Midlife crisis? Why middle age isn't a problem to be solved

Three new books examine a period of life which seems to cause untold anxiety. But isn't there a case for just living it?

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An email arrives from the editor of these pages. He has an idea for a piece, he says, because there are a few books on his desk about “midlife”. Would I be interested in reviewing them? He adds a hasty parenthesis, salving my vanity with a remark alluding to how, of course, I’ll have to use my vivid imagination, what with being technically too young to know about this subject.

How interesting that – though he knows full well it’s an editor’s job to be honest – it is at this hurdle that he falls. For who does not, in the 21st-century, privileged Western world? Look! There’s Cindy Crawford, “flawless” at 50, wowing us with her makeup-free snaps on Instagram! Sharon Stone poses nude at 57 while trying somehow to assure the rest of us that we do have a lot in common with her (“my ass looks like a bag of flapjacks” – whatever that looks like. Anyway, not like Sharon’s ass). For we prize youth over wisdom, beauty over truth. We can’t deny that similar judgements are made about women, and indeed men, who are not film stars or models. And so we must accept those judgements, it seems, as our lot. “We had assumed that ageing would move over us rather like a desert wind over dunes,” writes Marina Benjamin in The ­Middlepause, “bringing about a gentle drift, a shift in shape that would leave our essence, our fundamental ‘duneness’, intact. But for many women it hasn’t worked that way. Ageing has punched us in the face like a thug and it has been transfiguring.”

All of these books accept the premise of that transfiguration. Benjamin’s and Miranda Sawyer’s are in the genre of the meditative memoir, with investigations of the landscape that they consider threaded throughout. The one by Barbara Bradley Hagerty is more in the vein of what I would call scientific self-help, and so considers the plight of men as well as women, but Hagerty connects to the reader through her own experience of ageing and her battles to – quite literally – stay on her bike as the years rack up. All three made me want to throw them across the room at one point or another, although all three elicited sympathy and interest, too.

In memoir of any sort, the writer’s gaze must, finally, remain somewhat fixed on her own navel: the trick is ensuring that readers are also happy to examine that navel, or at least find ways to think about their own navels. “Between 2000 and 2010,” Miranda Sawyer writes in Out of Time, “I didn’t move house once. I got married, I gave birth to two children. I acquired and held on to a flat, a microwave and a dishwasher, and a mortgage on that flat. How did that happen?” If you’re expecting the next few sentences to run along the lines of “Lucky old me!” (the world being what it is these days) you would be wrong. “Is this the person I am now?” Sawyer enquires of herself. “God, how dreary.”

Dreary is as dreary does, as my grandmother might have observed. That said, Sawyer knows perfectly well that her plight is not a plight at all. “Poor me, huh? Play the tiniest violin.” She knows that her life, that of a freelance writer with a partner and children, is “enviably freestyle”. And yet this mortgaged, school-run existence is not the one she imagined for herself when she was hanging out in clubs in what she now knows is her youth. She is torn between rejecting the trappings of adulthood (as we have been told to think of them) and desiring even more of them. She has to stop herself, she says, wanting a bigger house or a patio, blaming property shows on television “stimulating a long-dormant home-improvement gene”. A throwaway line, this reference to a gene, and yet a revealing one. I’m not a scientist, but I am willing to bet that while our DNA drives us to find food and shelter so that our species may survive, the desire for a patio is cultural rather than genetic. Yet culture is the trap these writers can’t escape. None of us can.

“There is nothing at all glamorous about 50 that I can see,” Marina Benjamin writes. Fifty to her feels “tarnished as an old coin, and worn – worn down and worn out”. She wishes, she says, to beat time at its own game. “And yet slowing down, falling, taking stock: these are the enemies of the middle-aged woman, too, because at those moments when you stop long enough to assess where you are you come into the full inheritance of the ageing process, which, in turn, gives the lie to the hubristic idea that anyone is capable of mastering time in the first place. We cannot. We don’t.”

Of course we cannot, but it requires heroic effort, when we are surrounded by adverts for tooth-whiteners and Spanx, to resist the effort to do so. Consumer society creates binary distinctions which encourage us to place ourselves into categories: pass 50 and you will cross the border from young to old; you will require this cream and not that one. There is a connection, I believe, to our current ideas about gender, as Helen Lewis discussed in these pages a few weeks ago. “I wince when I read oh-so-liberal parents explaining that they knew their toddler son was a girl when he wore pink and played with Barbies,” she wrote, noting that when she was young (as when I was young), children played with Lego, not “Lego” and “Lego for Girls”. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that someone, somewhere, is always trying to sell us something.

Yet the passage of time affects not just our own selves, our own bodies, but those of our loved ones, too. Benjamin writes movingly about her father. During his life their relationship had been “a ruin”; after his death, however, she comes to miss him. “I miss the slightly reckless feeling of riskiness that hung about him like a cologne – part sweat, part excitement, part dare.”

She observes her growing daughter, just reaching adolescence: “at the opposite end of the reproductive spectrum” from her mother, now. She calls the feeling she gets from watching her daughter’s journey to adulthood “ersatz nostalgia”, “a misplaced anxiety about all the future paths I shall never take because with middle age comes a shrinking sense of the possible”. Yet she also recognises that this is a sense, and not necessarily reality.

There are different ways, certainly, to address that perceived narrowing of possibility. To focus on the way in which advertising encourages self-loathing among women is the least appealing aspect of these books. Not everyone can be Nora Ephron. “Your flesh is fleshier,” Sawyer writes, of the changes that are coming upon her. “You consider putting your biceps between two pieces of bread and chowing down.”

I’m not sure why you would consider that, in any circumstance. Much more affecting is her recollection of herself as a young gymnast. Sawyer is a runner now: nothing too severe, a couple of times a week in the park, slowly. She talks to Eddie Izzard about his midlife passion for marathon running – recently, at the age of 54, he completed 27 marathons in 27 days to raise money for Sport Relief – but doesn’t gain much insight into his motivation. “It’s just adding things to my life,” he says blandly. But then Sawyer reveals that the reason she runs is that she is too old for the sport she loves, and conjures it in words through memory: “The tensing and flexing of muscles, the twist and spin in the air. The dancing beauty of it. That feeling of your body doing exactly what you ask of it. The most astonishing, outrageous, utterly natural thing. Gone now.”

In case you are wondering – and you may not be – I am not, needless to say, immune from this, at least not when it comes to decay. My right hip has a way of nagging at me these days; I can no longer curl right up like a doodle bug in an airplane seat. But perhaps I am lucky that, unlike Sawyer, I was so actively miserable in my youth that I am overjoyed to be over it. Being a kid, that was great. My teens and twenties and hey, let’s head into my thirties, not so much. I was worried and frightened most of the time. I felt observed and judged and always found wanting. Not any more, though I know the road will be hard again along the way. In my youth I was after epiphany; these days I’ll settle for a really good cup of coffee.

Maybe this means I’m having an “intentional” middle age, but probably not. That is what Barbara Bradley Hagerty advocates in Life Reimagined. Hagerty is an American journalist and author; she worked for two decades at National Public Radio and before that for the Christian Science Monitor. Her first book, Fingerprints of God, attempted to explore the science of spirituality, and it was a work, like this one, which sprang from her own experience. Raised a Christian Scientist – a form of Christianity that abjures any kind of medical intervention – Hagerty did not take her first painkiller until the age of 34. She abandoned that sect, though not the Christian faith. Faith plays a significant role in Life Reimagined, too.

That’s not the only way in which this is a very American book. (I’m American, as well as middle-aged, so I’m officially an authority on the subject.) There are the descriptions of the characters who people it, for a start. “Jim Coan enters at this moment, a tall, lanky man with an appealing smile and a ponytail that has just a whisper of gray.” Mary Lou O’Brian “has improbably ­lustrous brown hair, the glasses of a cool librarian, and a gentle, wide smile”. This is the Malcolm Gladwell school of change-your-life non-fiction, full of charming scientists whose work will alter the way you think about (fill in the blank) and the people whose lives have been altered as a result. They smile appealingly (or widely) and we are lucky to have met them in the pages of the book.

And the story Hagerty tells is one of salvation – not because she is a Christian, but because she’s an American, and that’s the American story, too. “Make America Great Again!” can be translated as: “Make Yourself Great Again!” The Europeans who first came to the continent did so to save their souls; we have been trying to do the same ever since, through evangelical religion, yammering on about the Second Amendment, or by advocating clean eating, whatever that is.

Finding your bliss is secular salvation, and again the options seem pretty binary. Midlife marriage can be a desert or it can be an oasis, goes the chapter heading here; muddling through isn’t an option. Hagerty talks to Arthur Aron, a research psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York, about enduring love. Like an old-time preacher, he has the answer. “How do you navigate from Archie and Edith Bunker [read, “Alf and Else Garnett”] to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward? You can do this, Art Aron says, by infusing one element in your life.” That element gets its own ­paragraph: “Novelty.”

Rather to my alarm (and to Hagerty’s, too, it must be said), Aron’s evidence for this involved a study in which couples crawled across a room with their ankles and wrists velcroed together, carrying a pillow between them. Another set of couples performed a “boring” task, one of them rolling a ball across the room as the other watched. “Those with the ‘novel’ task reported more happiness with their relationship.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to discover this; Fifty Shades of Grey did awfully well, as I recall, and that 50 wasn’t much to do with midlife’s troughs.

Hagerty is a striver. She urges us to find our “brand”. Although she argues that this demands identifying our “signature qualities, talents, personality traits, proclivities and experiences”, all of which will help define our essence as we move into that intentional midlife, her use of the language of marketing – a language she discovers through a conversation with Beverly Jones, who runs a company called Clearways Consulting, offering “executive coaching and leadership development” – is telling. It’s not that Hagerty believes that there is a quick fix to any of the concerns affecting readers of this book (or any of the three books), who, let’s remember, are likely to be middle class and relatively affluent.

Towards the end of Life Reimagined, Hagerty’s husband, Devin, cautions her against paying too much attention to what’s on the outside. “Surface solutions” – anti-ageing creams for the body and mind – aren’t much good.

 

“What you’re finding is: the solution is from the inside. It’s all about how you think, how you engage your mind, your marriage, your career. It’s harder, but it works.”

 

Does it? Only if you accept that a solution is what is required. If you don’t, make yourself that coffee and get on with your life. 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers