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Midlife Crisis In The Jwish Community

Midlife Crisis in the Jewish Community

Your life changes in your 40s and 50s. But if you know what to expect and how to address it, you can take the “crisis” out of midlife crisis.

Dear Mindy,

I am dreading having to host Shabbos at my home. I have been thinking about it, and I realize that I am jealous of my children. They are living lives that I wish I could have lived. They are in marriages in which they are best friends with their spouses, doing things that fulfill them, and seem to be comfortable in their skins. I feel old, useless, and bored. And I am only 49! I have four children, and the last one got married just a month ago. The grandchildren can be exhausting, I hate the chaos and uncleanliness, I avoid inviting my children over, and can’t bear to see how my daughters look so young, reminding me of how beautiful I was 25 years ago. I know something is wrong with me for feeling this way, but what?

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You are having a midlife crisis, my dear.

Coined by Elliot Jacques in 1965, it is a transition of a person’s identity and self-esteem that generally occurs between the ages of 45-65. In the Jewish community specifically this often coincides with mothers whose youngest child has finally left home: Their girls getting married and their boys moving into their yeshivah dorms.

What causes a midlife crisis?

This particular time of life poses subtle shifts that alter a woman’s role in her family. It makes her question who she is and what she is doing, when for so long she identified herself mainly as mother and engaged in activities that belonged to the “mother.”

Watching children leave the home causes mothers to realize their age. They start to wonder, Am I turning into those grandmothers at the wedding who look “good” but not “beautiful”? They think Oh my goodness! If my daughter is a mother, then I am a grandmother — and grandmothers are old! They die! This causes the uncomfortable, and even panicky sensation of Help! What do I do with the rest of my life? Or worse, What did I do with my life until now?

You can see how these thoughts and feelings stir up some anxiety, depression, an underlying hysteria to seek the elusive fountain of youth, mixed with remorse.

What do we know about this period of life?

Now, to be perfectly honest, modern research is debunking the midlife crisis phenomenon. You can’t diagnose someone with midlife crisis like you can diagnose someone with anxiety. Fine. Great. But whether it exists or not, dear, you have it.

What we do know about this phase in life is that most people wake up to these thoughts as they move past the hands-on mothering stage. Research does show that right at this point, people experience a plunge in their ability to be satisfied in life. However, they do experience a rebound as they gather themselves and enter the next stage of life, able to take in the gifts of that time.

And yes, this occurs for men as well. The difference is that men experience this at a time in their life in which their earning power decreases or job description changes (for example, wealthy men whose companies don’t need them hands-on anymore to continue to generate money), whereas women experience it as their relationships change (children, friends and parents age).

But even though this occurs with men as well, let’s stick to the midlife crisis of a woman, which is distinct.

Midlife Crisis and Motherhood

The middle of life comes with a lot of changes.

This feeling of malaise or unease is actually comprised of a few things.

Physiologically, a woman goes through physical changes in this time. For example, exercise she used to do effortlessly becomes more difficult, she has difficulty sleeping, and the dreaded middle age weight gain. The physical changes during this time can impact energy levels and cause a decreased interest in stuff once enjoyed. Lots of women are surprised that after years of devouring books, they suddenly cannot sustain their attention in a book. And it doesn’t help that reading glasses become a necessity. Ugh.

Emotional changes happen now as well. By the time women hit their middle age, there is bound to be some trauma or loss. By this time, important people in your life may have been affected by death and/or divorce. Maybe even you. And these are not the only types of losses.

Friends move, older sisters become busy with their newly extended families, and the landscape of the Yom Tov and Chanukah parties change. Empty nest syndrome, while not a real diagnosis, certainly feels like one. And with all these changes, sometimes a woman questions her beliefs about herself and the life choices she once made confidently. Like being a stay-at-home mother. Or working for 20 years in one place that suddenly seems futile or boring.

The societal impact on aging

And with your comment about noticing your beautiful daughters and mourning your own beauty, it’s important to realize the societal impact on aging. We are a society obsessed with age. I remember feeling shocked when a 60-year-old woman I respected and admired commented that she feels invisible when she stands on line in the grocery store because of her age. She said she is not treated respectfully anymore when she sits in a circle of women of all ages, and that her opinion is subtly disregarded. I’m not sure if that is reality or her perception brought on by a mid-life crisis, but research does show signs of age-ism in our society. We are actually a society prejudiced against the elderly. Horrible, but true.

Here are some things that come up during middle age that can cause this crisis:

Feeling old and useless. Remorse for goals not yet accomplished and despair that it may be too late. Remorse for the past you cannot change, the mother you were not, the things you didn’t do. Feeling alone as your children move on.  Feeling even more alone because you didn’t develop friendships during your child-raising years. Regret for things past, despair for things you are now too afraid to do or be. Resentment or anger at your present discontent in your children, career (or lack of it), marriage, social and/or economic status. And perhaps, subtle changes in your health.

Not a pretty list, huh?

The importance of generativity

Let us discuss the idea of generativity versus stagnation. If we do not generate, we stagnate. Generativity is about realizing your mortality and living your life to leave something to improve the lives of future generations — which can be one’s own children or the children of the world (which those in the helping profession like teachers and therapists do all the time).

While you may thik it is not a mark of healthy person or mother to be jealous of her own child, these feelings are be normal. You may be watching your daughters have opportunities you did not have at their age. Our frum society has changed drastically over the past 25 years. Perhaps your daughter went to seminary, has a career for which she trained in a place that catefrumto frum women, used therapy to improve her marriage and parenting in ways you did not have access to as a young mother or wife. Maybe you have given her financial opportunities your parents could not give you. Maybe you gave her a home and stability your parents were unable to provide.

But with awareness of where these feelings are coming from, there is hope.

Awareness brings change.

This is not about Shabbos, my dear. It’s about yourself.

Whether or not you choose to host your children, learn to host yourself. Use your life experience to explore who you are, what you still want to do, and how it may be possible to accomplish that. And if you are getting stuck, there are wonderful therapists who can help you!

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For more on this topic:

Embracing Your Quarter Life Crisis 

Midlife

Feeling Lonely Amongst Family Members

This article was originally published in the Binah Magazine.

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