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Are You In The Portal?
It's a crisis, but it's an awakening
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Earlier this week I was on a walk with my mom, gleefully disclosing some wild plans I’ve been cooking up with my best friend on the island for a small little dahlia operation. I’d spend the day hauling steer manure and sheet mulching part of the yard to make room for next year’s dahlias, and I was exhausted, filthy, but clearly still energized.
“What are you now, 42?” she asked. “I think that’s exactly when I started writing textbooks. I just had this huge creative surge.”
What an amazing way to reframe the energy I’ve been channeling this last year: energy to write another book, energy to figure out a Culture Study-related podcast, energy to dahlia farm. What if it wasn’t ambition pushing me forward….but a swell of creativity? And what if that swell of creativity was possible because I’ve become a whole lot less concerned with bullshit?
Earlier this year, I was flailing around after my dog Peggy’s death, trying to figure out what I wanted to write about next. On Instagram, Anja Tyson (follow her, she and her daughter are so great) suggested: “the weird spiritual / emotional / professional / transitional portal that women ages 37 to 45 are in.”
I became obsessed with this idea of a portal, and when I brought it up — on IG, but also in casual conversation — it seemed to resonate. Something was happening. Maiden-becomes-crone, sure. Destabilizing, yes. But it was also an experience of transformation, of refinement.
So I started talking to people about what this portal might be. And here’s what they told me.
Satya Byock is a Jungian psychotherapist who specializes in younger patients going through transitions. I interviewed her about her book, Quarterlife, back in February, and have seen the concept of quarterlife pop up in so many of our subscriber threads and newsletter discussions. In her work, Byock describes a broad “typology” for young people in our societal moment: there are “those who are more or less comfortable pursuing the social expectations for them, and those who are questioning too much or suffering too much to do so.” The first group she calls Stability Types; the second, Meaning Types.
When I asked Byock about how we can think of the portal within this framework, she told me that within a Jungian framework, there’s a midlife passage — and within her work, she sees it as the moment when “stability types, realizing they’ve climbed to the top of the ladder, see that they want more out of life. And so they search for meaning. The portal might be seen as the work of people who have participated in everything society expected of them on one level or another, and are finding themselves wanting more out of life — and want to find more purpose in life as change makers.”
Byock also sees a lot of awakening and curiosity going on at this age: investigating astrology, delving into or deeper into religion, exploring Tarot. “It’s all so unique,” she said. “Like, what does my life mean as a very specific person on this planet? What am I, what is the life that I want? What impact do I want to make? What do I want to create? It’s a very specific combination of things for every person. And that is powerful, and arduous, and exciting — all of it.”
But Byock also doesn’t see any of this as new. “Women in this age group have always gone through something,” she said. “People have been defining and redefining our creative lives in our careers forever. And there’s also been this midsection between stability and meaning. It’s a constant journey to try and make sense of: How do I make a living? How do I feel good about the living I’m making, but also work on a partnership? How do I work on a home, or do creative work that feels inspiring to me?”
Byock also told me something that didn’t really click until now: that the experience is more intense if you’ve been heads-down — absorbed by parenting, by your career, by an illness, by something — for some time.
“It’s a crisis, but it’s an awakening,” Byock continued. “For some people, that’s going to mean more activism. Or more engagement in the mystical side of things. For a lot of people, with the age of their kids or their career, where they’re like, whoa, I have a little more time. I have a little more space. I have a little more money. What do I want to do with this?.”
Claire Zulkey writes the very good Evil Witches newsletter. “Part of me thinks that I’ve gone through the portal,” she told me, “but the part of me that’s paranoid and wise thinks: oh bitch you haven’t even begun to portal.”
She’s 43. She’s dealing with perimenopause. “It’s been wild and it sucks,” she said. “My kids are grown, I know who I am, and my body is just like, now you’re going to sweat yourself awake every night. Your body goes crazy despite your best intentions. So much of being a parent, being a woman, is forcing yourself to look on the bright side constantly: like, at least I don’t have fibroids, I don’t have cancer, so that’s good. But it’s also exhausting.”
Zulkey’s kids are older but they’re not yet older teens. Recently someone told her that “you don’t know it, because your kids don’t have real problems yet and your parents are alive and healthy. But shit is going to hit the fan, and that realization that the other shoe is going to drop if terrifying, and you know it’s going to drop because other people’s shoes are dropping.”
She also sees portals for her friends whose marriages are “on the knife’s edge, where it’s like do you stick this out or jump into the abyss.” I’ve seen this, too: some sticking, more jumping.
“I feel really fortunate that I live among a lot of really honest people,” Zulkey said, “we all pretend to certain extent, but I don’t think I live amongst people who feel like they need to put up a brave face. Still, I think a lot of women are not sure what face to put out to the world right now.”
Strong Momma face? Domestic goddess face? Career hustler face? “We’re in this is a stage of pre-middle-age, we can still feel cute and relevant, we’re not old yet,” Zulkey said. “I don’t know what old is, but we’re not there yet! But we’re also not young! What to do with this?”
“I know at least two women whose kids are pretty well grown,” she continued. “And they still kind of dwell on the fact that they’re not the same weight — and they were a whole different person back then! I think a lot of women feel torn about body acceptance and body positivity Sometimes I just want to be like Virginia says, and love life and love my body, and yet I just really feel like I want to lose 15 pounds, and that makes me feel unevolved and basic and like I should be smarter.”
And then there’s making peace, of sorts, with your work. “I used to experience professional envy more,” Zulkey told me. “Before kids, but after, too, because it was like, will I ever be creative again? I kind of wish I did, because there were milestones that you could aspire to, but I’m not saying I have everything, but I do think I know too much. I know the person who looks like she has everything is dying inside because her husband is emotionally abusive, or her trans kid is getting bullied at school.”
And the truth is: post-portal, still portaling, it’s not all great. “I made my life work so I could be more available to my kids,” she says, “You know, chaperone their stuff, that sort of thing. And that’s a privilege, but it’s also really tedious. You’re like, wow, I thought I’d get a warm glow. All of this, it’s half boredom, half gratitude.”
Keren Eldad is the best sort of career and executive coach. I scheduled our interview scared it would devolve into platitudes, but you know what, it was pretty great — in part because most of her executive coaching is with clients who are, in some way or another, in the midst of a career pivot. And the vast majority of them are portal age. Women, she says, usually come to her because of feelings of stagnation. Men, by contrast, usually come because of trauma: a shift in their jobs, or on the heels of a divorce.
Eldad thinks she went through her portal when she was 36. “Whatever sets you off the edge, sets you off the edge,” she told me. “It can be stagnation around your career, it can be kids going to elementary school or even college. It can be around physical changes — for women, it’s an aggressive trigger. First stage is denial, like in grief. The second stage is anger. And often, that anger is expressed in surgery and cosmetic enhancement. For men, it’s also anger. That’s the motorcycle, snowboarding, dating young people, it’s the externalization of pain, to not reckon with that right now, and maybe bargain with the universe for some time. And I’m here as a coach saying: so you really do this?”
For these clients, she often points to the example of Julia Child, who published Mastering the Art of French Cooking at 49. “This was her second career,” Eldad said, “she did it during menopause.” For Eldad, the key is finding and then latching onto something that truly engages them.
Sometimes that process means letting go of large and small parts of our previous lives. “I look around at my process and think: still? But this is not the end of the process, it’s the middle of the process,” Eldad told me. “And the middle does get tiring. I’m weary. Like, I am personally done, but this is not done. And that, you feel invigorated by. If you’re grieving what you’ve left behind, let yourself feel it. What you’re doing is gathering your strength, and there will be a point when the grieving ends.”
Julia Karol runs a podcast and community for those who take different paths to form a family — including people like her who’ve become single parents by choice.
Karol started looking for the portal when she was in her mid-30s in the wake of a bad break-up. “I had been dating this guy, and honestly, he was not my guy,” she said. “He was really sweet and smart but he can’t be anything other than what he needs to be for himself. I spent five years of my life building a relationship with a man, and when things aren’t working in a relationship — we bend over backward trying to fix it, instead of wondering if it’s fixable.”
Today, Karol realizes that their break-up was one of the best things that ever happened to her. But at the time, she was flattened. “As a feminist, I was so embarrassed,” she told me. “My ego was not prepared for the fact that a man could take me down like that. I moved back in with my parents, I tore my life down to the studs, I got a life coach. I spent years trying to get out of that despair.”
It wasn’t just the relationship she was mourning, but the future — getting married, having kids — that accompanied it. “I wasted all my good eggs on life with this man,” Karol said. But then she started thinking about what she actually wanted from a family. She slowly started dating. None of the guys were right. She kept going on bad dates, but there was a little voice in the back of her head: You could always be a single mom.
“Every month that voice got a little louder, and a little louder, and one day it was screaming at me,” Karol said. “The choice was so appropriate for me.”
Now, she can’t even think of what it’s like to have a partner — although she realizes that’s not the case for everyone, and doesn’t want to look at her situation with any sort of “Disney Princess filter.” As she puts it, “I think some people hear the single parenting story and they put it on a pedestal a bit — and it’s a gritty real experience.”
Now, Karol’s thinking about the place of work in her life — and how to divide her time between her podcast and the community she’s fostered there and her day j-o-b. “I think I’m in the thick of the portal as I go through my family-building journey,” she told me. “I’ve gone through the depths, though, and have come out to a place where I”m really, really happy….and that’s making a career-sized hole in my life.”
The first thing Amanda Montei and I talked about when it came to the portal was our grandmothers. “They went to the threshold of the portal,” Montei said, “but it took them someplace else.”
Put differently: they, too, aged and felt things. They just had so few places to put those feelings — and so few viable options. Montei, who I recently interviewed for the newsletter on the intersection of motherhood and consent, has been thinking about how much of the portal has to do with passing from sexual availability and objectification to something else.
“Some of us spend all of these years trying to be a woman,” she said. “Whether that’s I’m going to get married and I’m going to have children or I’m going to have some sort of middle-class joy….maybe that doesn’t come, or maybe you decide that you’re going to reject all that, or that you’re going to pursue something else.” And so: portal time.
And then there’s the promise — or failed promise — of more psychic space. Just wait, they’ll get older: that’s what we tell Moms….without also acknowledging where you, as a person, might be when they do get older. “There’s so much reckoning that happens in those early years,” Montei told me. “So much of that muck and that shit that we’ve stuck way down. You’re accountable to these humans who call out every single flaw, every single contradiction, and you can’t get away with yourself anymore. As they move away, you’re left with this disaster of yourself.”
A disaster that’s filled with possibility. “And I totally get the feeling, of, like, there’s no time to rebuild myself,” Montei said. “But parenting can also force you to rethink: how do you relate to your body beyond that male-gaze informed sexuality? What do you desire if you’re partnered or if you’re married and all of the inequities that brings up? There are so many invitations to re-explore, but at first, it’s kind of just a blow.”
Montei initially covered that disaster, that blow to the self, with addiction. Recovery is part of her portal. “On the one hand,” she said, “it was a matter of facing all those demons in order to get sober, and facing all the ways I was ignoring, well, everything. But then once you get sober and you’re not regularly disappearing yourself, not numbing out and pushing out all that stuff, it all comes to the surface. On a physical and psychological level, there’s a process of purging that happens: everything comes up and out. You can’t help but move into that phase, whether you want to call it a portal or a new plane of consciousness.”
Tiffany Clarke Harrison always knew she wanted to write a book. She just didn’t know how. At age 37, she was diagnosed with MS. It started with a bunch of different bewildering symptoms: “nerve stuff,” dizziness, nausea.
“My son was like 5, and he cried every time I threw up. I’m sitting there with a bucket, and I had my vision turn sideways,” she told me. “I was telling my son, it’s okay, and like, clearly it’s not. Someone came in [to the hospital room] and said: has anyone ever talked to you about multiple sclerosis. I remember being relieved that it wasn’t cancer. After the first day after a lot of tests, my first coherent day, in the hospital, I remember I woke up and I said to my husband: I haven’t published a book yet.”
Suddenly, other things in her life clarified. She and her husband had been going back and forth about pulling their son from his current school where his needs weren’t being met. “And I said, we’re switching his school, done, I’m going on short-term disability, done.” She says that for the previous decade, she had sort of lost track of things. Of everything. But after the diagnosis, she was done being the good girl. “I call myself a former Should Girl, where I take all the expected proper steps. Like, getting an MBA — that was not something I really wanted, but I felt like, I have this degree in English, I should get an MBA if I want to make money. But after the diagnosis….I was like, nope, we don’t do that.”
At first, her new reality was rough. “I was looking at myself, like who am I? Do I even want to be married? Did I want to have kids, or was that a version of me that felt like I was supposed to have kids? I had a lot of heavy, hard conversations. I was in bed, I was looking over at my husband, and I said, I’m going to get an MFA in Creative Writing. And he goes, Okay, if that’s what you want, okay. I applied to one school, the director of the program said I was his first call, and that there was an urgency in my personal statement. And he was right! We have residency for a week, and the first week of residency with my professor who was also my director, and I was just crying, and I said, I am where I am supposed to be, and this is the first time I’ve felt that way in a very long time.”
Clarke self-published her first book, and was still looking for the right agent who got her work and could bring it to publishing houses. Then she sent a cold email to one she hadn’t talked to in two years. Everything fell into place: “Signing with her, the book getting acquired, the book coming out — this is all I’ve ever wanted. This is what I wanted at 22.”
“Before, I was still in that mode of, like, that’s not practical, being an author is not practical, you need to follow these steps and follow these rules,” she told me. “Like, okay, we’ve gotten married, we have our house, we have our dog, we have a girl and we have a boy, and a family member was like: oh you guys are just perfect. I remember that it triggered me a little bit, it wasn’t until around diagnosis time that I was like, what are we doing?”
In July, President Obama put Clarke’s book on his summer reading list.
“I have a tattoo on my wrist that’s the Roman numeral six,” Clarke said. “My birthday is October 6th, so that’s part of it. But also there’s a poem by Mary Oliver called “October” — and here’s the sixth stanza:
Look, I want to love this world
as though it’s the last chance I’m ever going to get
to be alive
and know it.
There’s nothing magical about the portal. It can be painful and discombobulating and, as Claire Zulkey points out, sweaty. There’s certainly no guaranteed joy on the other end. I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to experience it or to understand its shape in your life. I don’t even think it’s gendered, even though, for this piece, I’m particularly interested in how women approximately my age have experienced it. It’s just a period of transition. You can lean into it, you can ignore it, you can understand it as a crisis or a transformation.
I think mine started a long time ago: when I left a career I loved on terms that were not my own, and then spent the next few years trying and often spectacularly failing to find a new way forward. I know I’m not through the portal. But I also know I’ve confronted some of the stickiest, hardest, yet clarifying parts. And in this place, at least in this moment — what I feel is force. My own.
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