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Midlife for Women: Act I

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(June 2006)

The most common invaders during our midlife years (which I define as that phase of life anywhere between forty and death) are the FIVE CRUMMIES.

They are CRUMMY HEALTH, CRUMMY KIDS, CRUMMY PARTNERS, CRUMMY JOBS, and CRUMMY DEALS.  They come in pairs or trios, or even a quintet.  They break down your defenses, cause you to stumble, even to fall.  The following are some specific antidotes and action plans when the CRUMMIES hit.

CRUMMY HEALTH only starts with menopause or peri-menopause.  The ante is upped when you add chronic back pain (from lifting those grandkids or hauling those reams of paper to the copier), fibromyalgia, adult onset diabetes, hypertension, and the psychological disorders that strike women in their midlife years such as depression and panic disorder.  Top it off with the serious stuff like breast cancer and we’re about done in even before we’re actually done in.  Women, in their caregiver capacity, would have their charges off to the doctor for diagnosis and treatment in a jiffy if even one of these CRUMMY HEALTH bugs attacked a loved one, but they often ignore the signs and symptoms in themselves.  Or, when they do get a diagnosis, they do not get off their feet as ordered or take their meds or go back in for a follow-up appointment.  Again and again I see women, not intentionally, ignore their own health while tending to the health of others (others who are usually not cooperating in that effort).  So the advice is, pretend you’re someone else, give yourself an endearing name like “Honeypie” or “Pumpkin”, and then take care of HER in exactly the same manner as you would take care of others.

CRUMMY KIDS come in a variety of flavors.  There is the ordinary run-of-the-mill hasn’t matured and wouldn’t pay you rent on a bet kid.  There is the seriously addicted in-and-out of jail kid.  There is the sweet kid who’s going through a divorce, job loss, or health problem.  There is even the no-kid kid (that shadow lurking in the back of your mind as you enter the phase of life where reproduction is impossible and adoption improbable).  The biggest mistake women (and male-type parents too) make with grown children is to try to make up for parenting errors made when their children were still children (being too strict, not being strict enough, not having enough money to give them what they needed, etc.) by committing more parenting errors when they are adults (letting them live off you for free, bailing them out of jail, paying their bills, etc.).  What mothers of adult children don’t realize is all that inappropriate mollycoddling of adult children not only enables them to remain addicted and irresponsible but fosters a deep sense of incompetency within them.  Our goal as parents is to rear competent, independent adults.  Tough love, where lessons are learned in the arena outside the home and consequences are far more severe than Mom being upset or disappointed, is the only answer.  Even an adult child with developmental disabilities often grows and prospers in a supervised setting outside the family of origin home.  Smothering is not mothering.                    

CRUMMY PARTNERS can come along at any age, but what was once mere annoyance with a partner can become deeply felt resentment as the decades pass.  Often women have followed the same pattern in relationship after relationship, in marriage after marriage.  They may no longer be with the alcoholic they married in their twenties nor the batterer they ended up with in their thirties, but they are often still swimming in a cesspool of verbal abuse or a wasteland of emotional neglect.  Good marriages tend to become better, to provide comfort in our midlife years.  Bad marriages become more intolerable at a time in life when leaving may mean economic disaster and a life lived alone.  Does leaving or staying seem like being between a rock and a hard place?  Absolutely.  The answer can be programs like Al Anon where the skills of loving detachment are learned.  When we know that we can have serenity in our lives whether HE keeps being HIM or not, then staying or leaving becomes a less important issue.  In the case of severe abuse, of any kind, leaving is still the best answer regardless of a woman’s age (and community and mental health support is there to help with that difficult choice).                    

You would think that the CRUMMY JOB bit would be a moot point by the time we near our retirement years.  Not so.  When we decided that we could easily work until 65, we were only 35 and had no idea how tired, how burned out we would start feeling as we entered our fifties.  This is particular true if we haven’t had the opportunity to work in a field close to our heart and instead have plowed along in a field not of our own making.  Plus, the worries of being left without a decent pension or losing the one we had understood we would have adds to the worries.  There isn’t time to start over.  But there is time to do some soul searching and uncover some of the unexplored or forgotten dreams, those heart’s desires that have gone untended.  Even if it’s an acting or craft class or a special trip with a woman friend, economy class or not, these are the years to start injecting some joy into our daily lives.  I’ve found Martha Beck’s book Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live very helpful in moving past the CRUMMY JOB (physically or at least emotionally).

The CRUMMY DEAL is sometimes simply the combination of all of the above.  Other times it is related to loss.  I think of the woman who has had the long-term supportive marriage, who is anticipating with great joy years of shared time in a retirement filled with travel and grandkids, and who suddenly finds herself a widow when her husband drops dead of a heart attack.  Or the single woman, who has accepted being alone, found great happiness in friends and hobbies, then develops a debilitating illness and perhaps suffers the tragic loss of an adult child.  None of us is guaranteed that our fondest dreams will be fulfilled.  But few of us can avoid a bitter reaction when our worlds fall apart.  Faith and friends, a good support group, and living one day at a time may be our best bet when that CRUMMY DEAL comes our way.

Would life be better if we could avoid all of the CRUMMIES?  First of all, I don’t think it is possible.  Life is a series of losses in one sense or another.  The loss of our youth, our health, our loved ones, our hopes, and, yes, even many of our dreams.  Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled talked about maturity being a matter of how we handle those losses.  Do we sulk, rage, cry, and give up?  Or do we breathe, reach out for help, pray, and laugh?  Choosing joy is a gift that our Higher Power leaves on our doorsteps.  We just need to open the door and pick it up.