29 March 2017

A close college friend texted me the other night, telling me she’s hitting a midlife crisis and taking a sabbatical from work. In our social 20s we would have had the luxury of a heartfelt conversation about Life. But in our hectic 40s, we cut to the point. I texted back: “Dude, I feel you. Me too.”

Adult life seemed mysterious to me as a kid. At some point I would hit adolescence, which would magically transform me from scrawny girl into freshly-minted young adult. I’d have a real career, see the world, get married at some point, and eventually be a parent too, like all the nice, vaguely distracted moms and dads I knew. In the end, I’d age into a stooped, wrinkly, mellow old person like my grandparents.

I’m 45 now, and much of that has come to pass, through busy, blurry years. Ahead of me is a long (I hope), undefined road between midlife and old age. After years of rushing ahead, I feel for the first time like I want to stop.

The parents of kindergarteners at our elementary school look young to me now, hurrying anxiously, carrying toddlers. The parents I see at our high school, quiet in the background, seem almost a generation older. Something happens in those years, and it’s not just age.

The 40s is a transitional decade. You can still hang on to the idea of youth through your 30s. But by 50 there’s no denying you’re in mature adulthood.

We don’t coast from childhood into young adulthood without angst. Adolescence is a tumble from the comfort of childhood to the exciting unknown of independent adult life. Midlife is a tumble too, except the far side of it is a whole lot scarier.

Hormones have driven some of my life transformations – adolescence naturally, plus four pregnancies and childbirths, and the bumpy recoveries afterward from those 9-month alien takeovers.

But the physical transformations have been simple compared with the psychological and emotional ones. The most profound schooling in life has come not from age, but from love and loss.

I had the good sense to marry a sunny soul who brings out my lighter side. I’m a much better person to live with now, but it took years of communication and compromise to smooth out the jagged seams.

Parenthood enlarged my heart, ushered me out of the center of my world, and made me a real grown-up. Watching my dad die from cancer melted down my entire internal circuitry. If love is an opening to a new world, loss is being forced to leave a world that is irretrievably gone.

When a caterpillar transforms inside its chrysalis to butterfly form, it first disintegrates its body before rebuilding into winged form. Humans don’t get the privacy of a chrysalis. We do this transformation thing out in the open, and sometimes it’s a messy business.

Change is hard. We either evolve, or we die un-evolved. Death keeps us focused on what we’re here to do. And the nearing prospect of it can and should be a galvanizing force.

I’m in midlife. I forget words, often. My joints sometimes creak. I have gray hairs and a grooved forehead and laugh lines. I don’t eat or sleep like I used to.

But I see life much more clearly now. The motivations behind people’s words or actions are so obvious that I am rarely shocked, flummoxed or impressed by anything that is done or said. It all seems predictably, understandably human.

I’m always telling my kids that life is a game of “Now what?” There’s no use stewing in what’s already happened. We have to learn our lessons and move forward from wherever we are.

There’s no trophy for the hard, humbling work of learning. If we learn, we evolve and move on to more lessons. But if we don’t evolve, we get the same infernal lesson in life over and over again.

We all get stuck in cycles sometimes. Job issues, relationship issues, family issues. We protest, lament, cry foul. Situations don’t change. Other people don’t change. If we’re wise, we choose to change the way we see and approach the problem. That overbearing parent, or boss, or boyfriend is not our personal jailer, they’re flawed human beings like everyone else.

The world is not conspiring against us. It’s telling us to make a change. Shifting our mindset is the way out of repeat.

Resistance to change is human. A voluntary transformation requires honesty, humility, capitulation and the hard work to rebuild.

It’s like the caterpillar – we need to allow ourselves to dissolve completely if we want to move on to the next stage. We can’t hang on to our wormy body and expect to jump to butterfly.

Capitulation is both the letting go of the familiar and the trust in the unknown. And it takes mindful determination to make the new form hold, instead of falling into the comfort of old.

The cliche of midlife change is that it’s about getting cosmetic surgery, or a sports car, or a new partner half your age. No amount of playacting can get us back to youth. Regression is the wrong direction entirely. Evolution is about moving forward.

Change is in the air. My little people are gaining independent momentum themselves, and my heart soars and aches to see it. I don’t know what’s next, but shifting winds around me will surely require an internal shift too.

Thrill-seeking is for adolescence. Midlife is the time to find peace and joy, gratitude and meaning, within ourselves. The answer is inside the chrysalis. Metamorphosis is about dissolving our many parts back to primordial soup and thoughtfully building pieces back together in a way that allows us to fly.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

mich 29 March 2017 at 5:43 pm

I am 47 with kids going through the same beginning of high school/middle school years. I really love how beautifully and accurately you articulate the bittersweet mix of emotions in this stage of life.
I have a had a really bad last 5 months of so due to a variety of reasons, some caused by work stresses and others just life stresses. Your post really hit home with me today. Please keep up your blog, it’s always a comforting to come your quiet corner of the Internet and find a great recipe or just the right words of wisdom.


cg 17 April 2017 at 10:07 am

dear mich – i am so glad my words resonated with you. thank you so much for sharing back. hopefully your bad spell is followed by a very good one. we know by now that life is cyclical, for better and worse. sending love and good energy to you!


Michele 29 March 2017 at 7:03 pm

Thank you for writing so clearly what I have been feeling for the past few months. I just turned 56 last week, am in the throes of menopause, forgetting words, feeling blue longer and a bit melanchology and nostalgic. You’re so right that as we get older, everything that seemed so important in our thirties and younger is now just not so pressing and I’ve certainly mellowed. I do think more about aging, getting old and being considered mid life. I certainly don’t feel old but the thought of mid life, slowing down and fear of getting injured when doing sports does cross my mind moe now. Keep writing! My mother was from Taiwan and definitely an old Chinese grandma. I miss her!


cg 17 April 2017 at 10:12 am

hi michele – thank you so much! i try to keep things light here, since we all have enough heavy in our lives. but i also think it helps to share the more sobering realities we all go through too. it means a lot to me to hear back from you – thank you for that. and yay for your mom, we love the real chinese grandmas!


Madhavi 31 March 2017 at 5:12 am

So beautifully written. A lot of it resonates with me as I ease into the early 40s. Maybe it is too early, but I don’t feel much different (physically) from my late thirties. Not having kids probably has something to do with it. Watching kids grow and evolve is a sure way of keeping one honest to the inevitable march of time. I am struggling to find my footing as I make a career transition, and in this uncertain political times, make sense of my place in this country as someone who came here two decades ago and call it home now. But, like you, I too have the good fortune to be married to a sunny soul and that definitely makes the journey so much easier and worth it. Thank you for your quiet wisdom and the occasional recipes. I have enjoyed your blog for a few years now.


cg 17 April 2017 at 10:15 am

hi madhavi – thank you for writing, i appreciate it so much! this is a strange time, but at heart this is a country built on the strength of those with the courage to seek a new and better life for themselves and their families. stay strong! xoxo to you.


Kristin 31 March 2017 at 5:48 am

Lilian – you have no idea how deeply you hit a home run on this post (as you do so many of your others). I love when you pop into my email inbox because I know that I’m going to read something that makes me smile and often contemplate things. This week went further than ever. I’m 46, have 3 boys 21, 18 and 15 – one is wrapping up college and has a job lined up and the other is heading to college – both are living over 1,000 miles away – in other words, they’ve successfully launched, left the nest, etc. The youngest is already looking at college so I know the next few years will fly, whether I like it or not. It has pushed my husband and me to start a daily habit of discussing “what’s the next chapter” and pondering how that will look. The picture isn’t clear but instead of panicking about the fuzziness ahead, I’m holding on to the excitement of what might be. On top of it, my beloved father unexpectedly died in November – diagnosed in August and told he had 3 years to live, was dead in less than 3 months – it shattered me, as I already lost my brother while I was in college. I’m at the point where all the losses are adding up and I feel myself changing and I know it’s sometimes messy looking – but you’re are SPOT ON….life is evolving and the does mean moving forward, and I do find myself less excitable, more grateful, and oddly at peace. Thank you for the reminder that I’m not alone. I’ve shared your post with many of my closest friends and they have all been touched deeply as well. Thank you for that as well.


cg 17 April 2017 at 10:23 am

dear kristin – ohh, i am so heartbroken for you over the sudden loss of your father, on top of the terrible loss of your brother so young. so much to endure in life.

but congratulations too on your big boys – two launched and independent is a real accomplishment. but very hard to see them go too. i’m verklepmt just thinking about it! but we keep moving, all of us, and there is a beauty in it all. much love!


Cynthia J 13 April 2017 at 5:08 pm

Beautiful post. Every word resonated with me, especially how as a parent my heart both soars and aches watching my kids grow, and being able to see more clearly others’ words and actions. Lately I’ve struggled with either staying at my current practice where I’ve been since I graduated or staying the reminder of my working life. And the weightiness of the decision lies because its a decision between being comfortable and having more time with family or challenging myself and pushing a professional surge mid-life. It’s all good but somehow bittersweet because it feels like it’s now or never. Thankful for your words.


cg 17 April 2017 at 10:28 am

dear cynthia j – hard decisions, for real. i have other friends going through the same thing, and it’s tough to work out the timing of these decisions when the balance of work and family is always so precarious. be patient and true to yourself, and i think in the end your gut will know the right answer. often our unconscious minds can work out what our conscious minds can’t. best of luck, and thank you so much for sharing.


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