Dear all, these are some of my thoughts on the time of women’s midlife. This is a multi-layered topic. Before I start, I want to acknowledge the place from which I am speaking: I am a white, straight, able-bodied and privileged woman in Europe. As such, what I offer here is based on my experience and will not be relevant or resonant for all women everywhere. BIPOC women, lesbian and transgender women, women living in differently abled bodies, women with different cultural backgrounds will have a different experience from mine and I do not mean to suggest that what follows is exhaustive on the topic or a one size fits all. I am aware of the challenges to include in this conversation complex topics such as patriarchy and the need to recognise it as an internalised system of oppression to which we also contribute. Nevertheless, I want to invite you to take this journey with me and bring home what feels inspiring and relevant. And I would love to learn from you about your experience and where your path has been different.
In our contemporary Western society, many people think that midlife and the time between perimenopause and menopause (and all that comes with it) is a curse. Furthermore, this time of life is highly pathologised. As women, we also tend to believe that we lose our most important job or function: to give life. We become useless. Powerless. Hopeless. The best time of life is gone.
Our culture normalises and promotes disconnection from our bodies and souls. It offers us chemical pills and quick fixes instead. As a response to such distortion, we may end up feeling even more doomed, confused, lost, and exiled from ourselves. We may think that we’re destined to lose youth, vitality and beauty, and as such, our life will never be the same. It’s all we can do to just get by.
If, like me, you’ve experienced many ups and downs in this journey, sometimes you may feel that you are going mad or there is a fracture in your psyche. We blame ourselves, our unresolved traumas, core wounds, limiting beliefs, hormones and think that we have not done enough therapy, healing work and ultimately failed spectacularly at taking care of ourselves or manifesting the life we want. This process can be debilitating and isolating. But if we choose to, it can become a journey into the most hidden and buried corners of our being and a true adventure.
For some of us, this voyage becomes an exploration of the dark night of the soul.
As midlife women, we may face physical, mental, emotional and spiritual turmoil, while we are also bombarded by media, dogmas, polarised views, and medical mainstream ideas or laws that undermine our bodily autonomy and right to decide (the anti-abortion legislation in Texas is just a recent example). From photo-shopped images of skinny bodies with big boobs to Barbie faces, glamorous selfies on social media, inauthentic stories of success, TV advertisements of beauty products, plastic surgery, and expensive fashion items, we are constantly reminded of the endemic fear of death in our consumerist society and the myth of the eternal youth. As you know, the list does not end here. Something insidious is planted in our consciousness.
The message is clear. There is something wrong with us.
We are not enough. We lack something. We need to do more. Our body is imperfect and objectified. We need more possessions. That cream, pill, guru or shoes will fix us or fill the void inside us.
We face the impossible task of meeting the cultural standards that dictate how we need to look, behave, feel and appear. Women are familiar with this kind of pressure. Too fat, too skinny, too successful, too anonymous, too bold, too shy, too extroverted, too introverted, too busy, too relaxed.
To an extent, historically, it was a curse to be born in a female body and have a menstrual cycle. How many of us hold a positive memory of our first menarche? How many associations are there between blood, shame and disgust? Since childhood, we interiorised that feeling that there must be something terribly wrong, faulty or even dirty at our core. We must be inherently bad.
The picture becomes even more distorted if we think about sexuality.
I grew up in a traditional Italian Catholic context. I remember from a young age rebelling intuitively against the two main archetypes related to women: the saint and the whore. Alongside that, the most powerful culturally interiorised and accepted was the martyr. There was something noble and sublimated about sacrificing one’s happiness, needs, joy, intuition, power and overall health.
Furthermore, I remember when I came across Pliny’s work in my late twenties and discovered what he wrote about menstrual blood:
“Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”
I feel enraged if I sense how much self-loathing, shame and self-hatred has been passed from one generation onto the other based on these assumptions and beliefs about women’s bodies.
We carry behind us at least two thousand years of linear thinking and history written by patriarchy and systems of oppression. Luckily, women have been always gathering, often in secret, to keep our art, craft, poetry, wisdom, magic, medicine, songs, dances and intuition alive. And whether we’ve had the opportunity to explicitly meet like this in our lifetime, we do carry these gifts of memory, visions and knowledge in our bones, psyche, dreams and genes. There is always an opportunity to meet women who want to travel alongside you and share a deep heart and soul connection.
We may ask what is at stake here? What is going to happen if this pivotal time of midlife is going to simply be labelled as something awful, uncomfortable, to be ashamed of and nothing more?
I think if that were to be the case, we would go in a dangerous direction, where we could lose part of our humanity and essence that are utterly needed in this historical moment. I think the life of our soul is at stake here. Our role as wisdom keepers and life protectors are at stake. Our future on the planet is at stake. Our relationship with our younger girls is at stake. Ultimately, our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health is at stake. Our ancestral wisdom could be lost. Ancient songs, stories and whispers could be forgotten. The more we disconnect from our bodies as a sacred temple, the more we disconnect from the living earth and Her rhythms, living wisdom and cycles.
Intuitively, despite the messages that tell us otherwise, we know that especially at the threshold of midlife we need to follow our intuition, inner compass, wisdom, dreams, and visions. We need to land in our bodies softly while we also get to know ourselves at the most deeply intimate and cellular level. Midlife is a fluid time, where we move with our waters, ups and downs, inward and outward, into the depths of our oceanic being, slowly and fiercely. We learn to embrace stillness whilst learning to flow with ease. We swim with paradoxes. We become the calm lake and the thunder. We are the drop of rain and the ocean. We may experience utter despair and the most exquisite beauty at the same time, knowing that we are constantly transforming ourselves. We dance with polarities.
This is a time when we sit in the alchemical fire of initiation. We can play with metaphors and images to create a new and uplifting narrative around midlife. If we imagine that when the flames meet the water we enter a highly chaotic and somewhat destructive time, we can tap into ancient archetypal forces and a circular sense of time. It is like being with the power of a volcano, powerful steam, lava or the Goddess Kali. The encounter between water and fire is the most creative and transformative.
Midlife is also time for rest, guidance, synchronicities and dissolving taboos. Some call it a sacred pause. Others refer to it as a second Spring. Some women may prefer to see it as Autumn. I like to think of it also as a radical time, because this word comes from radicalis, in Latin which means ‘originating in the ground or root’. In the seventeen century the figurative meaning was ‘going to the origin, essential’. I see in this cycle of life the possibility to fully land into our bodies and reclaim our essence. Sometimes I imagine myself growing into and from the ground as a plant.
Some other women emphasise the rebirth process that takes place. The old makes space for the new. The phoenix rises.
And yet, we must remember that rebirth follows death. So this is also a time for dying. Shedding skin. Dissolution. Because to an extent, we enter into more contact at the visceral level with our mortality. We are going to die. We are going to lose loved ones. That is the only certainty in the great sea of the unknown. And this can be extremely disorienting for our psyche because in our industrialised countries we have removed our relationship with natural life cycles, including death. We’ve lost our collective rituals and severed our connection from the web of life in which we are embedded and upon which our life depends.
Midlife is a time where we encounter the great void. The unknown. The Mystery. The lack of control. The fragility of life and its sheer beauty and preciousness. The ego screaming and wanting to be in charge. The prayers to let go and surrender. The losses. The grief. The rage. The broken dreams. Health challenges.
I feel that this journey into midlife is a prayer. Sometimes, when we are exhausted (after trying all sorts of healing and therapeutic modalities) and we have done all we could to feel better, all that is left is to open up our psyche and soul to the possibility of deep surrender. Just to feel and be. No need to perform or achieve anything. So our bones can rest too. Maybe it is about whispering to our soul ‘you can let go, you can relax’ so our body can hear that too and can soften a bit more.
Maybe this is about resting on the ground and doing nothing. Maybe it’s about listening to the whispers of the wind, answering to the songs of the birds and letting our weight sink into the ground. Maybe it’s about being in silence. Maybe it’s about letting our inner child know that she is held, safe, accepted, welcome, protected. Perhaps the cicadas are singing for you too today, saying ‘you are loved my child, you are a child of the Earth’. Maybe it’s about trusting the synchronicities and not dismissing the flight of an eagle hovering upon our head, the branches of the trees moving when we feel in telepathic loving conversation with them, or the appearance of the tiniest insect on our doorstep. Perhaps we can remember that it is only in recent history that the Earth is seen as an inanimate object when in reality, she can hear us and is in constant communication and relationship with us if we are willing to listen.
I think that we need to reclaim midlife as a sacred time of reflection, healing, community making and introspection.
Many of us may question our identities, jobs, relationships, old patterns and limiting beliefs. There is something powerful about accepting that we need to let go of that which is not serving us anymore and learn more about surrendering. And I also think that we need to do this together, with other women. It does not need to be a lonely and isolating path.
From children leaving home to not having children, changing home or not having a home, divorce, losses, wanting more purpose, meaning, love and connection, many of us fall on our knees while we come back home to ourselves, listening to what truly matters and our hearts. Those places of not knowing, grief, sometimes rage, exhaustion (especially for those of us who’ve been working with our inner world for many years) are all portals into surrender. Nothing else can be done. There is nothing more to lose. It is a place where we choose whether we want to trust life at the most intimate level and face our deepest fears.
It is not an easy task to reframe stories about midlife. Especially when there are also physiological changes occurring in the body, from hormonal adjustments to sleeping patterns, mood swings, hot flashes, weight gain. You name it. Often we are not educated about how to navigate these challenges in a way that is empowering, uplifting and dignifying. I know for myself that I am still learning. This is certainly not an easy ride. But I think something is empowering, uplifting and exciting about changing the narrative and the meanings of this time of life.
To tell a story about midlife as a threshold, initiation and rite of passage means that you and I can rise in dignity. We can find comfort where previously there was despair, power in the places of powerlessness, beauty and poetry in the ugliness and ultimately we can celebrate our rebirth and precious life. We are not meant to do it alone, but in circles, with sisters and elders, with songs, prayer and dances. We can lift each other up. This is a magical time to dream awake our future and envision who we want to be. We can welcome and embody our wildest, wisest and radical self joyfully, softly, outrageously and with grace.