Lately it seems that everywhere I turn, in real life and in fiction, I come face to face with women who are struggling with the harsh realities of midlife. I recently watched Boyhood, the Oscar nominated film twelve years in the making that follows one boy through childhood and adolescence. While Mason’s story was certainly moving, and the awkward dance of adolescence remains fresh in all of our memories, causing us to cringe as we relive those uncomfortable moments through his character, it is his mother’s story that moved me most.
We are introduced to Olivia in the first scene. She is six-year-old Mason’s mom. Later we learn that she and Mason’s father married young when Olivia became pregnant with Mason’s older sister. However, Mason Sr., for much of his kids’ childhood, is an absent dad, and the bulk of parenting duties fall to Olivia. On one hand, she is strong and determined. She goes back to school, eventually earning her Masters degree and a position teaching psychology. Yet along the way she also experiences two relationships with alcoholics who physically and emotionally abuse her and her children. As the film comes to a close with Mason packing to head off to college, Olivia is once again alone, living in a small apartment, watching her youngest child as he prepares to leave their home. He enters the room to find her crying. When he asks her what’s wrong, she looks up at him and speaks her last line: “I just…thought there would be more.”
Days after watching this film, I picked up Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, without having any idea what it was about. Once again I had stumbled upon a story of a child – this time a daughter who has died under mysterious circumstances. Yet as we travel back in time to trace the events that led to her death, it is her mother’s story that resonates: the mother who not once—but twice—gives up her own dream of a college degree and medical school because of unplanned pregnancies. The first time she is just a few classes shy of her degree, but she chooses to marry and settle into family life with her husband and their daughter, followed by a son. Yet her dream never dies, and the desire to finally pursue it grows so intense that she leaves her family—simply disappears—in order to find her self. Nine weeks after she leaves, she realizes she is once again pregnant: “Everything she had dreamed for herself faded away, like fine mist on a breeze. She could not remember now why she thought it had all been possible” (Ng).
I closely identify with both of these women. I find myself filled with regrets—about not living the life I want to live, not choosing a career path that would have made me happier, not making a real difference during my time on this planet, not being a good daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend. My life has been filled with imperatives. When I was in therapy for my eating disorder at age nineteen, my therapist, a German woman I could barely understand because of her thick accent, wrote on her note pad in large red letters, should and have to. She held the pad up to me and said, “These are the words that run your life. If you let them, they will destroy you.”
I feel like I have wasted so much precious time, expending energy trying to be someone I’m not in order to make others happy—yelling at my children at the end of a long day because I’m tired and have no energy left to help them with their homework, when all I really want to do is snuggle with them and feel them near me— arguing with my husband instead of welcoming his love as a safe haven in our chaotic lives—spending hours cleaning my house instead of living my life because that small satisfaction is safer than larger pursuits—working in jobs I have no passion for because it’s prudent, pays some of the bills, and allows me to avoid the risk of following my genuine path. I’m stuck on auto-pilot, in what I call survivor mode, doomed to replay the negative patterns that have become my life, unless I make a conscious effort to break the cycle, to change the storyline, to rewrite the ending—for myself, for my daughter, and hopefully others as well.
One of the first steps for me is to accept the decisions I have made thus far in my life, and to realize that those choices don’t have to define who I am from here on out. I think many women get stuck in the pattern of negativity because they come to expect it. Whether it is in our genes, or due to our lack of self-esteem and self-love, we can’t find our way out of the darkness. We can blame our pasts, or heed the lessons learned and change what lies ahead for us. I have been aware of what my issues are for years now. I know the roadblocks that keep me from flourishing. I would guess that many women are cognizant of their own issues. Yet so many of us are unable to move from awareness to action. Taking that step is daunting for us. We don’t trust our innate abilities. We don’t believe we are worthy of true happiness. We feel we are a burden to those who try to love and support us. Some of us, overcome with the sheer exhaustion of the fight, give up. Others continue to survive but don’t ever take the step that might lead to change. We continue the battle, but we never take action that might allow us to thrive. Instead we just exist, functioning, coping, but not truly living.
We need to find the strength to break this cycle. We need to learn from those who fought the battles before us, and we need to pass those lessons on to those who are coming up behind us. We have an obligation to ensure that today’s girls and young women have the support and the education they need—the life lessons of all of the women who have walked the path before them—so that they know they are not alone. They can turn to any one of us, and we will guide them. We also need to break the cycle for ourselves. Only when we do that will we be able to prevent our daughters and their daughters from slipping into the same darkness.
I can’t go back and change my childhood. I can’t change what influenced me, or didn’t, early in my life. But I can change how I deal with it now, as a middle-aged woman, wife, and mother. I can take my issues out of their dust-covered packages, carefully open them one by one, examine them, get angry about some, grieve over others, perhaps even laugh at a few, and then determine if and where they fit into my life right now. I can put some of them on a shelf, not to cling to and fall back on, but to keep handy in case I need to be reminded of some of the pitfalls that my own daughter might face. And I can discard other issues—finally, at long last—savoring a rush of freedom as some of the burden is lifted.