I've been feeling rather lost lately. I made a decision about a year ago to take a risk and pursue a passion and a life dream, and now I'm not so sure I made the right choice. Let me explain. When my son left for college two years ago I entered an existential crisis and found myself suddenly living in a vacuum, a very quiet vacuum. And in the midst of all that silence I began to question the meaning of life, and more specifically, the meaning of my life. I questioned whether I was making a real contribution to this world, and I questioned my purpose, and whether this was all there was to life. I felt compartmentalized, somewhat irrelevant and increasingly invisible.
I believed I was at a crossroads, a fork-in-the-road if you will. I imagined that if I pursued one fork-path, I would accept my life choices, throw in my youth towel, and age quietly, without question or challenge. But if I chose the other fork-path, I would find a way of transforming the many losses of middle age -- full-time mothering, my youthful passions, good skin tone and my body's ability to regulate its own temperature, into opportunities -- life-altering, and transformative opportunities. I imagined this path would involve renewed authenticity, resilience and increased vitality, where I challenged the status quo and increased my visibility. Then I began to wonder if there were other women out there who felt the way I did, and I wondered if I had something to contribute to the conversation.
Dear Health Club,
I'm sorry it's come to this, but after much heartfelt pondering I need to inform you that I'm breaking up with you. I know what you're thinking; we've been down this road before and I have always come back, head down and thighs chaffing. But this time it's different, it really is, because I have met another. So I am writing to tell you that I am leaving you once and for all, for one that treats me better -- one that makes me happier, and I am convinced healthier. Yes, I am leaving you for yoga.
For years I believed your lies, that if I just hung in, you would make me feel better, stronger, and yes, even thinner. But after 10 years I've finally come to the conclusion that your promises are empty. Yes, I have finally come to my senses and realized that this is a one-way relationship where you take my money, and dangle a toned carrot in front of my face, making promises that you simply cannot keep.
Please don't try to talk me out of this, because my mind is made up. During our on-again-off-again relationship I always held out hope that you would step up to the plate and start giving back. I believed your lies that I would start looking forward to visiting you. I believed your tall tale of the endorphin high. I believed your promises to eradicate my cellulite and tone my arms. I believed your assertions that if I just stuck with the elliptical a little bit longer, that calves would slim down and I could finally start wearing regular-sized boots on dates. But alas, winter after winter I was forced to continue shopping in the wide-calf boot aisle, alone.
Romantic relationships are wonderful. They make us feel alive, dynamic, validated and loved -- when they work. They can also make us feel deficient, undesirable, depleted and broken when they don't.
A key ingredient in successful relationships is the ability and willingness of each partner to be authentic. Authenticity requires transparency, which is pretty easy for most of us when things are going well, but throw in a wrench or two, such as middle age, kids, and a long trail of failed relationships, and for many of us, all transparency flies out the window.
Being transparent means having thoughts, feelings and motives that are easily perceived.
Being transparent requires the ability to trust, to see the goodness in others, and to give others the benefit of the doubt, even if we don't think they always deserve it, and even when it's scary.
Being transparent with friends, family, and even our co-workers can be challenging at times, but many of us can manage this without too much difficulty. Romantic relationships are different though because they often serve as a portal through which we re-experience all of our past hurt, rejection, and trauma -- both from our adult lives, as well as from our childhoods. For those of us who have had a lot of past hurt, rejection and trauma, it's easy to hide and protect ourselves from potential future pain; it's rather automatic in fact. In other words, for many of us, when we feel threatened, all transparency flies out the window.
One of the most painful and life-impacting human emotions is shame. Shame is a powerful universal emotion that often emerges when we feel deeply vulnerable about something and believe that others have the power to judge us, and ultimately reject us. Shame tells us that we're not good enough, that we're unworthy, that we're damaged goods.
Shame elicits feelings of embarrassment, and often, a profound sense of humiliation that makes us want to either fight, flee or freeze. The fact that we most often experience shame in response to feeling vulnerable is one reason why shame is such a powerful emotion. Another reason is that shame usually emerges at the very moment we need unconditional love and acceptance the most.
Envision what you feel most vulnerable about – anything that fills you with a sense of fear that those who you love and care about the most will abandon you if they found out. But before they abandon you, they will laugh at you, gossip about you, hurl insults at you, and then abandon you. The feeling you’re experiencing in response to this scenario is most likely shame.
Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is something we experience when we’ve made a mistake and we need to fix it. Once we take responsibility for our behavior, and do what we can to remedy our mistake, the feelings of guilt should eventually subside. Unlike guilt, shame doesn’t subside after we’ve taken responsibility for our mistakes, and in fact, regardless of what we do, shame often gets worse in time, hitting us in triggered waves, sometimes for years, sometimes for our entire lives.
Guilt tells us our behavior is bad; Shame tell us that we are bad.
Dating in our teens and 20s was challenging. Dating in our middle adult years, with significant exes, children, pets, mortgages, careers and a boatload of emotional, physical and perhaps even financial baggage, may seem impossible. I've single parented my son since he was very young, and didn't have much time to date amidst parenting, working, continuing my education, doing dishes, mowing the lawn and attending various kid-related activities. So when my son left for college, I decided that there was no better time to start dating again.
But as often happens when we poke our heads into an activity after a few decades-long hiatus, I realized that everything had changed - and I mean e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Rather than meeting someone at a dance, a bar, or if we go back far enough, a frat party, I soon learned that the majority of dating was occurring online. And rather than having to worry about my first impression when meeting someone, I had to worry about my first online impression.
We now have to worry about leading not with ourselves, but with an image of ourselves. We have to contend with parallel dating, encouraged by the online dating algorithms that push multiple potential partners at us at one time. We have to worry about competition that always seems to be younger, thinner, wealthier and happier. Most of us are battle-weary, still struggling with past hurts and anger, and scared to get hurt again, and now we find ourselves in completely unchartered territory, with very few ‘rules of the road’ to guide us.
A Gallup Health and Well-Being Index revealed that women approaching midlife had the highest levels of stress among all age groups and genders. What's worse, according to the study, they were far more stressed out than previous generations of women, and there didn't seem to be any relief in sight. Today's women are raising children, working, caring for aging parents, and tending to their partners (or trying to), while doing their best to remain fresh and youthful. And as a result, they often feel too stretched, too overwhelmed, too exhausted, too unappreciated, and way too weary.
The study also highlighted the fact that among a range of emotions experiences by these over-worked and under-appreciated women, the most pronounced was guilt. No matter how much they worked, no matter how thinly they were spread, no matter how caring, giving, and sacrificing (and no matter how damned good they looked while engaging in all of their service-related activities) it never felt like they were doing enough -- there was always more they believed they could/should/needed to do. And at the core of these women's souls lurked a fear that they were failing themselves, their employers, their partners, and their children. According to the study, this type of perfectionism is eating away at the mental and physical health of today's women, particularly those who are parents.
I have always worn masks. I didn't know I wore masks, but I did. I wore masks to protect myself, and to project images that I believed were more acceptable than the real me. I wore these masks so automatically, that I wasn't always aware of their existence. Although I've willingly worn multiple masks throughout my life and have worked diligently to keep them all in place, at some point I began to question their necessity. This questioning peaked when I reached middle age and began to experience a growing sense of discontentment. When I turned 50 I began to yearn for more honesty, more boldness, and more courage. I yearned to be more visible, more relevant, and more cohesive. I yearned to be more authentic and more transparent. I yearned to wear fewer masks. In fact, I yearned to wear no masks at all.
The concept of living a life of greater authenticity and transparency isn't new. Just Google "authenticity" and you'll get more than four million hits. Everybody's talking about living more authentic and transparent lives these days. In fact, just the other day I saw a status on Facebook stating something about how we should strip away our pretenses and be more honest about our past mistakes, because our strengths are born out of the ashes. I liked it, along with about 20,000 other people. So yes, living a more authentic and transparent life is all the rage.
But if we're all so convinced that it's important to live more authentic lives, and to be more transparent about our mistakes, our uncertainties, and our insecurities, then why are most of us investing so much time and effort into desperately holding onto our masks of perfection, conviction and confidence?
So I have a question for everyone who is middle-aged, single and dating. Just when was it that sexting after the first date became the new normal? At what point in our cultural evolution did it become normative practice to send a text the night after a first date, with the words "nipple" and "naked" in it? I'd really like to know the answer to this question. I am just burning with curiosity as to how this new dating ritual became mainstream so quickly.
I'd really like to know what middle-aged person was actually the first one to say "Hey, I think this is a really good idea. I mean, we've already shared a few glasses of wine and an appetizer, so why not indulge in some dirty sex talk with a naked photo chaser exchanged on our smart phones via an insecure wireless transport?" And then once all these middle-aged men and women who are engaging in the practice of early-courtship-sexting answer me, I'd like to say this in response: "Stop it! Stop it right now! All of you! I mean it! Stop it!"
When I first re-entered the dating world a little over a year ago after taking a few decade hiatus to raise my son, I expected to update my "rules for the dating road" handbook. But what I didn't expect was for so many of my dates to turn a seemingly harmless morning-after-the-first-date texting banter session into a graphic sexual encounter. Yet at least twice this month alone I had really nice dates with seemingly nice mainstream, professional men that quickly went south when initially cutesie, fun, and banter-y texting rapidly evolved into full-blown erotica before the second date!
As I prepare once again for the departure of my son for college, I find myself reflecting on the gut-wrenching experience of taking him to college the first time about a year ago. The close relationship I have with my son was one reason why empty nesting was such a devastating experience for me. I honestly did not know who I was without him in my daily life, and I wasn't very eager to find out. Even though I always worked, empty-nesting after spending nearly two decades immersed in raising my son filled me with dread and terror.
I did everything I could to prepare for his eventual departure, including going to counseling as a pre-emptive measure against feeling so much pain. One day when I was sitting in my counselor's office, she asked me to describe my feelings about him leaving. "Post-apocalyptic," I said without pause. "It feels like darkness. Gloominess. Like Russia-in-winter gloominess." She told me that it would take about one year to adjust. "I don't have that kind of time," I responded." And then I asked for a list of things I could do to speed up the process.
When I drove my son to college last year, I was in a daze. I remember very little about that trip except some intermittent tears (mine) and a whole lot of excitement (his). The college drop-off went by in a whir -- dorm set-up, a quick dinner and that was it. While I remember little of that day, I do remember the drive home with excruciating clarity. The drive was very long, made even longer by the fact that I had to drive through Nebraska (sorry, Nebraska folks, but your state is stupefyingly giant). I was emotional and couldn't stop the rush of tears or the voices in my head that reminded me of how my tiny family of two had just shrunk to one. It was official, I was completely alone. My son was going to skip off into his future, and I'd be lucky if he even remembered my name. I was downright pathetic.
I love the holidays and I hate the holidays. The holidays fill me with hope, and they also fill me with despair. The holidays remind me that I am surrounded by loved ones, and they also remind me that I am far more alone in this world than I'd like to be. The holidays are filled with family, friends, lots of pretty decorations, and baking -- lots and lots of baking. The holidays are also filled what what I like to call bullshit -- lots and lots of bullshit, at least for those of us who feel compelled to live up to some culturally (and religiously)-inspired standard of what American holidays are supposed to be about -- tables filled with happy people, feasts befitting the royal family, an abundance of presents under a $150 tree, and so on, and so on.
Don't get me wrong, I can think of many wonderful holidays I've spent with good food, good people and good cheer, but I can also recall quite a few spent with a mirror held up to my face showing me just how much my life hadn't turned out the way I'd hoped. Lonely holidays where I anxiously wondered if someone would invite me to join their family for a holiday meal, and broke holidays where I knew I didn't have the funds to live up to my gift-giving responsibilities (and no one embraced my "let's knit something for each other" present-theme idea).
Welcome to my Blog!
This is a blog for middle-aged women, like me, who want to live a life of increased authenticity, and greater well-being, with fewer masks and a lot more fun.