Midlife is What You Make It: A GenXer Responds to Oprah.com


Midlife is What You Make It

Heads up, GenX Fam!

In case you missed it, the over 40 crowd should feel miserable. Sad. Angry. Maybe even bitter. Definitely jealous of your Millennial colleagues and resentful of your peers who live seemingly better lives than your own. And pretty much ready to off yourself. Or your partner…if you managed to get one.

At least that was my takeaway from The New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun, recently published on oprah.com.

Let me start by saying that Calhoun’s well-written and well-researched article contains some absolute undeniable truths.

No doubt our generation has been dealt a raw hand. She paints a terrifying picture of the realities many GenX women face as they navigate uncharted waters. Ours is the first generation raised being told we can have and do it all. Of course, no one told us the price we would pay…the unrelenting stress, heartbreak, and a deep yearning for something we can’t quite name. As the author points out, for all our effort, a startling number of us still live paycheck to paycheck; our savings are almost non-existent; we are caring for aging parents while many of us are still raising toddlers. Many of us sacrificed careers to raise families while others gave up on having a family – or even a steady relationship – to focus on career. And does the declining divorce rate really mean that many of us choose to live in broken, loveless marriages because we don’t want to do to our kids what our parents did to us?

As one of my friends put it when we discussed the article, “I know someone dealing with every one of these issues.”

That’s definitely true for me as well. In fact, just this week I’ve had conversations with my friends about divorce and the peculiar challenges of post-divorce dating; a career stalled by choosing to work part-time while raising kids; sick parents; a cheating husband; fears about changing jobs; chronically underemployed husbands and husbands who don’t pull their weight with kids or home; managing expectations about kids’ grades and their future success; health and body image issues; and my own on-going angst over not contributing enough financially to my family because I stepped off the career track to raise kids and then just when I got back on the ride, I moved to a new city and need to start all over. I know first-hand that midlife is filled with land mines and surviving this time isn’t necessarily easy. But it also doesn’t seem as dire and god-awful as Calhoun’s article makes it out to be.

The middle-aged women I know exemplify power, grace, and resilience.

I’m amazed by them daily. From college classmates steeped in the feminist ideologies of our women’s college education, to the friends I was in the trenches with as we survived the crushing loneliness of new motherhood, the women I know embody a vast range of political and philosophical ideologies…but they all seem strong and generally happy, I think. Reading this article, I wondered if I was just lucky enough to breeze through life attracting really powerful and resilient women who bounce back better than most or if the Oprah article isn’t kind of blowing things out of proportion with its doom and gloom.

While all of us may have the same or more worries as the ones Calhoun highlights in her article, we choose not to define ourselves by them. And maybe that’s a direct result of being GenXers. People have tried to define us our whole lives calling us cynical, slack, and disaffected. The definitions they left out were creative, independent and self-reliant. While our parents had affairs, got divorced, and found themselves, we pretty much raised ourselves and our friends. We learned that the bonds of friendship can feel stronger than those of blood. And growing up under the constant and looming shadow of nuclear war, we learned to embrace the moment, seize the (motherlovin’) day, and not take anything for granted.

The capacity to seek out and embrace joy wherever they find it, seems to define the middle-aged women I know.

Despite all the lengthy, deep, and tearful conversations my friends and I have on an on-going basis about these issues, we experience an equal, if not greater measure of deep, soulful joy, laughter, and downright silliness. Whether attending concerts or music festivals; or sharing their love of musical theatre; or going hiking, camping, or mountain biking; or reading and sharing great books; or taking political action or volunteering for a cause; or learning a new language; launching a new business or taking on new roles in their careers; taking up dance or an instrument; or going skinny-dipping under the stars for the first time in their lives…the women I know seek out and embrace joy and adventure in a multitude of ways.

We’ve also gained some wisdom and confidence on our younger selves (duh), which we primarily express in knowing when to say “no thanks.” In our thirties, many of us felt the need to please everyone…our partners; our parents and in-laws; our friends; our neighbors; and in general anyone who might judge us for not doing or being exactly what they thought we should be. In spite of our independence, we were also a generation raised to both question and respect authority. A contradiction it took us a while to work through. Thankfully, as we’ve aged, we’ve stopped trying so hard and have learned that we don’t have to do it all or be everything to everyone. We’ve learned that our authority matters above others and that no one else can make us happy. Embracing that reality may mean facing some hard truths and going through some challenges, but that’s just life…it involves a series of choices. Get married or don’t. Stay married or don’t. Have kids or don’t. Take the boring job that pays well or chase your calling. But whatever you do, accept your choice and embrace it. Especially if it hurts.

Pain is transformative. Accepting where you are and feeling the pain will drive you to create a new reality.

Also, just stop trying to do it all, which relates to saying no, and start taking care of yourself. Calhoun alludes to this, but really, aside from the worries about money, so many of the problems she talked about come down to setting boundaries, learning to say no, self-care, and simply accepting things for how they are and finding the things you can be grateful for instead of trying to live up to some unattainable ideal of perfection.

You can create a magnificent midlife.

But you have to let go of unrealistic expectations. Accept that life brings challenges. Get outdoors and get active. Eat right. Rest. Put yourself first once in a while. Laugh. Love. And give yourself permission to enjoy this next act.

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Dawn Downes
Hey, y’all! I’m Dawn – a native Tennessean who could not wait to escape the small town for the big city. After attending a women’s college in Atlanta, I took root there and stayed. One marriage, two homes, two kids, and 25 years later, here I am, back in Tennessee. My husband moved here in January of 2016 to start a new job while our two boys, Brendan (born 2003) and Beckett (born 2006), and I stayed behind to finish the school year and sell our house. We arrived in July 2016 and have been working to make a happy new home here since then. We love living on the North Shore and I am enjoying finding unexpected beauty and little joys throughout our new city. I am also mama to fur babies, Josie the Rhodesian Ridgeback/Lab mix, and Miller, a sweet orange and white tabby cat. I'm into art, movies, music, TV, pop culture, nerdy stuff like Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and I know more than my share about the DC Universe, Pokemon, Minecraft, Battlefield, and all things LEGO thanks to having two boys.


  1. Would be interested to hear if the author distinguishes betweeen the ‘oregan trail’ part of the gen x generation. This mom blog writer sounds like one and I would think that might be why her perspective is different.

    • Hi, Meg! Interesting insight, but I’m full blown GenX, not a Xennial. I was born in 1970 but I do tend to keep an open mind and relate to younger people. My friends range from 20-somethings to people in their 70s.

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