At the end of 2012, at the age of 32, I told my husband I was leaving. I packed my dog and a station wagon’s worth of things and my parents came and picked me up from Maryland and drove me to New York. For two weeks, before moving into my own apartment, I sulked on a skinny twin bed at their place, the same one that had belonged to either my sister or me, in a different house, in a different state, in a different decade, and wondered what I was doing and what I’d done.
It felt inexplicable. Sometimes I called it “my early midlife crisis.” Other times I called it “my nervous breakdown,” but in a tone that made it clear I was joking even though I also wasn’t. I often thought of those fungi that infest ants, take over their bodies, and make them march from the nest to wherever the fungus wants to go. Zombie ants.
But it wasn’t really inexplicable. It was, in fact, fairly mundane. What had happened was this: I realized that, like many women, I had made all the decisions of my life on someone else’s behalf. I knew how to figure out other people’s expectations, and how to try to dodge their disappointment, and how to stay out of the way and not nag and not need things. I didn’t know what I actually wanted, at all.
I also didn’t know how to cook. At home—no, not home, not anymore—my husband had been the one who made dinner. On one of my first nights alone in my new apartment, I set a box of crackers on fire while trying to heat leftovers. This was how I learned, incidentally, that my smoke alarm wasn’t working.
My patchy air mattress had also given up the ghost. I was sleeping on a pile of clothes and bedding and pillows on the floor. The air was thick with the smell of burned cardboard. I opened a window. It was snowy outside, below freezing, so I slept in my coat, on the floor, with my head on the dog.
A month before, I’d been an adult, a married person who lived in a house and shopped for groceries and went to yoga. Someone made my dinner at night; someone made me a latte in the mornings. Now I was living like a teenager trying to make it on her own: cold, hungry, and in danger from my own incompetence. I hadn’t just moved to the city. I had moved backwards in time.
There was nothing really wrong with my relationship, on the face of it. My ex-husband was—is—a good man. He was probably the only good man I’d been with to that point, the only one who didn’t try to manipulate or control or belittle me. I was already 25 when we met, 28 when we got married, but in many ways it was my first adult relationship. This turned out to be part of the problem: I wasn’t ready to be an adult. I hadn’t finished making mistakes yet, and so many of my mistakes had been made in someone else’s name.
We lived in the suburbs, in a small house with a yard, 20 minutes from the neighborhood I grew up in. We were supposed to be there for a year, maybe, which ballooned into six. Our friends lived in their own small houses, in their own suburbs. They were starting to have babies. I was not sure I was ready for them to have babies. I certainly wasn’t ready to have babies myself; I hadn’t had any fun yet. I did get myself out of the house sometimes—once a week, we drove an hour to see friends; I had a dance class, a painting class—but most of the time, I felt like I’d already died, and not even all that young.
I had told my husband I needed to be in a city, that I needed to at least have a plan. That I couldn’t keep stagnating, that the need for change was like tinfoil between my teeth every day. A year later, we talked about moving to Baltimore, a compromise: he would have a commute he hated, but I would finally be out of purgatory. In the end, I couldn’t overcome the fact that he was comfortable where he was. So when I left, it was unfair and cruel and confusing and abrupt: a crisis, a nervous breakdown. But it wasn’t a surprise.
Eventually, I realized, I would have to stop waiting for someone else to change my life.
When you ask someone to envision a “midlife crisis,” they will always describe a man. You can picture him too, right? He’s likely white, balding though maybe nursing fresh hair plugs, sitting in a brand-new sports car with a 22-year-old girlfriend who gleams like chrome. The twin threats of mortality and adult obligations have terrified him into a kind of reactionary irresponsibility, fleeing the people who depend on him and gathering symbols that tell him he’s still vital and free.
And maybe the classic midlife crisis really is the province of a certain kind of privileged, sheltered male. As defined by psychologist Elliot Jacques in 1965, the midlife crisis stems from recognizing one’s mortality for the first time—a position arguably reserved for those lucky enough to have avoided facing mortality from an early age. (Imagine a black man living anywhere with a police force who makes it to 40 without realizing he could die.) Concerning yourself with existential problems like, “Have I done enough with my life?” also suggests that you don’t have more pressing, acute concerns: feeding children, keeping or finding a home, avoiding being physically brutalized for being the wrong color or expressing the wrong gender at the wrong time. Even the ability to indulge a crisis is a privilege—it means you can put your life on hold.
Maybe “midlife crisis” is too tainted with cultural baggage, but something happens to a lot of us, and if we don’t know how to call it by a name—if we’re women, for instance, and the common image of the “midlife crisis” doesn’t really have a place in it for us—we might not even realize we aren’t alone.
I am lucky in this way. I have the leisure and safety to notice whether or not I feel fulfilled, and to imagine that fulfillment is a reasonable goal. Sometimes this doesn’t feel like luck. Caring about being truly happy is simultaneously the most trivial and the most profound problem a person can have: the tippy-top of the pyramid of needs, rarefied and distant. If my life had been even a little more constrained—if I’d had children, for instance, or more money woes—I might not have had time to think about contentment, let alone upend everything in pursuit of it. At the very least, I would have sworn to look for my heart’s desire no further than my own backyard. Instead, I was lucky enough to get to think about fulfillment, and unlucky enough to feel I had to achieve it.
But I didn’t get a new car at 45. I got a bed on the floor and a burning box of crackers at 32.
There’s been some research on midlife crisis in women, but it’s typically seen as a man’s domain, both in culture and in science. Researchers may include women in their studies, but their focus is generally on men; sure, women can experience midlife crises, but everyone knows it’s a guy thing. Of course women also have feelings about aging, but those feelings are seen as more concrete, more explicable: we have biological clocks, empty nest syndrome, menopause. Depending on whom you ask, we’re either too silly or too competent to concern ourselves with grand neuroses about mortality; we don’t have the cognitive capacity, or else we don’t have the leisure to be so self-absorbed. Either way, the existential collapse is a masculine enterprise.
To be fair, most of the modern research on midlife crises focuses on questioning whether they are even a thing, for anyone. Among the objections: Do people really go into crisis because they’re middle-aged, or are they reacting to stressors—aging parents, health problems, washed-up relationships—that tend to kick in around this time? Is midlife just when most things, good or bad, happen? To pass peer review you must define your terms: what’s “midlife”? What’s a “crisis”? If it happens too young, or affects too small a population, or happens at middle age but not because of middle age, it doesn’t count.
So maybe we need another phrase. Maybe “midlife” is too vague, maybe “crisis” is too dramatic, maybe “midlife crisis” is too tainted with cultural baggage. But anecdotally, something happens, and it happens to a lot of us. And if we don’t know how to call it by a name—if we’re women, for instance, and the common image of the “midlife crisis” doesn’t really have a place in it for us—we might not even realize we aren’t alone.
Right now, several of my female friends are trying to end or open up long-term relationships. Others are finalizing divorces, rethinking careers, shaking up social groups, moving cities, going back to school. We are trying to both move forward and roll back. We are not in midlife yet—we’re in our mid-30s, mostly, some even younger—but we are, in a sense, in crisis: we are opening our eyes and asking, “How did I get here, and is this where I wanted to be?”
When the answer is no, it’s often because we have been trained to compromise. There is always someone whose needs we’re supposed to put before our own: parents, children, partners, bosses, friends. We have the privilege to care about feeling fulfilled, but we don’t always have the freedom to try—and by the time we’re old enough to realize what we might want and believe that we deserve it, it feels too late. The women I know carry regrets like Harrison Bergeron’s bags of birdshot, a dragging load to pull down otherwise soaring minds.
The men have regrets, too—I don’t mean to imply otherwise. Nobody’s worth knowing who doesn’t have a little regret. But a man’s second adolescence often goes by the book: a fear of dying, a desperate grasp at youth—after all, the book was written for him. For me, for the women I know, it’s less about trying to prove ourselves vital; it’s more about beginning again. We don’t have to wait until our 40s to feel that need, and a sports car won’t help.
At some point, the privileged man realizes that he can’t keep going forever. At some point, the privileged woman realizes she forgot to start.
Unlike Jacques, mid-20th-century psychoanalyst Erik Erikson didn’t think any age had a monopoly on crisis. In Erikson’s model of psychosocial development, which is unusual in that it follows the burgeoning psyche well into adulthood, every developmental stage had a central dichotomy at its core, a struggle that needed to be resolved—or, if not resolved, would haunt you into the next stage and beyond.
Adolescence centers for Erikson around the question of identity versus role confusion: a person must nose out her authentic self from the midden heap of expectation that surrounds her. A teenager who navigates this successfully, who learns to differentiate “what I want” from “what is wanted of me,” emerges from this stage with the virtue of fidelity: an understanding of who she is, and an unwavering commitment to that self. But the adolescent who is squeezed by others’ needs, who builds herself according to the image she thinks she’s expected to project? She’s doomed to “role confusion,” an uncertainty about her purpose in society, her place in the world.
How can you get close to someone if you don’t even know who you are or what you’re for? At most, you can build a facsimile of intimacy, something that looks like love from outside—looks enough like love to fool whatever person or group you’re struggling to please. A love-shaped house for isolation to live in.
But we must rush on: whether or not you sort out your identity, you move into young adulthood and the “intimacy versus isolation” crisis. Here, you learn how to love, if you’re able. With a strong sense of identity, it’s possible to build authentic intimacy as well. With continued role confusion … well, how can you get close to someone if you don’t even know who you are or what you’re for? At most, you can build a facsimile of intimacy, something that looks like love from outside—looks enough like love to fool whatever person or group you’re struggling to please. A love-shaped house for isolation to live in.
The classic midlife crisis, the sports car crisis, comes in later adulthood: in Erikson’s terms, at the stage of generativity versus stagnation. The mid-lifer worries about whether he is doing enough for the world; he struggles with the question of what he’s accomplished. If he feels stagnant, he may throw away what he’s gained, grasp at something new. But what if you make it to this stage without resolving your isolation, your identity? What if the crisis of your 30s involves not the fear that you haven’t done enough, but the fear that you’ve been hiding from yourself for your entire life?
It’s another dead white man’s vision of how our lives proceed; another theory based on people with the leisure to worry about what they’ve done for the world. But this one makes sense to me. I was a weird, anxious, isolated child—in Erikson’s parlance, firmly resolving my earliest identity crises on the side of shame, guilt, inferiority. Who knows why? It’s terrible to be young. It’s even more terrible to be young and clever and unbeautiful, any book will tell you that. So at formative times in my life, when I was supposed to be figuring out my ambitions and goals, I fixated on figuring out what people expected of me. Could I make myself look more acceptable? (No, but I did try to starve, I swear.) Which school magnet program would make people proudest of me? (Not, as it turned out, the one where my actual strengths lay; I dropped out, mortified at my inability to excel.) Would it be okay to apply to art school? (No.) What jobs would gain me respect? (Academia or journalism, my parents’ fields, seemed safest.) What would make this man love me? (Compliance.) What about this one? (Nothing, but compliance would ease the pain.)
I didn’t always do what people wanted. Sometimes I did the opposite, on purpose—a tiny fist. But even my flailing little rebellions have always conformed, liquid-like, to the vessel of obedience I poured them into. I still remember my horror when, the first time I dyed my hair purple and teal, my mother enthused, “My two favorite colors!”
My ex-husband is a good man, and that’s why I married him, but it’s not why I got married. I got married to prove that I could gain approval—romantic approval from a worthy person, and societal approval from the kind of people who think getting married proves anything. Real intimacy didn’t cross my mind; my isolation seemed insuperable. How can you get close to someone if you don’t even know who you are or what you’re for?
New-age therapy, the same movement that gave us the “inner child,” used to recommend “rebirthing” or “reparenting” as a way to heal the wounds of the past. The idea is to roll back your emotional clock to infancy so you can grow up correctly this time. It’s like stripping a bed before you remake it—you shake out the creases and start again, instead of trying to smooth them over. Sometimes this involved hypnotic regression to an earlier age. Sometimes therapists would have their adult clients wear diapers and act like babies. Sometimes they would swaddle children in blankets and have them fight their way out, to simulate the birth process.
This makes some sense, in theory. If it were truly possible to return to childhood or infancy and start again, who wouldn’t recommend it? Who wouldn’t seek it out? The only way to truly heal a scar is never getting hurt in the first place.
In practice, “rebirthing” and “reparenting” were worse than quackery. They were torture. Many of the people subjected to these therapies were vulnerable children and young adults—older adoptees, for instance, who were considered to have “attachment disorders” from early trauma and neglect. The “parenting” techniques were perverse at best (one therapist held adult clients at her breast and fed them apple slices, in a parody of breastfeeding) and overtly abusive at worst. Children were restrained, beaten, smothered, found in cages. Children died at the hands of parents who said later that they thought they were only following instructions—that they were doing the right thing. Parents and therapists chased the idea of the clean slate, the spotless renaissance; who wouldn’t want that, for themselves or their child? They chased it so hard they left bodies in their wake.
Everyone wants to turn back time, but those who try risk becoming monsters. I thought if I cast off adulthood, I could go back and find my lost identity and bring her forward into the future. I meant well. We all mean well. But people get hurt.
In the first year or so after leaving my marriage, I felt like a high schooler: hormones surging, zeppelin-tense with flammable emotions. I wanted things and people voraciously, with a fervor I thought I had quenched a long time ago. I listened to music and thought it was all about me. I got a new tattoo. I drank too much and ate too much junk food and reverted to coping mechanisms I thought I’d outgrown. I kissed some boys and some girls, more than I had in the previous decade, and sometimes I did it in public because this is New York and you’re not my mom. I got home at five in the morning, or ten in the morning. My adolescence had rekindled itself. I was a teenage zombie.
What’s important to me is the home army: the women (and some men) weighed down with regrets, looking backwards, trudging forwards, wishing we’d kept a finger in the book, knowing we couldn’t. Scanning along the timeline of our lives and seeing not how little is left, but how much we gave away.
I hated it. We age out of these things for a reason; eventually, your disaster of a body is too weak to support that much feeling. I got worse and weirder hangovers than ever before, and my guilt and anxiety were monstrous. Thinking about the most mundane aspects of my old, adult life—a chair the dog liked to sit on, a morning cup of coffee—would make me hyperventilate, literally breathless with the enormity of what my leaving had visited on someone I was supposed to love. When things got too bad, I reverted even further: I watched cartoons, ate candy, tried to soothe myself with coloring books. I put a blanket in the bathtub and got in and closed the curtains, my own little womb. I lay there for hours listening to heavy music beating like a heart.
I would not wish second youth on anyone. But it felt necessary, like re-breaking a bone that’s healed wrong. It felt like approaching myself as a teenager, and a child, and a baby, and saying, “Look, we’re going to try this again, and this time we’re still going to do it wrong. But we’ll do it wrong on purpose, for ourselves.”
There’s an inherent childishness in wanting to be happy. Maybe that’s why it goes hand in hand with desperate grabs at youth. There’s an irony to that, of course—who’s sadder than the privileged young?—but it doesn’t really matter; the whole thing’s fantasy anyway. Imagine you can travel back. Imagine you’d be happier if you did. Imagine that if you could tell your younger self what to do instead, you’d listen.
Maybe there are people who go through crisis at 40 because they’ve never really thought about death. Maybe there’s a phalanx of them, riding their shiny new sports cars into the sunset. I don’t know. I haven’t seen them. They’re not important to me. What’s important is the home army: women (and some men) weighed down with regrets, looking backwards, trudging forwards, wishing we’d kept a finger in the book, knowing we couldn’t. Scanning along the timeline of our lives and seeing not how little is left, but how much we gave away.
Youth is a lot like a 50-foot surf wave: unless you’re a near-suicidal thrill-seeker, the only way to enjoy it is from afar. From the vantage point of middle age, childhood and adolescence and young adulthood seem to glow with lost health and beauty—but when you’re actually young, you’re generally in too much turmoil to see why it would be any fun. If they ever find a fountain of youth that really works, nobody over 30 will want to drink, and nobody under 30 will see why they should.
This is one of the ways in which my second adolescence was absolutely faithful to the first: it was so difficult, so emotionally overwrought, so suffused with terror and confusion and embarrassment. It takes a perverse kind of bravery to start over—it’s a selfish and deluded thing to do, and you need that courage to deal with what comes next. It’s one thing to burn your life down and walk out of the ashes, but nobody tells you the phoenix is born as a tender, featherless baby bird.
But all that turmoil gave me a second chance at identity, a second chance at intimacy—a second chance to become someone who actually grew up, instead of merely growing older. I still get tied in knots by that “chasing your dreams” palaver—doesn’t it follow that the dreams are stupid if they’re mine alone and nobody asked for them? I have a few, though, and if they’re still hidden, they’re hidden in more of an “under the mattress like a porn mag” way than “buried at the bottom of a pit with spikes on top.” I know they’re there, and I can give them the occasional furtive glance, or even share them with a trusted friend. New York is red in tooth and claw, but I was right: it makes me feel alive again. I now have the kind of relationship that makes you say goofy things like, “I never thought I could feel this way about someone.” It’s possible I’ve said that before, in the past, but now I know who’s saying it.
I haven’t grown up all the way. I can still only really cook one thing, and I think about sex when I should be thinking about work. But I shop for groceries and scrub the toilet regularly and drink less and try to get more exercise. And every so often, I can get my head above the water of other people’s expectations, and catch clear sight of land.
In the stock-footage male midlife crisis, the most visible symptoms are ineffectual Band-Aids trying to close the wrong wound. It’s a desperate performance, an attempt to appease the ever-closer maw of death by feeding it symbols of vitality. We’re not expected to imagine the man being happier after he torches his life. On the contrary, we’re supposed to find him pathetic.
But for the real people who go through this, I think it can work. It’s loathsome to be young, in many ways, and it’s even worse to be young a second time, with all of the turmoil but none of the metabolism. But that crisis sets the stage for catharsis. You re-break the bone, and it’s agony, but then you set it, and it heals. You can retreat into childhood and smother and die, but you can also quest back there to find the person you lost, the person you never really got a chance to become.
I feel guilty about what I did, the selfishness of it, but for once I don’t feel regret. The new adulthood I’m finally stepping into, belated as it is, feels more authentic, more whole, less constrained by what people want and need from me. That’s selfish too, by definition—but the reset, regrown version of me has room for a little selfishness. For once, she has a self.