It's a crisis, but it's an awakening
I don't know where I am in this scheme, but I know that when my mom died six years ago was the same time it became abundantly clear that my then 12 year-old son wasn't going to have a conventional life path. It was really traumatic and hard and scary, but one thing I did was I started sewing, because I saw my mom sitting in a nursing home watching SVU over and over and I thought, I'm gonna need something to do if I ever get to that point.
I was...48? And I became a weepy, sweaty, sometimes shouty (occasionally screamy) advocate for my son, and for people getting as nerdy as they want to be. I am not the same woman I was before that spring. I've been in and out of a couple of non-profit jobs since then and have finally accepted that I too, don't need a regularly-shaped life path. So now I'm feeding two blogs, making stuff with some little fiber gangs, and doing the marketing work I used to do, but in smaller settings for people doing things I believe in, at a pace I can stand. I didn't always go willingly and I tried a few times to bail, but this is right for me. I feel more connected to the fun, weird kid I used to be, and there's a nice steady dose of beauty and inspiration in my life now. It's also still scary as all hell, but every day that old shoreline recedes a little more. I wish us all luck. It's fun out here.
Just wanted to say I really liked this sampling plate newsletter format. It was really interesting to gather takes from several different life experiences and expertises :)
My portal began at 35, when I was finally able to admit to others to having been sexually assaulted, and to grapple with what that meant. It had shaped everything about my life, and yet I had kept it compartmentalized, tucked away at the back of my head as if it wasn't relevant to who I was. At 35 the compartment exploded. I was diagnosed with PTSD, I had to draw a whole new set of boundaries, I had to figure out who I was when *not* ignoring this with all my might and main. It was a time of real relief but also deep mental anguish. It got very, very ugly and "sweaty," as you said above.
At the same time I was working toward tenure, and after tenure I hit the absolutely bottom. Then came the work of climbing out of the pit. And my post-tenure career has been nothing short of astonishing to me - I found a whole new focus, a whole new purpose, and back in the early days of the portal I wouldn't have guessed in a million years that I'd be writing about compassion now, and teaching, and consulting on both. I feel like this year the portal closed - not with a sharp snap but with a kind shoo-ing, a "you know what to do" encouragement that's built on a hundred different expressions of support from friends, and a quieting in myself, a peace, a stilllness that is hard earned.
Mine started when I was 37, but I'm 51 and I'm not sure it's over yet. Or maybe that's just a symptom of the fallacious idea that we'll ever be "done" with anything? Anyway, at 37, I knew that I was planning to leave my day job and pursue my dreams when I turned forty. I'd spent my 30's having babies and supporting my husband in pursuing his dreams, and by forty I was going to have everyone in school full-time, the husband would (hopefully) be settled, and it would be my turn to take some risks. So, I enrolled in astrology school. One, because I love astrology and talking deeply to people and I thought maybe I would start a private practice. But two, I was increasingly aware of work that other people were doing that seemed to speak to the zeitgeist in a way that caused them to explode (at the time, Eat, Pray, Love felt like a good example of that-- a book I didn't really enjoy, honestly, but it definitely struck a chord with people). Since astrology is really a clock of the thematic patterns in the world I figured learning more deeply would help me chose my direction in a way that would allow me to meet the moment, so to speak.
And then, 6 months after I reached forty and quit my full-time job to homestead and write a book and see private clients my husband announced he'd started dating someone, wanted a divorce, and moved the direct deposit of his paycheck to a private account, leaving me with $300 five days before Christmas. My dreams of taking my turn burned to a crisp in an instant. I moved out of the farmhouse I thought I would die in into a duplex with another single mom and her two kids and was living on child support, food stamps, and borrowed money from my parents. Everything I thought my future would look like, everything I'd worked so hard and willfully at to redeem myself and my shitty childhood was gone. I felt like I'd fallen off the edge of the world. I felt like death.
It would take a whole book to describe the years since then, so many major moments of transformation spiraling around each other. The bitter divorce finalized. My dad died. I confronted my childhood abuser. I bought my own house. I started writing professionally. My mom and I struggled and came back together and struggled and came back together. I was a friend's husband's polyamorous side piece for a couple of years. I moved in with a guy with two kids who I loved like my own and we all entered into the pandemic together, but a year in he revealed he'd been pursuing online relationships with other women for years, had found his "soulmate", and had to be with her. I took a "proper" day job and it was a disaster, making the pandemic a weird sort of blessing. My oldest kid came out as trans, started HRT and had top-surgery. I spent 18 months collecting unemployment and reclaiming my brain. My abusive brother died. I started a newsletter. I started a new relationship with a man I adored, but had to end it after 18 months because he was an alcoholic and I could feel how I would lose myself. I battled depression and problem drinking and embarked on a healing journey with ayahuasca. I unwound all the narratives about being sexually broken and found I loved sex. A lot. I sat with myself and witnessed my own self-sabotage and struggles and began to take some real ownership of my life.
Still don't know what the fuck I'm doing half the time. I'm still just making it up as I go along. Am I through the portal? I have no idea. I am a totally different version of myself than I would have imagined at 37. I inhabit my own skin now in a way that I wouldn't have thought possible. I am all the me's I was and more me than I was capable of before this began, which helps me love myself and other people better. My life and self feel like they belong to me. I am sometimes lonely and despair that the world isn't built for women like me, and I accept that I can only be the one I am. I've worked too hard to be anything else.
I have always felt the world was divided into two sets of people: those who know life can change in an instant, and those who don’t. It happened to be twice in my earlier life: my father died when I was 14, and I had a surgical menopause at 32. I feel a kinship with people who have suffered similar losses, and sympathy for those who have yet to experience true loss. I don’t wish it on anyone, but these experiences do help you realize that time is finite.
Thank you for naming this phase. After eleven years of working really hard and being very diplomatic and circumspect in my career, I've been promoted to the highest rank. I'm happy to have arrived here and it's a relief but mostly it's liberating in the sense that I just don't give a f#@*anymore about things I used to worry about. I'm becoming more unfiltered and honest with colleagues. I have no patience for bureaucracy. I'm focused on the most meaningful aspects of the work. One of my colleagues recently suggested taking on a big project and my reaction was "Meh. I would rather try to make time for yoga (so my neck doesn't hurt every day) and gardening and cooking." It's so liberating not to care as much and in spite of my success, I do regret all the time I spent caring (and yes, carrying, thanks autocorrect for that apt suggestion) too much.
Lovely, necessary read for me right now. Thank you.
It made me reflect on how common it is for women whose autism diagnosis was missed in childhood to be diagnosed in their late 30s or early 40s. Autistic women are often quite “good” (read: it’s miserable to do) at obscuring their actual experience of the world to perform the normal, expected thing. Perhaps something about being at that age makes them let go, get curious, and get tired of putting the expected foot forward.
Katherine May’s The Electricity of Every Living Thing is a remarkable document of this experience.
Oh my gosh this: "You’re like, wow, I thought I’d get a warm glow. All of this, it’s half boredom, half gratitude.”
I’ve just walked into the portal. I’m painting like crazy. Angry and not putting up with shit anymore. I miss my maiden body but don’t want to inject myself with poison to hold onto her. This hit me in my core.
Wowowow, wreck me before 7am, Ann! This is so resonant for me. Your mothers reframe has reverberated down to me too, also giving me the language to describe my current state. I decided to apply for a masters in positive organizational psychology at eight months pregnant with my second child, after 15 years as a copywriter/content person. I saw the program and felt called to do it, and I didn’t want to waste another day not pursuing the thing I was meant to do. I had more to give. I was 36. Everyone is like baffled that I would pursue a masters (and likely a PhD) while my children are so small and I’m working but like ... the force is with me. I cannot be stopped!
Holy smokes, this piece is so wonderful and hopeful. I loved reading about all these different women and their various experiences. I think I've just recently been catapulted into the portal. I'll be 42 in a month but have lived through some dramatic life-changing events in the past couple of years:
1) Finally having a baby at the age of 40
2) My father and step-mother ill and consistently on the doorstep of death's door and having to take complete control of their health care directives, finances, and well, overall estate
3) My husband lost his job in May and still hasn't found a new position
4) A miscarriage just over a month ago that was dramatic and painful
It was the miscarriage that did it. I haven't felt control over anything for several years and so, when I finally felt better, I committed to getting up every morning to write. I got my MFA over a decade ago and landed a teaching job; I've been hiding behind being "too busy" for years but really I've mostly just been distracting myself with other things. I can't consume right now because of very limited finances but I can create and that gives me an immense amount of joy in the midst of this extraordinarily difficult season.
I aspire to the portal. I hope there’s a portal coming. But I think I reset my portal clock by having another baby, and thus am very much currently in a different thing (what is the opposite of a portal?). But there’s something to be said for being comfortably out of the grind, the forced ambition and striving, capitalistic nightmare of the pre-kids, pre-pandemic, pre-… whatever we’re calling the current state of the world. Now I can do my work, get paid, and not have it become my whole life. I think being in that place will allow for a portal as soon as the baby can dress himself (a weirdly freeing milestone).
THIS. I just returned from a gathering of people who had all experienced some form of pregnancy loss, and it was very much a Portal convention. I write about initiations generally, and I think you’ve nailed so many aspects of what I’m noticing in my own interviews: that this moment of initiation is a time when meaning-making and creative energy intensifies at the same time as one’s “Disney princess filter” on the world and the pressure to perform for an external gaze is falling away. It comes when the notion of earning a “happily ever after” via checking the expected boxes becomes either inaccessible (as in pregnancy loss) or unappealing (in the form of pursuing more family-building efforts that may further traumatize and/or end in a similar loss).
There’s that feeling of, well, if I’m not going to birth a biological family in the way I envisioned… what AM I gonna do? And there’s so much flourishing to be found on the other side of answering what is initially an understandably anguish-filled question. ❤️🩹
I am 56 and still in perimenopause (!!). This portal is not always a short journey.
my mom went through the portal recently, after my youngest brother graduated from high school. she left her job for a chiller, less corporate one and moved to rural Maine. the weird thing for me, is feeling proud of her. I never thought of your parent as someone you could be proud of because they'd always be ahead of you and better than you, but now I'm old enough to understand what she went through as a single parent of 3 pretty mentally ill kids and I'm really proud and happy that she managed to move to the place she's wanted to live for her whole life.
Yep, I'm definitely in the portal, thank you for this. I'll be 44 in a few days and I'd say it started around 40. While I've never been very interested in climbing the ladder at work and don't necessarily define myself by my job, I have been at the same corporate employer for most of my working life, and my income has steadily increased and I even have a pension. So the golden handcuffs are very real, especially since I'm the main earner in my household, and the main worrier and planner too (I'm sure some of you can relate, lol). The last few years I've really been craving a mini-retirement/sabbatical to get more involved in my kid's school and community, have more time for hobbies/fitness, spend more time with my parents, go back to school, find a new career, etc. But I'm having a hard time making the leap and giving my notice, even though I'm in a good financial situation and my husband fully supports it. I'm getting closer, though, and it's nice to know other women my age are struggling with the same types of questions. Good luck to us all working our way through this time of life.