This was meant to be the year of my own private midlife crisis. Instead it has become the year of the novel coronavirus.
I’d been anticipating turning 40 this November with a heady mix of pleasure and pain, knowing it would mark not only the beginning of my middle age, but the end of almost nine years of intensively mothering preschool-aged children.
Yet I’ve also known this would mean staring down some uncomfortable truths. I’ve suspected that the identity shift would reveal a whole lot of uncertainty about who I am and who I want to be in this next, difficult decade of being somewhere in between young and old – or as a 1931 article about middle age I once stumbled upon and filed away puts it, “Neither young nor old, callow nor sallow, foolish nor mulish, puerile nor senile, half-baked nor fully cooked.”
But I’d never considered that this would also be the year the entire globe would be thrown into turmoil.
It is a strange thing, to have inner commotion made manifest outside oneself. I knew I was a bit of a mess. Now, suddenly, the whole world was a mess. I had planned to read a little philosophy, and a lot of self-help, as part of my midlife crisis wallowing. Some Kant, a bit of Jung, maybe. As the pandemic gathered steam, I turned to these authors with an even hungrier heart, desperate for gleanings of any kind if only to survive the tribulations of quarantine, let alone resolve my ambivalence about turning 40.
It’s hard to imagine men as hallowed as the philosopher Immanuel Kant or the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung having midlife crises, long before the term was even invented (it was only coined in 1965). But they did.
Kant turned 40 in 1764, the same year he published Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, and turned down a professorship offered to him in Rhetoric and Poetry. It was only at 40, he later noted, that a person achieves maturity and cements a “moral character”, or fixed way of being in the world. But in fact there was nothing fixed about Kant’s character at 40. He was unsure what kind of philosopher to be, what kind of person to be. He was deeply conflicted about whether or not to get married. From the age of about 46 to 57, he published nothing, but did the deep thinking that led to him taking the world by storm with the publication of The Critique of Pure Reason in 1781.
Jung – who, in his famous paper The Stages of Life wrote that we cannot live the second half of our lives in the same way as we lived the first – had his own midlife crisis from around the age of 38. He began to have unsettling dreams, and started to talk out loud to a vision of an old man with wings who appeared to him often. He turned 40 in 1915, and realised some of his symptoms had been linked to his anticipatory dread of the war, but also that he needed to reassess everything he’d believed up to that point. Over the next years, he fell out professionally with Sigmund Freud, his long-time mentor, quit his teaching job, and began to make notes, sketches and paintings in what he called his Red Book (which was never published during his lifetime).
When he emerged from his crisis at the age of 45 he had decided to devote himself to understanding a process he called “individuation”, essentially the reconciling of the conscious and unconscious parts of one’s identity, which is most important at midlife.
Midlife is when we have to step out from behind the masks of conventional personhood and identity, as affirmed by those around one and by society itself, and risk developing an identity that is uniquely one’s own. In other words, it’s about taking a chance on becoming oneself. This is hard, and painful, and things are lost as well as gained, in an ongoing process of expanding and shedding.
It was reassuring to know that these two great men struggled with midlife and came out the other side with fresh perspectives and brilliant ideas. But it was difficult to find anything about women philosophers having midlife crises, or in fact anything at all helpful about the emotional texture of a female midlife crisis.
It seems it has hardly been studied, except for a few telling insights about a woman’s 40s and 50s also being the prime time for her being trapped, even more tightly, between a “sandwich” of other people’s needs, those not only of her adolescent children but her ageing parents.
I plan to start my own Red Book sometime soon, to fill in some of those gaps in the recorded experience of women in midlife.
This could also help me anticipate a little better what my future self wants, what will make her feel big rather than small. My 50-year-old self still seems quite shadowy, but I think she’d probably want me to take off the conventional masks I’ve been wearing and try to find the courage to individuate. Maybe she seems blurry to me now because she is a different, fully unique self who is waiting patiently for me on the other side of this decade.
• Ceridwen Dovey is a Sydney-based writer. Her latest novel, Life After Truth, is out now through Viking.