My parents welcomed me into the world when they were both 24 years old, nowhere near what we consider the midlife crisis age. There are definite challenges with having kids so young, but in the 70s, they were not in the minority. Today, more couples are putting off having kids until their 30s and 40s, and researchers have scrambled to figure out the effects of the delay.
The advantages of waiting have been well-documented, but as I talk to many of the people around me, the downside is also real. Men and women report feeling like something existential is starting to go on in their 30s and throughout their 40s, and there are young children underfoot while mom and dad try to work out these feelings.
The midlife crisis we think of where marriages implode, fast cars are driven, and chaos ensues definitely exist, but what is less talked about is the more toned down but no less difficult version. As Mandy Harvey sums it up pretty well in her song, “Try”: “I don’t feel the way I used to, the sky is grey much more than it is blue.”
This grey doesn’t mean constant unhappiness, but it is a detour from the feelings of easy happiness that dominated our early decades. Researchers say now that older parents aren’t crazy for feeling this. It’s the beginning of the U-curve.
What is the U-curve?
When researchers studied happiness, they found a distinct U-curve, a line that starts high, falls, and then climbs. In early life, people report high levels of happiness, but towards the middle of our 30s and throughout our 40s, they report decreasing happiness until they bottom out in their 50s. This is in line with what we consider the years for a midlife crisis to take place.
However, the saying that’s it’s all downhill isn’t exactly right when talking about aging and happiness. After the early 50s, people report growing steadily happier until they are back to the happiness levels of their early decades, even though they are now staring down their mortality in their 60s and 70s.
Imagine a smile. That’s how they U-curve appears, and those of us nearing the bottom of the curve are concerned.
It’s terrifying to be at the low end, especially because it’s a new feeling and we can’t exactly put our fingers on what is causing it. As author Ada Calhoun points out, there are plenty of reasons for people to be stressed in the middle stage of life, especially now.
Money is a consideration in a way it’s never been before, with college, housing, and other expenses increasing while pay can’t keep up. In the U.S., we have less support when it comes to maternity leave, paternity leave, and childcare. There’s also the phenomenon that Eli J. Finkel explored in his book, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage,” that shows we expect more of our marriages now than any generation before.
No wonder Calhoun worries that this generation will “just have a diagonal line pointed straight to the lower right-hand corner” when it’s all said and done.
However, there’s reason for hope. The U-curve has been found in studies of primates, a remarkable fact that implies this might not be all about our circumstances. Chimpanzees and orangutans who were studied were found to be the unhappiest in the 40s and 50s, showing a pattern of the U-curve similar to humans.
Stressful circumstances don’t help, but there’s hope that we will pull out of the low point since this is not a problem only seen in humans.
Parenting on the way down
The U-curve has the potential to affect everything in our lives, especially our parenting. Even if affairs don’t occur and careers aren’t abandoned, both genders show external manifestations of the stress and identity struggle of this time.
The outward manifestations can be good and bad. A friend of mine says there are definite advantages to her more laid back attitude as a 40-something mom. However, parenting in her 40s means feeling tired pretty much all of the time, and she says she knows her young daughters are aware that she sees parenting as work. It’s hard for her to get the time she needs for herself as a mother, and that makes meditating on identity and fulfillment difficult.
There’s also the fact that midlife causes us to reflect on our options and progress, or lack thereof. In an attempt to offer her kids a happy, stable home, one friend says she feels she might have lost her authenticity because of how limited her choices now are. Her new understanding that she is in the middle of life and time is limited makes that realization hard to cope with, but it’s hard to make changes when young kids will be affected. It can leave parents with a perpetual sensation of being unfulfilled.
As for my kids, having a mom who is descending into the U-curve means they have someone who is capable of a much deeper array of emotions. I’m more comfortable sitting with sadness, frustration, or those just having a blue day because I often deal with those feelings myself.
Unfortunately, they don’t have the mom who is a carefree kind of happy, the kind I was years ago, the kind I imagined being with my kids. Happiness during this time of life can mean hard, intentional work on an ongoing basis, which feels wrong because I can’t pinpoint reasons not to be content.
Appearing ungrateful is a real fear for those of us living in the U-curve. Our first-world problems pale in comparison to most people’s realities, and yet I sometimes plan glow stick dance parties in the living room with my kids just to keep myself from feeling like a cloud is hanging over my head.
When joy is a job
Knowing about the U-curve can help us let go of the shame and guilt we have for experiencing this dive in contentedness. Speaking of his own midlife transition, writer Jonathan Rauch wishes he would have had someone to tell him that what he was going through was normal. He was worried that he might just be a whiner, and he would have been relieved to know that he wasn’t alone in his feelings of discontent. In over 79 countries, evidence of a U-curve during midlife has been found, so no one is going through this in a bubble.
Despite not feeling an intense, easy joy that we can share easily with others, it’s still possible to be good parents. It’s not easy to focus so much on others when we feel like we are living in internal chaos, but it’s doable, and our kids may learn valuable lessons from us during this time.
We can start trying what is apparently working for the older generation: accepting our circumstances as much as possible. Many hypothesize that by our 60s, we are resigned, or we’ve simply learned what’s important and let the rest go. This may be the key to newfound happiness.
This doesn’t mean we don’t strive for what we desire during midlife. It’s just important to try to think of our future selves and what they will value. That may put life into perspective now and help us weather the stormier days.
There’s also making joy intentional. Writer Shauna Niequist says, “Sometimes joy is easy … and sometimes you have to work for it.” Kids can watch us do the work of self-care, meditation, and identity exploration. It’s not awful for them to see us work for what we want, especially if it’s happiness. They learn early that there are seasons of life we have to slog through, but that doesn’t mean giving up.
Taking another page from what Finkel learned researching marriage, we don’t always stay in things because we’re happy. His research found that many people feel their marriages have meaning, so they weather the difficult periods where contentment is less instead of walking away. The same is true of life and pushing through the daily tasks. We trudge through the hard times because our lives have meaning, every day.
Knowing that we’re not alone allows us to fully experience our midlife crisis, or transition, without feeling that there’s no explanation for it. Though we may not know the exact reason these decades seem more difficult than most, we have the U-curve research to show that there’s definitely something going on, and we can embrace that without having parenting guilt over it.