At some point mid-last week, I realized with a start that I was angry. Not really angry at anything in particular in that moment, and not in the wholly pervasive sense that I am an angry person, viewing everything through a little red lens. It was more that anger had become easily accessible, like a handbag, or language fluency. Its focus isn’t sharp and pointed, but more of a diffuse, opaque layer, spread thin beneath the surface. And maybe anger isn’t even the right word. Maybe it’s rage. A rage so controlled and low level that it’s almost totally acceptable in polite company.
A casual, socially-acceptable accessory-type rage.
“Where are your car keys?”
“Inside right pocket of my purse, right beside my rage.”
The target of my rage isn’t an individual person or institution (except the obvious) so much as the constant Press and Pace of All the Things. The impotent-scream-into-the-void at not having been able to finish a sentence for the past seven and a half years, or the 3am terror of being stuck forever in the gig economy, unable to reenter the fulltime workforce at a level with any real future. It’s an overwhelm born of fear and frustration that I can’t focus enough of my energies in any one place, and certainly not in a thoughtful way, at precisely the moment in my life when focus seems required.
The impossible quest for balance among mothers working inside or outside the home is a bottomless well of fodder—for articles, novels, kvetching at book club. But this particular brand of rage feels unique to the midlife squeeze happening now among Generation X women. For the most part, we were told by our Boomer parents (when they managed to drop in) that anything was possible…in a Melanie Griffin “Working Girl” way. Those shoulder pads that seemed glamorous to my eyes behind oversized mauve glasses in 1984 later turned out to be cheap stuffing filling out a blazer never designed to fit me. I focused on education and career first, idealistically believing passion paid the bills. And it wasn’t as though it didn’t, totally. Because I started adulthood with far more opportunity than my mother did, catapulting myself from Louisiana to an east coast college to a first job in Los Angeles and back to New England for grad school, I assumed the rate of change would continue, and apply to pay, advancement, equity among domestic work, and opportunities.
But it didn’t.
Ten years in, my corporate job was drifting benignly along an endless plateau at the middle-management level, without women mentors or role models to illustrate where and how I might ladder up, or at least leverage into something more dynamic and fulfilling. I was in a maddeningly subtle stall that frustrates many women mid-career. According to the Center for American Progress, the rapid rate of change in the workforce women experienced in the 1970s and 1980s began to slow in the 1990s and 2000s, as the contracting of the gender wage gap stalled and the percentage of women in leadership roles stagnated. Across nearly all professional industries—medicine, finance, law, academia, tech—women in the leadership spots have been stuck at or below 25% for past decade or so, and in some fields, like venture capitalism, women have even lost ground in the C-suite in recent years.
In my mid-to-late 30’s I shifted my focus to being home part-time during my kids’ early years, partly as an escape hatch to my career frustrations and no doubt also in some reaction response to my own latchkey upbringing. And while rewarding to be with my children more, I found I had traded the stagnancy of my full-time career for the crazy-making of the freelance-caregiver juggle. There simply wasn’t enough. Enough versatile upward options with work, enough time or capacity to manage the hustle and insecurity of freelance consulting, enough share of the load at home, and definitely not enough of me. It felt like the foundation that I tried to build it all on, that I wanted to build it all on, wasn’t strong enough because it was made out of those goddam squishy Melanie Griffith shoulder pads.
I’m so aware of how #FirstWorldProblems this all sounds, and actually is. I have had unbelievable fortune in getting a great education, managing a flex career in an equitable marriage with a man I like to refer to as the Co-Mama. Hell, it’s a mark of privilege to even talk about a midlife crisis. But however much I and others like me might not deserve to feel at a loss right now, the stats validate that many of us nevertheless do. Nearly 60% of Gen Xers describe themselves as stressed out, with 30% stating their stress levels feel higher than the year before. A little over 20% of women in their 40s and 50s are on antidepressants, a higher percentage than any other group by age or sex. In addition, a significant portion of us are shopping online too frequently, or drinking a little too much and too often, or constantly tunneling into our smartphones.
I’m certain that with many generations approaching mid-life, there’s probably always been a great uncertainty and identity-come-to-Jesus when realizing that doors and possibilities are closing (“I will never be an ingénue novelist”), while not quite being closed (“but maybe I could still get an agent!”). But modern women of my generation, and working mothers as a subset, have precious little framework for referencing and navigating this time. There’s the tired old trope for men: the Ferrari and affair, which should now probably be updated to Paleo and an Xbox 360. But what do women today have as reference? Especially if we delayed motherhood in order to get our careers started, or are struggling with fertility or raising small children in our 40’s, right at the moment we are supposed to be “leaning in?” We are a new inflection point in American history. As members of the “sandwich generation,” there is added pressure in realizing you’re beginning to be lapped by Millennials while Boomers are not retiring fast enough at the same time your children are still in nursery or elementary school. Nursery and elementary schools that expect Pinterest-worthy involvement, I should add. This is to say nothing of the women in my generation who are single mothers shouldering the entire household burden, or those would still like to become mothers and are walking through a painful uncertainty and grief in their 40’s.
Mid-life is also tough because it’s when the shit starts to go down.
Mid-life is also tough because it’s when the shit starts to go down. The inevitable loss that finds us all four or five decades in—illness and death of our parents, health scares of our own, marriage or relationship trouble, shifting priorities and identities—all seems to beg for attention, whether impulsive or reflective. For working mothers, neither seems possible. There isn’t time to grieve the large or small. I have the distinct feeling that a mountaintop retreat would be watershed for me in sorting through so much. Or even just a long walk. But instead I have a load of clothes mildewing in the washer, or a client deadline in half an hour, or carpool to run, or a late-night of writing back and forth work emails. These are small things, they are daily choices I make with the incredible privilege and relative wealth I have to make them, and—and—they also accumulate into something hot and simmering on my stove that bubbles over at the inconsequential.
I think that’s the essence of the pocket rage: in addition to the challenge of trying to keep a toe-hold in a career while raising small children and managing the “mental load” of the household, I am facing a time in my life that demands I take stock (mortality? rediscovered sexuality? the call to make a major life pivot?)—and give it sustained thought. But then I get interrupted. Again. And I want to punch through a wall.
Several friends I’ve spoken to feel the same. When I asked one woman, the mother of two and a vice president in a global boutique firm, whether this resonated, she didn’t hesitate.
“I keep feeling like if I tweak something—or if I had made a superior decision about career or education or partner or insert major life vector here—then it would ‘work’ and so the mess and overwhelm is ultimately my fault. What I actually feel beneath the rage is despair and impotence.”
Another friend, mother of two and executive director of a nonprofit, quickly jumped in: “Impotent despair and anger of highly educated, highly motivated, capable women? YES. I have everything I want yet feel constantly bombarded by texts, emails, phone calls, which all seem to require a response or a level of energy I can’t find.”
Understanding that sense of impotence is key to un-pocketing this rage. I’ve always loved the widespread myth that daddy longlegs spiders are the most venomous spiders in the world. We’re only safe from their bite, the story goes, because their fangs are too small and weak to break through human skin. It makes me laugh to picture this furious little spider, raising one of his eight tiny fists to the sky as children try to tickle him into skittering across a wall. “Fools!” I imagine it shouting with its teeny-tiny mouth, “If only you knew. If only my fangs were bigger—it’s you who would be skittering away!”
What I actually feel beneath the rage is despair and impotence.
I laugh a bit less when I realize how much like that daddy longlegs I am right now, standing where I can catch enough of a vista to know there is important work to do, this work at life mid-point that’s begging me to sort through, to redirect, to jump on a few big life goals and sink my teeth into them while I can. And yet I can’t for the life of me get myself free to do it. Or not as I’d like to anyway. I’m overwhelmed—and I’m furious I’m overwhelmed.
Another working mother friend entering her 40’s, who I’ve never seen sit still, put it this way, “you feel powerless and start blaming yourself for either having too high of expectations for yourself or others or for not having your shit together. And even though you love your kids and your husband more than anything in the whole world and can’t imagine your life without them and don’t want to, ever, you sometimes wonder how much easier it would be if you could just do your own thing and maybe do more good in the world solo… I wind up feeling like a character in a feminist short story who I used to mercilessly judge as being a selfish bitch, just because I wondered.”
It’s ubiquitous, this feeling, and it never shows up on Facebook’s highlight reels. We’re some of the best educated women in history, but hit with two recessions in our early adulthood, significantly rising costs and stagnant (still gendered) wages—all while we made decisions, by choice or necessity, to devote a significant portion of our energy to our families—we are also the most downwardly mobile, with well over half of us less wealthy than our parents at the same age. In my terror-filled 3am moments, I’m keenly aware of how far too little I have saved for retirement, and according to the Pew Reseach Center, 44% of my cohort are lying awake at the same time, fearing the same.
Even those of us whose careers do seem to be skyrocketing are feeling the double press of inadequacy and stress. A friend who’s managed to build a successful start-up in a creative industry while also volunteering to plant a garden at her daughter’s school told me that it’s rare that she has a day when she doesn’t feel overwhelmed or under-accomplished.
The sense of overwhelm and the fury or despair around it doesn’t just come from a juggle of the here-and-now, the family-work polemic. We are also now facing the interdimensional juggle of examining the lives we might have lived, the forks in the road behind us, and the ones we still might have ahead.
I want to take time with these questions—sustained, uninterrupted time to listen, and think, and understand, again, what I want and who I am. I sometimes get a desperate feeling to complete a thought, the kind of thought that might lead to life-altering realization and can only come with a quiet room and good window. But small children and hustling for work don’t allow for mid-life reckoning. I’m ashamed that the frustrated yearning for space and time often manifests in me as white-hot anger directed at my husband and children. I snap and yell or even throw a pillow across a room, reveling in the delicious feeling of knowing I’m about to give over to the anger…before acknowledging I’m just going to have more to clean up. Many weeks I’ve had to put myself in Time Out more often than my 4-year-old.
Many weeks I’ve had to put myself in Time Out more often than my 4-year-old.
I don’t presume to have a cure for my pocket rage. I’m steeped in self-care language and have three meditation apps on my phone, a membership (and teaching gig!) at my local yoga studio and am off to hear an Anne Lamott talk next week. All these things are useful, but the one that seems to hold the most value for me is the discussion. Sharing openly with friends, as well as amplifying the exchange on how, generationally-speaking, it would be almost impossible to feel any other way helps me to remember that this path is unchartered and that I do not walk it alone.
The more conversation we have around it, the more lanterns get hung.
And the better lit this road is, the more we can see the good company we’re in.
This piece previously appeared in MUTHA Magazine: Exploring real-life motherhood, from every angle, at every stage.