Having just turned 50, I figured I'm about due for my midlife crisis. I mean, I've got most of the prerequisites: a kid who has left the nest for college, 25 years at the same company, hot flashes and an outdated hairstyle. The problem is, I can't quite squeeze it in. I've got this 11-year-old daughter who, while quite tolerant of my yoga habit, just might go off the rails if I indulge my yen for a six-month retreat at an ashram in Kerala. Then there's the college-tuition bill. Do you think Skidmore would cook up an emergency scholarship for my son if my contribution to the family income suddenly dropped to, say, zero? Oh, and there's one more problem. Since my husband is self-employed, we're awkwardly dependent on my company-supplied health insurance. Umm, scratch the ashram.
Many of my friends are also turning 50, and they seem to be having much the same problem. Midlife crisis? Sure, I'll put it on the to-do list, after the dishes, supervising homework and paying the bills. Being part of the delayed-parenthood generation, quite a few of my friends are smack in the middle of raising kids. At least one of my peers--a champion procrastinator--just celebrated her first child's first birthday. Others have kids that are nearly grown but, real estate prices being what they are, that doesn't mean their nests will be empty anytime soon. And none of them seem ready to retire or take a flyer on a change-of-life career move--at least not voluntarily.
Sometime in the misty past, most of us glommed onto the idea that life progresses neatly from one phase to another. A midlife crisis seemed to fit naturally into this scheme, somewhere around, oh, 47. Now it's as if the pages of Gail Sheehy's Passages have been put through a blender. You can have a baby at any age from 15 to 50. You may find yourself back in school at 30, 40 or 60. And that's partly because you can be put out to pasture by your employer at any age at all. University of Minnesota sociologist Phyllis Moen tracks the breakdown of the "lockstep" life path in her book The Career Mystique. What does midlife even mean, wonders Moen, when life's trajectory is no longer linear? "I make fun of people who say that midlife is between 35 and 70, because what in the world is left out?"
And yet turning 50 is no trifling thing, as my friends and I have discovered. Maybe we're too busy and too burdened to run off to an ashram, but in the small slivers of time that we hoard for ourselves, we seem to be bringing the ashram to us. Most of us are rethinking what's important in our lives and making a point of rebuilding old friendships. We're adjusting our frantic pace just enough to notice and savor small pleasures. The birthday gifts are telling: exotic tea and a glass brewing pot from a friend who has discovered that a daily tea ceremony creates an oasis in a long day of caring for an autistic child; an assortment of nut oils, wine vinegars and chocolate truffles from a pal eager to share favorite things from her home in Switzerland. And I, to my amazement, find myself overcoming my technophobia to make giveaway compilations of my current favorite songs. Are those the tokens of a midlife crisis? To me, it feels more like a midlife reappraisal, or maybe even the first hint of that traditional blessing of advancing age: wisdom. That and one of those spiky Sharon Stone hairstyles, and I'll be all set.