Midlife reassessments. Every man has one – or more. The used to be called midlife crises, but I think that term is broadly inaccurate and misleading, for it implies that the only males who enter into a period of transition in midlife are the ones who suddenly go out and buy the new convertible, get hair plugs and/or die their hair (often a particularly nasty shade of blonde), start dating a woman twenty years their junior, buy a new wardrobe of clothes that are way too young for them, and can be found in the bar at the local Champps every night after work leering at younger women. The problem with defining the midlife struggle in this way is that it discounts the fact that most men face the same challenges – even if they can’t afford the new car or the trophy wife. That means that you – if you happen to be male – either are or will be encountering this transition, and/or your partner – if he happens to be male – either is or will be encountering this transition. In other words, no matter who you are, you had better be prepared.
I have read a fair amount of literature on the subject of midlife reassessment, and I think much of it misses the point entirely. Some of the articles in popular magazines cast men in this period of their lives as tremendously self absorbed, narcissistic misogynists. While I would agree that self absorbed, misogynistic narcissists do encounter midlife reassessments, I believe they were such long before they reached the point of reassessment. In other words, midlife didn’t make these guys jerks, they were jerks long before midlife!
What is midlife reassessment? In my admittedly non-scientific opinion as a man in this stage of life, I would describe it as that phase in a man’s life in his late forties or early fifties during which he begins to examine his life in light of the fact that he has twenty years or less until retirement. He reflects on his life and asks himself what kind of impact he has made on his world and what he would like to accomplish in the next twenty years – the years before his primary identity becomes “retired grandpa” or something similar. I don’t mean to devalue being a grandparent at all, but the truth is that no single role makes up a complete identity for anyone.
Hopefully, he engages in this process reflectively and over a period of time, having developed the skills necessary to gain insight into his own feelings, thoughts, and behavior. Whether or not those skills are developed, the reassessment will happen. The decisions the man makes will reflect his skill level.
What is he reassessing? In no particular order, I offer a few suggestions. The first is, “Where am I in terms of my own primary sense of identity or value?” If the man gains his identity primarily from work he will evaluate himself in terms of his career, if as a husband he will evaluate in terms of his marriage, if from parenting he will evaluate in terms of how his kids have turned out, if as an athlete he will evaluate in terms of his ongoing athleticism, and so on.
The second area is fear. We are socially conditioned as western males to deny fear, but all of us are afraid of something. Perhaps it’s death (our own or of those we love), or being alone (either through death or abandonment), or being unloved, or (perhaps worst of all) of being incapacitated and finding no one to care for us or about us.
The third area is regret. We all have regrets, but at this point in a man’s life he starts thinking about them with a eye toward either making them right or making changes and/or doing things we wish we had done years ago but were too busy to do. That might mean taking up a new hobby, or trying a new career, or trying any of a number of other new things – not all of them healthy or productive.
The common assumption, largely derived from the midlife crisis stereotype, is that the changes men make are all irrational and ill advised. The reality is that many of these changes are absolutely necessary. If a man wakes up one day to find himself terribly unhappy in his career then he should look to change it. Those who stand on the outside and are critical of the high level executive has resigned to dig wells in the developing world need to shut right up – it’s that person’s life to live, and it doesn’t affect anyone but him. I believe that is the reason that many of these reassessments occur when the children are out of the house – when the responsibilities are fulfilled, the man now allows himself to ask, “what do I want?” The same thing is true for men who find themselves in relationships with have become stale due to lack of attention over the years. As a culture we are so busy with multiple careers, social commitments, frenetic child rearing schedules, and this absolutely misguided notion that somehow relationships can be ignored for years without damage that we are blind to the impact that our life styles have on our marriages and other relationships. If the only thing in a relationship that the couple perceives as “ours” are the kids, that isn’t a relationship at all but rather a care giving arrangement.
The solution? I think the solution to the midlife reassessment is not to try to avoid it, because I think the reassessment itself is a normal and important task. What we can do is work to make sure that when the assessment takes place the man doesn’t suddenly realize he has been wasting his life. Here are the areas of focus:
1. As important as they are, your children are not your life, folks. Do not get caught in the trap of living vicariously through them. Don’t find yourself in the place where you care more about how they play (or if they play) in this week’s soccer game than they do. If every active you are involved in revolves around your child’s school and/or soccer team, etc., that’s should be a big warning sign. Don’t become a stage mom or stage dad – let your children be children, love and support them, but maintain your own identity. If you don’t, when they leave your identity will leave as well and you will be shopping for a convertible.
2. Most of the major news weeklies reported a couple of years ago on the alarming rise in what they called “sexless marriages” in America. It seems that we are letting everything get in the way of intimacy with our spouses – not just work and the kids, but friends, social engagements, separate vacations, relatives, and a host of other things. In light of that, is it any wonder that when couples are faced with “just the two of us” there are problems?
3. Money makes the world go around. Unfortunately, spending beyond our means often leaves us trapped in jobs that are destroying our souls. Many of us find ourselves in positions – regardless of how much money we make over the course of a year – where we quite literally can’t afford to change jobs, even if those jobs are so stressful to us that they are shortening our lives. The truth is, even when we can’t afford it, the moment arrives when we can’t afford not to quit or when a catastrophic health event forces us to quit. Why make it harder on yourself by adding financial devastation to the mix?
There are more factors to consider, but for my purposes here I have listed enough. They all amount to decisions about priorities. Cerrtainly, men will reassess themselves at mid life no matter what. If we – both men and women – make better choices about our priorities along the way, the reassessment will be much less painful.