As the youngest of five children, I was always used to everything happening to others before me. When my sister finished secondary school, she reassured my sullen 10-year-old self with a few simple words: "Don't worry Tams, your time will come too." With mild astonishment, I now find myself to be one of the first within my close circle of friends to enter what appears to be a midlife transition, or at least what modern-day psychologists like to label as such.
They say that if you suspect you have a drinking problem, you have one. My best guess is that the same goes for midlife transitions. Apparently "crises" are out of vogue. The key to a less traumatic transit, according to the experts, is one's ability to recognize it's happening. Then you can harness the changes in a "positive" way and not let changes manifest into crises. You buy a Prius instead of a sports car, and join the local Episcopalian church instead of the Seventh-day Adventists. Of course nobody wakes up and decides to begin a midlife transition that morning. If they do, they're probably too much of a control freak to have one anyway. I suppose one's best hope is to see it coming early enough and intercept potentially negative consequences. Not that a new sports car is necessarily a bad thing if you have lots of cash.
No, the reckoning is not immediate. The transit evolves like a weird skin rash, and after some time you may start to see a pattern emerging. Then you recall a minor abrasion and realize that was where it started. I pinpoint my first irritation to November 7, 2011. I know that's rather specific, but it was my 43rd birthday, and I'm also very date-oriented in general. I can't recall the name of the person I met five times in the local playground, but I can tell you the exact dates I travelled to the UK for the last 15 years without checking my passport. Or, maybe I'm a bit self-absorbed, which would explain my current state of transitory introspection.
On that spectacularly bad birthday I realized I was turning the age my mother was when diagnosed with terminal cancer. I'd always feared and fixated on 44, but in fact she lived less than two months past her 44th birthday, so I had already arrived. They told her she may live another two years but she was dead in six months. I think my last memory of Mum is from visiting a grim South East London hospital on her final birthday in 1975. It was a drab Victorian structure lacking in grandeur for a well-schooled, upper middle class Yorkshire woman born in the 1930s. I don't remember if I brought her a present. One of my older brothers gave her a copy of Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward. Pre-diagnosis, her 43rd birthday was probably very ordinary. As was mine, a dull cloudy Monday, until it devolved into drama and ended with me weeping on the telephone with my best friend. I didn't spend enough time with my children, I was a wretched mother and I was going to become older than my mother, a fact that seemed so sad and so profoundly transitory.
Type "midlife crisis symptoms" into Google and you get a dizzying array of predictable lists. The Huffington Post published one on October 17, 2011; just three weeks before the start of mine, and four days after I visited a clairvoyant who told me I was a repressed writer living the wrong life.
The list starts with "a growing sense of regret over unattained goals." For the last four years I've had no regrets because every decision led to our two gorgeous children whom I know I was supposed to have. even though it took almost two years and too many fertility drugs. But now they're here, and I'm just like any other mother. And I think about spending my year in Australia at the age of 19 and vowing to return after college, loosely planning to travel the world for five years. Of course I never did. I married, then left the marriage, went back to school, started working at an investment bank, married again and spent more than a decade losing myself in the corporate merry-go-round. It paid for the house I never knew I wanted and the children I never knew I was meant to have, but by November 2011, the reasons for carrying on the same path seemed to have waned.
HuffPost's list includes "A new-found tendency to abuse alcohol," which I've seen on other lists. I may beg out of this one, since I'm British and have been served in pubs since the ripe age of 15. I'm taking some liberties and ignoring a few other symptoms from the list that seem more male-oriented, such as "placing import on acquiring unusual or expensive items when such purchases could previously have been described as frivolous or impulsive." Cliché, meet red sports car. Women are more likely to spend too much money at the spa.
Number seven on HuffPost's list is "a sharp increase in self-criticism with a correlating decline in self-compassion." Admittedly a lifelong struggle, but accentuated of late. I am a fun and loving mother but also quite awful on many levels, in my self-critical opinion. My mother never lost her temper with me or swore in front of me. According to my sister, mum was close to perfect, although not entirely. She recalls once provoking mum into dispensing a swift head clip, followed by hours of maternal remorse that my sister manipulated as only a girl can. It's easier to imagine my dear sister's provocation than it is to think of the reaction of our near-perfect mother. I know I'm supposed to have self-compassion, but any attempt tends to feel more like middle-class self-indulgent excuses.
Not a single list omits HuffPost's number eight: "Obsessing over one's physical appearance when similar attention was previously unpaid." After birthing two children in 19 months I was a little soft and sloppy, sliding into middle age a solid 15 pounds over my comfortable weight, except the new weight was becoming comfortable. Now, almost a year after the start of my transit, I might be in the best shape of my life. Strength training has assisted and inspired three to five miles of swimming per week. It's rough with a minor hangover, but being alone and fast in the water is worth the discomfort. It reminds me of travelling around Australia on a bus at 19, loving the freedom of being completely alone coupled with a slightly uncomfortable loneliness.
I don't know into what pithy media categories the remainder of my ailments fall. It includes the curiously shallow, such as wanting to get a tattoo and wanting to dye my hair pink. Sometimes I still miss the fantastically unflattering spiky hairstyles I sported circa 1986. The more sobering midlife happenings include leaving my job of 10 years; starting a blog about parenting donor-conceived children; thinking too much about every decision, or lack thereof, that I've ever made; and obsessing over a singular date: Christmas Eve, 2012. The day I become older than my mother. Maybe it's not a midlife "crisis" or "transition." But at this point I seriously hope it is, whatever the populist psychological term. Because if it's not, and this is just a blip, the real one is really going to shake up my self-indulgent middle class life.