Please Don’t Have a Midlife Crisis

On a balmy night in May 2011, a small crowd gathered in my mother’s church for the Wednesday evening “testimony” meeting. The three dozen Christian Scientists sat quietly in the pews, listening to spiritual readings and then, one by one, telling stories of how their faith had helped and healed them.

My mother stood up and waited for the usher to bring her a microphone. The congregants stirred when they heard her voice, surreptitiously glancing in her direction and anticipating her metaphysical insights. Mom began her testimony, then faltered. She searched for words, but they had vanished. Nothing remained but white noise. After an achingly long pause, Mom lowered herself slowly back into the pew. No one really noticed—she was, after all, eighty-nine years old—but Mom was uneasy, without knowing why.

My mother eventually made her way home, where she lived alone. Another twenty hours would pass before my brother and I realized she had suffered a stroke. In the emergency room Thursday night, a doctor measured her blood pressure at 260 over 120. A brain scan revealed a bleed in her left frontal lobe, which scrambled her language and her ability to sequence, to do things in order, whether putting on her stockings before her shoes or removing her clothes before stepping in the shower. Evidence of three other, older strokes also appeared on her brain scan, and these compounded her problem.

Over the long Memorial Day weekend, I sat by my mother’s bedside in the hospital’s intensive care unit as Mom floated just at the surface of consciousness, occasionally popping up long enough to look at me mutely, lost in confusion. Were there words in there, trying to elbow their way through the maze of her broken brain, or was her brain an empty room, all thought, all memory, all personality swept clean? This mattered to me, for my mother’s singular gift is insight, her ability to listen carefully to my tales and dilemmas, take a reading from her impeccable moral compass, and suggest a way forward. At her core, Mom’s identity is her thinking. I feared that she had lost her identity, and that I had lost my mom.

A few days later, I stood at our kitchen sink, cleaning lettuce in the spinner. Outside the window, a neighbor trotted up the street with her dog. Another one set the sprinkler just right. It was a soft evening in my favorite time of year, when all of life bursts with the vivid beauty of the adolescent spring, when I could remember, if only for a few seconds, the exhilaration of youth.

I felt nothing. No surge of joy at being alive, no frisson of gratitude for witnessing another annual rebirth. I glanced at my husband, who was slicing tomatoes.

“I think I’m having a midlife crisis,” I announced.

Devin put down the tomato.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “Please don’t have a midlife crisis.”


A Crisis Is Born

Mom’s stroke provided the spark for a combustible collection of small despairs waiting to ignite: the unremitting daily-ness of work, the minor but scary health issues, the unpalatable fear that this is as good as it gets and that life slopes downward from here.

A few days after Mom’s stroke, I sat at my desk and pondered these suddenly urgent questions: What, exactly, constitutes a “midlife crisis,” and is that what I am experiencing? Is it unswerving destiny, or can I drive around it with the choices I make? So many people I know are struggling through midlife ennui. Yet some people flourish. How do they do it? How can I craft a meaningful middle life? And is there any science that can give me pointers?

As I mulled over these questions, I felt that tremor of elation that signals I have stumbled onto a great story. I decided then to follow my journalistic training and began to research.

Let us begin at the beginning: the moment “midlife crisis” was born.

In 1965, Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques published a study and sparked a cultural revolution. In “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis,” in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, he posited that around the age of thirty-five, a man begins to glimpse the slanting shadow of death and recognizes that he would be dust long before he could fulfill the dreams of his youth. (Jaques excluded women, explaining that menopause “obscured” the midlife transition.)

Jaques’s theory rested on what he called a “random sample” of 310 “geniuses,” including composers (Mozart), artists (Raphael), and writers (Rimbaud). He noted that many of these men died around the age of thirty-seven, whether of natural causes or by their own hand, fearing that their creative abilities were waning. Jaques allowed that some geniuses were able to avert the midlife crisis and the death of their creativity. Indeed, some talents only ripened with time: Dante Alighieri did not pen The Divine Comedy until the age of thirty-seven, and Johann Sebastian Bach was still a church organist and tutor until age thirty-eight, when he began composing his most ambitious works.

Jaques also saw evidence of midlife crises among more ordinary psyches: specifically, among patients in his own clinical practice. One might ask how typical these men were, given that they were seeking psychiatric therapy, but still, Jaques detected a pattern. He described, for example, one patient who was haunted by the fear that he had crossed a threshold and that there was likely more time behind him than stretching ahead. “For the first time in his life, he saw his future as circumscribed,” Jaques wrote. “He would not be able to accomplish in the span of a single lifetime everything he desired to do. He could only achieve a finite amount. Much would have to remain unfinished and unrealized.”

Jaques’s insight was little noticed until Daniel Levinson put the midlife crisis on steroids in his 1978 book, The Seasons of a Man’s Life. (He got around to women a couple of decades later.) Levinson, a psychologist and professor at Yale University, argued that all men experience “transitions” as they move from one stage of life to another. The stages begin with pre-adulthood (from birth to age twenty-two), then move to early adulthood (from age seventeen to forty-five), on to middle adulthood (age forty to sixty-five), to late adulthood (sixty to eighty-five), and (if you’re lucky) late-late adulthood (over eighty years old). Watch out for those transitional years, he warned: Emotional turbulence strikes—and in middle age, this can trigger a full-blown crisis.

According to Levinson’s own account, the midlife transition held a personal fascination. “At 46,” he wrote, “I wanted to study the transition to middle age in order to understand what I had been going through myself.” After meeting with colleagues at Yale, it became blindingly apparent that they were all “personally struggling” with midlife. If they were struggling, these Yale professors reasoned, then surely other people must be as well.

To test his theory, Levinson interviewed forty men: ten biology professors, ten novelists, ten business executives, and ten industrial laborers. The men, all aged between thirty-five and forty-five, submitted to six to ten interviews, each lasting between one and two hours. From these exhaustive and no doubt exhausting interviews—who wouldn’t confess to a midlife crisis by the twentieth hour?—Levinson concluded that between ages forty to forty-five, a man suffers the “agonizing” process of “de-illusionment,” when he compares his youthful dreams with his present, grayer reality. This brings about a crisis for most men: “Every aspect of their lives comes in to question, and they are horrified by much that is revealed. . . . They cannot go on as before, but need time to choose a new path or modify the old one.”

A man in this state often makes “false starts,” and “tentatively tests a variety of new choices . . . out of confusion or impulsiveness,” Levinson wrote. This is the time men seem to grieve lost opportunities and desperately try to claim new ones before it is too late, in the form of a younger wife, a dramatic career shift, the stereotypical red convertible. How many men, you might wonder, experience this existential angst? Ten percent? Twenty? No, Levinson claimed that 80 percent of men suffer through a midlife crisis.

If Levinson developed Elliott Jaques’s kernel of an idea into a carefully detailed psychological state, journalist Gail Sheehy turned Levinson’s midlife crisis into a cultural phenomenon. In Passages, Sheehy wrote that men (again, the focus is on men) could expect a midlife crisis at age forty-two. The midlife crisis had made its grand cultural debut, and would come to define the psyche of an entire generation.

There was one problem: Other researchers looked and looked, but they just could not find evidence of an inevitable—or even common—midlife crisis.