“Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life”

Pamela Druckerman’s article in The Atlantic of May 29, 2018, continues:

“…Despite some biological claims, the midlife crisis was mainly viewed as a middle- and upper-class affliction. Classic sufferers were white, professional, and male, with the leisure time to ruminate on their personal development and the means to afford sports cars and mistresses. People who were working-class or black weren’t supposed to self-actualize. Women were assumed to be on a separate schedule set by marriage, menopause, and when their children left home.

But women soon realized that the midlife crisis contained a kind of liberation story, in tune with the nascent women’s movement: If you hated your life, you could change it. This idea found a perfect messenger in the journalist Gail Sheehy. Sheehy was the daughter of a Westchester advertising executive. She had obediently studied home economics, married a doctor, and had a baby. But that life didn’t suit her. By the early 1970s, she was divorced and working as a journalist.

In January 1972, Sheehy was on an assignment in Northern Ireland when the young Catholic protester she was interviewing got shot in the face. The shock of this experience soon combined with the shock of entering her mid-30s. “Some intruder shook me by the psyche and shouted: Take stock! Half your life has been spent.”

Researchers she spoke to explained that panicking at 35 is normal, since adults go through developmental periods just like children do. Sheehy traveled around America interviewing educated middle-class men and women, ages 18 to 55, about their lives. In the summer of 1976 she published a nearly 400-page book called Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. By that August, it was the New York Times’ number one nonfiction bestseller, and it remained in the top 10 for over a year.

Sheehy had gone hunting for midlife crises in America, and she’d found them. “A sense of stagnation, disequilibrium, and depression is predictable as we enter the passage to midlife,” she writes in Passages. People can expect to feel “sometimes momentous changes of perspective, often mysterious dissatisfactions with the course they had been pursuing with enthusiasm only a few years before.” Ages 37 to 42 are “peak years of anxiety for practically everyone.” She said these crises happen to women, too.

With Sheehy’s book, an idea that had been gathering force for a decade simply became a fact of life. Soon there were midlife crisis mugs, T-shirts, and a board game that challenged players—Can You Survive Your Mid-Life Crisis Without Cracking Up, Breaking Up, or Going Broke?…”

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