Midlife often arrives without fair warning, and it’s fraught with anxiety for many. Existential questions that demand to be answered trouble us. Empty nest syndrome plagues us. Physical changes ask us to reevaluate our health, while our satisfaction with the profession we’ve had for decades might lose its luster. Transitioning from one phase of life to the next feels cumbersome and overwhelming, and can lead to depression, angst, and illness.
Midlife transitions are particularly challenging for women in Western cultures who have dedicated their adult lives to childrearing. Why? Individuals in Eastern societies are encouraged to meditate and pray from an early age, two forms of self-care that lead to enlightenment and promote inner strength in the face of adversity. In Western cultures, however, women are urged to become productive as soon as possible and in turn lose touch with the power intuition and self-awareness provides. They’re also asked to adapt their aspirations to what society at large expects of them, which further diminishes their connection to their inner selves. While expectations are to some degree necessary—and inevitable—in every culture, exceptional performance is paramount to everything else in industrialized societies. Ambition and achievement ought to be celebrated and rewarded, but these anticipations hinder people from creating and performing based on their unique gifts and dreams. All individuals, especially women, become “busy bodies” from the moment they enter the school system. And yet, within all of this, there remains a contradiction that cannot be ignored: the influence patriarchy has on our decisions.
In order to understand why midlife transitions are expressly difficult for women in Western cultures, we must take a look at our past. Author and feminist Adrienne Rich had a great deal to say about this topic in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. In this seminal book, she demonstrated how the beginning of the 20th century and the advent of industrialism inspired the push to relegate women to the household and allow men to develop government policies and the guidelines of society. “Women’s work was clearly subversive to ‘the home’ and patriarchal marriage,” Rich wrote. “These two forces—the humanitarian concern for child welfare and the fear of patriarchal values—converged to provide pressure, which led to legislation controlling children’s and women’s labor.”
The consequences were widely felt. Society’s goals and rules were determined without women’s input. Women were demanded to bring forth maternal instincts rather than intelligence, and selflessness rather than self-realization. They were persuaded to focus on their relations with others rather than on the cultivation of self.
The prevalence of patriarchy in modern times is illuminated by Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen in her groundbreaking book, Urgent Message from Mother: Gather the Women, Save the World. “Leonard Shlain in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess proposes that patriarchy and misogyny reinforced left-brain dominance,” she writes, “with linear thinking now valued over feelings and intuition, word valued over image, and hierarchy the natural order.”
Although the situation has vastly improved over the last two decades, there remains an imbalance of power between men and women. The inherent feminine traits that are essential to motherhood are considered inferior to accomplishments directly related to the hallmarks of success, including wealth and social status. Women who have dedicated themselves to raising their children—a role that isn’t rewarded monetarily--must rely on their own strength and sense of accomplishment to feel nurtured and valued. And oftentimes, because of what society demands of us, we are unable to do so because these abilities haven’t been exercised or preserved.
What does this cause? Myriad complications. Many women experience an emotional split—they’re encouraged to raise their children and silence their intelligence, but aren’t recompensed for their efforts. So when midlife approaches, and the children are gone from the home, they face a tremendous sense of loss and frustration. They’re disoriented; they’re frequently disappointed. The years they could have spent in a well-paying profession are behind them. Their bodies are changing in unexpected and upsetting ways. Their sense of self—which they’ve had only a tenuous grasp on in the first place—shrinks. The feminine traits that are revered in Eastern societies are brushed off in Western cultures that favor benchmarks of the highly performing individual spoken of earlier, further thwarting their transition into the next, important phase of their lives.
All is not lost for mothers confronting midlife and the inevitable changes it brings. Rather, it offers women the opportunity to move inward and find the innate gifts they possessed at a young age and lost along the way. Work, however, needs to be done, and a shift in consciousness is critical. To regain their center and to integrate their internal and external worlds, women need to reconnect with the parts of our humanity that transcend personality, extend beyond the cognitive, and cut through the cultural, societal, and familial beliefs that restrict potential. They need to recognize their unique qualities, and learn to express themselves.
In simple terms, a woman must silence outside voices and begin listening to her own, which demands a de-facto retreat from commotion and complete immersion in the silence that is often encountered in Eastern cultures. It is in that internal and external silence that a woman is able to recognize how she has lost the connection to her true Self—and how to return to it. Most importantly, women must realize that self-love is just as important as the love they give their children and far more significant than fulfilling the expectations society has placed on them. Embracing midlife, the empty nest, and all of the uncertainties this stage in existence brings is ultimately a chance for personal and spiritual growth. Their children might be gone, but now is the time to engage with their inner child.”
Copyrighted. Lauretta Zucchetti. All rights reserved.