killing my well-behaved woman: critical work of midlife

As a girl, I learned only to behave. I was timid and quiet. I raised my hand to answer questions, to get permission. I followed the rules. I did my homework. I obeyed my parents. I obeyed the law. I rarely questioned. I learned the order of things. And submitted as asked even when it insulted my own soul. I learned to dream small. I dreamed the prescribed dream. At least that was all I acknowledged.

I wondered why God made me woman. I wondered why my place was below man’s. But also learned the unspoken rule that there are many questions women must not ask. Feelings that must not be acknowledged or expressed. And then I reached midlife and I realized why questions were forbidden, why anger was taboo.

When a woman asks questions, she reclaims a forgotten birthright. Her anger fuels her as she topples hierarchies. She frees herself from the bondage of tradition. When she finds her voice and uses it, she can change her position in the universe.

I am a slow learner. I resist change and growth even as it continues to call me. It speaks to me as depression. It calls to me as a feeling of being stuck. It grapples with me as an overwhelming resentment and never ending exhaustion with life. I tried to dismiss these things. These are not the feelings of a holy woman. These are not the feelings of a nice woman. These are not the feelings of a well-behaved woman. I thought I would banish them. I thought they would go away if I was obedient enough and good enough. But eventually I realized they were coming from deep within me. And I didn’t want to shut her up anymore. I wanted to hear her.

It came to me as a desire to run away. To seek refuge and quiet. To rest and look inward. I wanted a sabbatical from daily life. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to sit on a beach in a hammock and rest with my mind. Or go on a mountain retreat and be nurtured by a spiritual guide. I couldn’t accomplish this desire in days and weeks, but only in fleeting moments amidst responsibilities of motherhood and daily life.

This is the work of midlife. It begins with a deep inward examination. A look at the past and what I’ve accomplished so far. Does any of it matter? Does it matter to me or just to others? Is this the direction I want to continue? Does my life reflect my values? What are my values anyway? Have they changed? Do I still love the path of life that was set out for me? Or is there something I need to change? What are these wounds I see here in the past? The hurts that stem back to childhood, my teen self, my young adult self, others I forgot about? All the hurts of a lifetime, the ones that stayed unhealed because I covered them up and left them in the darkness. They come crying out to me. Again I want to shut the door and leave them there. These wounds are not supposed to be here.

But eventually I look again. I find out more about hidden pains and listen to them. It is terrible and wonderful. There is a tangled web of coping mechanisms; some old, very old, or new. I take time to get to know them. Who are you? When did you arrive? What do you need? How old do you think I am? What would you do if you didn’t have to do this anymore? Do you think you are ready to move and let me meet the one you are protecting? There are so many here. Some have been so stalwart for so long, they collapse when they are thanked. Others are wary of what I am trying to do.

I learn the meaning of cognitive dissonance and I stare it in the face and I decide to resolve it. Things are falling. Shelves are breaking, and it is scary in here. There are shadows in the closets and dark corners. Strangers I didn’t know lived here. I need to take my time. I am sifting through some rubble and reevaluating everything. Some things I pick up and I love them and want to keep them. Others are no longer useful or even toxic. With relief I let some things go. It is hard and painful and freeing. I am differentiating and coming more wholly into myself. I am slowly claiming sovereignty. I begin to see where I gave my power away. I am coming to see what I really believe and what was inherited.

I was taught a lie that some feelings were good and others bad. So I had avoided negative feelings and tried to have positive ones. I didn’t talk much about my problem, but tried to pretend everything was okay. Even when they really were not. Accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative was supposed to change the way I feel, wasn’t it? That did not work. Giant eruptions of anger began to spew forth in midlife. All the buried feelings had simmered deep below for far too long. I have needed to cry. A lot. With tremors that quake through my body and inhuman sounds that burn at my throat. I have needed to be mad. To fume and rail and shout at injustice. To whine and complain and pout like a child. To get out in the sunlight so many feelings that were decades inside.

Now I am learning to feel and honor a whole range of feelings. I listen to my anger and she teaches me where I have compromised myself. She has demands. She is unruly, but she loves me fiercely and she is on my side. I will not let people speak ill of her. I will not listen to the terrible judgements of others who don’t want to know her. She brings forth friends that I buried long ago, when I thought they were enemies. They have a lot to teach me. I become wary of toxic positivity now that I see it and name it.

I look at my relationships. The great webs of human interaction throughout my life. Sometimes I grieve. Sometimes I reach out. I learn more about what I value. I have a hunger for true intimacy. I hunger for quality relationships, something that was compromised when I wasn’t showing up as myself. My soul demands authenticity, to be known, to be more fully myself. I begin to peel off the mask I carried. I reveal worry lines and wrinkles and an attitude. I learn to love bigger and better and deeper and love myself for real, for the first time. My inclination toward judging is falling away, and I feel protective of myself and others. I am looking for my people to build something new. When I encounter someone who wants me to smile, who wants to see my old mask, I resist. It is uncomfortable and it loses me some relationships, but I feel something inside relax.

I have more work to do on this path of midlife womanhood. I am learning to voice my opinions and to feel rage. I am learning I have a spring of untapped creativity that metastasized into resentment, boredom, and depression. I feel a need to find my gifts and nurture them.  I need to dig out my suppressed dreams and see if they can be resurrected. I feel a need to continue building my new spirituality and readdresses how to tackle the big life questions. I feel a call to meet more of my shadows and continue healing. I understand old things in a new way. The image of the phoenix. The parables about rebirth. The burning. The ring of fire. The pain and the ecstasy. Metaphor and miracles.

Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro is a play of light and shadow. Finding noisy messy lovely life in all the shades between.

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12 Responses

  1. Elisa says:

    For all the concern and resources the Church pours into youth and young adults because it is concerned about retention, the trend I am seeing is women in their thirties and forties leaving or totally renegotiating their participation and I think it’s for this reason.

    • Karen says:

      I could have written this piece, just not as well-expressed. I am 61 now and at midlife went through intensive therapy for 5 years. I am so glad that I did. It gave me the skills to navigate what I am feeling now as I realize that many of my dreams will never be fulfilled. I bought into everything the church taught, including the endless self-sacrifice and toxic positivity. We are selling an afterlife that we know nothing about at the expense of the present. Best wishes on your journey. I support you and others who undertake this, wholeheartedly. You are brave to write and share these feelings. Much love…

  2. Jennifer says:

    You just explained my journey.

  3. E.S. says:

    Wow. Beautifully written. It explains how I have felt and what I am going through exactly.

  4. PBJ says:

    I, too, “… have more work to do on this path of midlife womanhood.” Thank you for your beautiful words.

  5. KCM says:

    Karen, this hit me like a ton of bricks ” We are selling an afterlife that we know nothing about at the expense of the present.” Truth can sometimes be shocking.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    This is exquisite! You are asking yourself so many good questions, and they’re ones I need to ask myself. I wrote them down in my journal to think about more. Thank you so much for them.

    Have you read Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr? I kind of didn’t trust a man to write about midlife as it applies to women (and a Roman Catholic priest at that), but I loved how he frames similar questions.

    Also, there’s a part where he says Mormons are so good at helping their (our) people navigate the first half of life; it’s the second half when it doesn’t work so well.

  7. Wendy says:

    Stunning post, Chiaroscuro! This sentence especially grabbed me: “I am slowly claiming sovereignty.” I relate to that idea so much and you’ve captured the agony and beauty of such a reclamation brilliantly.

    I see you, dear friend, and all of you is marvelous. So much power and wisdom in this post and in you. Learning from you. Thank you.

  8. Caroline says:

    “When a woman asks questions, she reclaims a forgotten birthright. Her anger fuels her as she topples hierarchies. She frees herself from the bondage of tradition.” I love this. I love this whole piece. So beautifully written. I have a lot of work to do myself around these issues, particularly on the ways I took a back seat to my husband when it came to career development and professionalization. I’ve got so many regrets about that. I hope my daughter does better than I did.

    • Chiaroscuro says:

      Absolutely, I put myself behind my husband and then my children, and reclaiming space for myself to have any kind of personal development and professional life is going to cause growing pains for everyone. I don’t want my daughters to have to go through this.

  9. Rose says:

    This is so beautiful. Really speaks to me and my experience. Also sounds like the internal family systems work I do as a therapist. Really getting to know parts of yourself is sacred work. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

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