Navel, Meet Gaze: The Midlife Edition

This is a personal post; if you decide to comment, don’t be a douche.

I’m in my early 40s. I have a lovely family and professional “success.” I admit I constantly worry that I will run out of funding and that everyone else is somehow better at grant writing than me, and this is the main reason why I don’t feel like the professional success sans quotation marks that I objectively probably am. I could be striving for more professional recognition and indeed I do, but at this point recognition is quite amorphous: does becoming a fellow of the relevant professional societies (or maybe a member of the National Academies?) constitute further success? I suppose it does, but I can’t say I really care much about any of these. The fellowships should be feasible in principle, some perhaps even very soon; I just need to bother people to nominate me.

Yet I am still hungry, personally and professionally, and I need to direct that hunger in a way that’s neither destructive nor seems (to me) pointless or self-indulgent. For instance, I set some health and fitness goals and am working hard toward them. And maybe I will sign up for some races and whatnot, and while this is all fun and good for me, these goals are both ephemeral and unremarkable, achievable and achieved by many, and often so. What makes them superficial (to me) is that they don’t feed this hunger deep inside; they are simply distractions.

Maybe I need to learn to play an instrument, or learn a new language, or finally find some time to master the graphic tools needed to make digital comics? All valuable, but ultimately they, too, are distractions. Distractions from what? I don’t know. Midlife, I suppose. I know a number of people my age who are content to coast in whatever comfortable state they currently are until they retire or die. And there is nothing wrong with comfort, especially if you’ve spent much of your life being uncomfortable. I suppose I should be ashamed of my overall privilege that’s leading me to whine within the whole midlife crisis framework when what I should be instead is grateful for my good fortune.

The thing is, I am as hungry as I was when I was 20. I want more and bigger and different, of everything. There is so much to do, and experience, and learn.

But I am not alone, I have dependents. I feel guilty that all this energy that’s directed at me and away from them is shortchanging them, while on the other hand it’s probably a good thing that I am not smothering them too much. Besides, directing more energy towards cooking or cleaning  a) fuckin’ sucks and b) is not really going to help quench whatever is burning deep down, unless you plan on me cooking and cleaning all day every day until I drop.

If you read things on the web, all this can apparently be attributed to… *drumroll*
You guessed it — my ovaries! They are supposedly realizing that their egg-popping days are numbered and are freaking out about it. It’s funny how, for women, there can be no thought or feeling, especially one hinting at discontent, that does not allegedly have a source in the reproductive system. Seriously, since my ovaries seem to be doing all the thinking, maybe they should be nominated for that professional society fellowship.

I should have been crazier in my late teens and early 20s (although I have had a fairly nonlinear trajectory by most supernerd/academic standards), but I was too busy being crazy about one particular boy and too insecure about my professional abilities to let my freak flag fly.

Young women out there, especially scholarly types, please make good use of your youth. I promise that you are way cooler in every way imaginable than you give yourself credit for. Let your inner nerdy vixen out to play; party with wild abandon.

14 comments

  1. I love a good navel gaze and this one spoke directly to me (except for the “professional success” part…I’m far behind where you are, despite being in the same age bracket). I definitely feel this sense that I have reached a sort of apex and it can only go downhill, right? I’m at the summer of life…I have challenging, (mostly) meaningful work, my children are still adorable and enjoy spending time with me, my body is healthy and able to meet physical challenges, even my parents are healthy. I’m trying really hard to savor this time, really make it count and fill it with everything I want, to really fill the space in my energy/time/budget, because I know it can’t last. But I totally feel you on the superficiality of it all. On the day to day, I get satisfaction of meeting my little goals and challenges, but when I step back, I wonder…how does this matter? If I can run x miles in x time or read y books or whatever. Is this just filling some emptiness inside? I also wish I’d gone a little more wild in my youth. Little did I know how fleeting that opportunity really was. Anyways. I call BS on the ovary-relatedness of this. Didn’t over-privileged men INVENT mid-life crises?

  2. “Didn’t over-privileged men INVENT mid-life crises?”

    Oh but you see when men have a mid-life crisis it’s part of their INTELLECTUAL DEVELOPMENT. They get to call it an “existential crisis” and read Sartre and Nietzsche while having an affair with a 20 something. It’s all very serious business you know, part of becoming the MAN they were MEANT TO BE.

    When you’re a woman of a certain age it’s all just your BIOLOGICAL CLOCK ticking. Can’t have wimminfolk thinking that our minds are actually more important than our bodily urges, no sirree…

  3. I think that most academics were born having a mid-life crisis 🙂 I totally agree with the sentiments expressed in your post and in the comments. But, I think that a lot of what you describe is more about finding different ways to perceive the world rather than finding the next activity to do or physics problem to solve. After a point, dissatisfaction is entirely constructed internally. One thing that has helped me is meditation – which probably sounds hokey, but there is a great app called Headspace with a bunch of free ten minute sessions. Therapy also helps.

  4. So I wrote you a long thing, and then accidentally closed my browser…

    I don’t think it’s the ovaries.

    It seems to me that you’ve reached a state of success (no quotes needed…you have an endowed chair, man!) in your work life and also have a pretty stable home life (no little kids) and it seems normal to think about what comes next.

    I’m in a similar place. i feel in some ways like I lost my youth…I had MFA and PhD and tenure track job by the time I turned 28, started trying to get pregnant at 29. I’m trying now to figure out what comes next professionally…and also trying out ‘hobbies’ and things.

  5. thanks for that last line – really it’s what i need to hear sometimes. i know this post will be coming down, but maybe i’ll copy/paste that line to look at it when i need to. (although i’m no longer in my early 20s)

  6. I feel you, sister! I am finding myself in the same navel-gazing, existential, race-running mid-life whirlpool. I wasted no time in my youth – I did indeed party with wild abandon, and did not miss out on anything at all. I even have a fellowship in a profesional society. And yet, the midlife crisis arrived big time. I’m toying with writing a novel. Thinking about starting a company. I have tons of ideas for new projects and have to do strenuos physical exercise to quiet my mind which oscillates wildly between “this will be awesome!” and “what’s the point of doing any of this?” Maybe it is the ovaries, but who gives a shit. I think your hunger is a good thing. Party with wild abandon, midlife-style.

  7. [Sporadic reader, first-time commenter].
    I’m guessing I’m about 10-15yrs older than you, so take it as sort of voice from your future: enjoy your hunger. Feed it and care for it, even if the food is a distraction. It’s the best thing in your life.
    Talking of which: I’m far removed from academia, so forgive me from this, possibly naive, question: if you feel hobbies, workouts, etc are not nutritious enough – why not grow in your profession without thoughts of recognition or compensation, but out of pure interest and drive it gives you? Why not go on a tangent, however risky?
    As to ovaries thing…when I was 40, I too, thought it BS. When I clicked 50, it was like someone suddenly clicked a switch. It’s not the hot flashes and uncontrolalble weight gain that infuriate me the most. It’s than I became dim, boring, stupid; started play for safety; lost interest for the new. Lost my hunger.
    If only on evidence of one woman, hormones do play a role.
    So the advice you give others – turn it on yourself. Play while you can.

  8. Kudos to you for seeking nondestructive outlets for your midlife crisis. After all, the (male) stereotype is a sports car, an affair, an affair with a student, leaving your wife and kids, or all of them at once! I guess I am 5-10 years older than you, and my advice is to go for those challenges, but appreciate what you’ve got now, before life throws you more curve balls. Because it will.

  9. Add me to the group that says “enjoy the hunger and find a way to feed it.” It took me far too long to get comfortable with my own needs in this regard. Now, I am comfortable with them, but haven’t worked out how best to meet them and my desire for the things money buys in life! I feel like I wasted a bunch of time in my late 20s chasing the wrong things. My 40s so far have been a decade of navel-gazing and figuring myself out. People tease me about having a midlife crisis, but as Anon points out: this type of midlife crisis is nondestructive, so why should I feel bad about it?

    My hormones are objectively going nuts right now (I have all sorts of symptoms that are apparently due to being in perimenopause), but I don’t think they are responsible for the “midlife crisis.” I think that was just me realizing that time is ticking on, and this is the life I have, so if it isn’t what I want, I should get busy on changing it.

  10. “I think that was just me realizing that time is ticking on, and this is the life I have, so if it isn’t what I want, I should get busy on changing it.” I completely completely agree with Cloud, here, and I am really thankful for the “feed the hunger” comment above. I’m heartened that this transition seems pretty universal (at least among your commenters, likely successful over-educated women)

  11. All this talk about cars is making me think I’ll lease a BMW. I took courses in a completely different field just for the fun of it.

  12. No its not your ovaries! It’s a state of life….I hit it too. It’s getting to the top (or near enough) and looking around and going what now?

    After exploration, I found new challenges in the higher levels of administration at my institution. I’m not super good at the new stuff I’m doing, but I’m better than many who are doing this, and I’m getting better. It feels good to finally be in a position to make a difference.

  13. In Henry Rosovsky’s intriguing book, “The University: An Owner’s Manual,” he talks about one of the weaknesses in the tenure system: once you’ve been awarded tenure, and graduated the students, and published the papers, and got the grants, you’re basically signing up to keep doing those same things over and over, for the rest of your career. But at some point, maybe the 40s, maybe the 50s, it is (as psychologist DW says) “developmentally appropriate” to want to do something new. Or as I prefer to say, “hungry brain is hungry!” And nothing in R1 university life is really set up for that.

    I wish you success feeding the hunger.

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