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Michele Willens Headshot

Face It: Monikerless Murmurs

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MALAISE
alamy

I have been hearing similarly discontented -- or at least conflicted -- mumblings lately: in Betty Friedan parlance, I'd say they are murmurs with no monikers. Are you too hearing more and more women saying either: they need time and space to themselves; they are happy when their spouses are traveling; they are taking trips with other women or alone?

"I feel like I want to go hide somewhere," one said to a few of us sitting in a kitchen in May. She is happily married with two lovely teenage children, yet her words seemed haunting and clearly resonated with the nodding heads around the table.

I saw her recently at a party and asked if she remembered saying that and if she had taken any action. She said she had rather spontaneously left a few weeks later on an organized hiking and climbing adventure in the Grand Canyon. No husband, no kids. She said it was a game changer -- had simultaneously energized and calmed her. I must say, she seemed far more content than she had before.

I have to wonder if this is the flip side of the longer and fitter lives we will supposedly be living: Does it mean that with midlife now stretching to our mid 60s, we should reach boredom or restlessness around the same time?

Many of us took advantage of all that feminism and modern medicine offered, and chose to start our families much later. Subsequently, we are entering Empty Nestdom at the age our forebears may have been retiring from jobs -- if they had any -- and were well into doting grandparenthood. We not only are far from that point logistically, (our kids just entering college) we are not so eager emotionally. We are intent on remaining active in our professional lives and in our physical ones... hence that rappelling down the Grand Canyon.

I don't think this is about the female version of a midlife crisis: if anything, it's a midlife maternal malaise. Women who chose not to have children may be grappling now with regret. Those who spent all those years raising families wonder what we are without that. We meet in the middle now and we look ahead. Even with those fortunate to be in satisfying relationships, there is this nameless numbness. We may know we are with the right partner and happy to play out the long run together, but there is a nagging need for a sense of freedom.

"I feel like he is hovering," said a friend to me one day, speaking of her husband's questioning whether she was spending more time working her body than contributing to the financial well being of their household. (She is doing her share) Yet another said she was eager to have cosmetic surgery but felt she wanted to be free to make her own decision and to heal by herself.

Another good friend, who had seemed to disappear, finally emailed me back this week and used words like "retreating" and "needing quiet." She remains deeply in love with her husband and is a committed mother and grandmother. Yet there was something brewing underneath. She said she has been seeking projects around the world where she could be of service and had already taken on a few. Solo.

Is there an upside to these dangling doldrums? To this restless yearning for solitude amid the social gatherings, privacy amid the public, and freedom from the familiar? (and familial) When I suggested that my own temporary restiveness must be due to the younger child going off to college, a helpful friend said such a time was the perfect opportunity for taking stock of my life and doing some of the things I had put off for years. Is reinvention the new procreation?

Perhaps it is best to see the 'monikerless murmurs' as healthy growing pains: this generation of women is secure enough not to need a partner at all times to make them feel complete; occasional escape need not connote or lead to eventual exit and can in fact enhance a long term relationship.

Perhaps it means having it all is still the ideal, though not necessarily at the same time and not necessarily all the time.