contentment later on.
There are some movies and TV shows that feature more complex and diverse female characters, but can we do away with the notion that midlife sends women (and men) into a crisis? I would love to see more depictions of women becoming more confident and self-assured with age, because that is what I am witnessing in real life. Midlife is an unraveling, but with those loose ends, we weave a beautiful tapestry made from changes that lead us back to our core selves.