By Catherine DiMercurio
Who doesn’t love a good coming-of-age story? What if it’s your own, part two? What does it mean to be coming of age in middle age?
We all have a favorite story about a young person’s journey from adolescence into adulthood, from innocence to experience. In some stories, this time frame is condensed and the author focuses more on a coming-of-age experience, an episode, rather than a full transition from childhood to adulthood. The progenitor of the modern coming-of-age novel is the European bildungsroman, a novel of development or formation. The classic bildungsroman, such as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark (1915), or W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), typically takes this longer view. More modern coming-of-age stories, including J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), several of John Green’s novels, or the 2007 screenplay Juno by Diablo Cody, frequently examine a shorter time frame within the protagonist’s life. (Incidentally, my favorites from this list would be Lawrence, Cather, Salinger, and Cody—and there are so many more examples!)
I’m perpetually drawn to these types of novels (and films), and what I’ve noticed for a while are the parallels between coming-of-age stories and life in one’s 40s. The novel manuscript I’m currently revising was originally conceived as a mother-daughter story in which I wanted to explore this idea that we go through a second coming of age at this time in our lives, and that parenting teens while going through our own new evolution is a challenge not for the timid. While the novel itself metamorphosized into something else, the original idea has stayed with me. It has fluttered about several recent conversations I’ve had and is demanding to be seen and considered in more detail. I will certainly do that with more deliberateness in a new piece of fiction, but I wanted to give it a nod here as well.
Roles, Expectations, Responses
Like the characters in the works noted above, many of us in our 40s and 50s have the sense that we are outgrowing this current iteration of ourselves. Certainly our roles are shifting. Though the focus of our parenting has always been to nurture independence, the lessons now have a sense of urgency, because soon, those lessons will be put to the test. I find myself at times feeling like I’ve done a pretty good job, but then I suddenly only seeing what I think I left out.
I see my children transforming from youngsters to young adults, surprising me with their maturity one minute, or reminding me, in moments of fear or anxiety about their own journeys, that they are still children. They are still learning how to cope with a new set of rules. They now look like adults and are entering points in their lives where they will be increasingly independent, but at the same time, they are aware that everything is about to change. The safety net they’ve long enjoyed won’t be as readily available. The training wheels, as they say, are coming off.
And I’m in a similar position in terms of change. Parenting will look different after my kids leave home, but regardless of my role as a mother, I, like many people around this age, find myself thinking less about what I’ve achieved, and more about what’s been left undone, and what there might still be time to do. There are empty places within all of us that we thought would be filled by achievements, which, as it happens, maybe failed to materialize. Priorities shift. Gifts and talents we thought we possessed or have been honing haven’t exactly produced the results we expected, and we begin to wonder if we simply aren’t the person we thought we were. Sometimes too, the road we travel has unexpected twists or tragedies in store for us.
Consequently, just as instinctually as a caterpillar stops eating and anchors itself in order to spin a cocoon (if it’s a moth) or molts into a chrysalis (if it’s a butterfly), we start looking around us and looking ahead. What do we have to anchor ourselves to? And do we have time to do the undone things or to pivot and head out in a new direction? Complicating matters, at least for me, is the fact that I thought it would be different, that some of this should have come together by now, that there wouldn’t be so many unknowns at this point.
The Gruesome Details
And consider this: inside the cocoon or chrysalis, the caterpillar actually digests itself. The process of transformation is a fairly vicious one. And so it is for anyone, regardless of age. While some life transitions are more obvious and easily recognized as a time of drastic evolution, any time in our lives can yield a new sort of coming-of-age experience. It’s never easy, and sometimes it looks as messy from the outside as all the metaphorical digesting of ourselves that’s happening on the inside. We hear the term midlife crisis often enough to make a joke of it, and think of a guy having a difficult time getting older and so he compensates with a sports car.
On a darker and often more realistic note though, we also often witness various forms of self-destruction or self-sabotage (substance abuse, walking out on a job or a marriage, or infidelity). In many ways all these behaviors are yoked to some instinctual desire to transform. But when you can’t see what’s happening, or feel you don’t have ways to cope, or the weight of a lifetime of accumulated expectation is too much, the vicious, painful transformation is itself transformed from a personal journey into one that pulls other people into its wake. This harm to the people around us is what truly makes it a crisis.
It Isn’t a Crisis It’s a Chrysalis
But the transformation on its own does not have to be a crisis, if what we are feeling can be recognized and named, respected and understood. It can instead be simply part of the life cycle, painful but necessary and normal, and beautiful both in process and result. If the permission to transform was a given, and we didn’t have to associate shame or a sense of failure with aging and adapting and responding to where we’ve been and where we’d like to go, fewer midlife crises would happen. We could simply embark on the next chrysalis stage in our lives.
The battle against expectations—self-imposed or otherwise—is equally pervasive at other points in our lives. I thought by now I’d find a job, be married, have kids, have a better job, be happier, etc., etc. I don’t strictly believe in the notion that coming of age happens once or twice in our lives. Circumstances—loss, death, divorce, illness, injuries, unexpectedly becoming a parent—all create a need to evolve, to imagine a new way of being in order to respond to how life has changed. Other developments in life are more decision-based (marriage, planning to be come a parent, seeking out a new job, etc.), and are prompted by a sense of readiness for the next phase. Despite this readiness, the transformation is still a process with its own challenges.
Power In Perspective
Like most of my posts, this presents simply another way of looking at experiences many of us have. I think there is tremendous power in perspective. Looking at a natural need to transform and regarding it as a positive process instead of a crisis provides opportunity instead of generating anxiety, shame, or despair. If we can prepare ourselves in time, if we can be open to what is happening, we can enter into these processes and transformations with an open heart. We can talk about it with the people in our lives, discuss hopes and fears and expectations, and through honest conversation, mitigate the negative repercussions for the people around us as we move from one state of being to the next. It is natural for some to turn inward and want to handle things privately but if you shut out the people around you, they might not recognize you when you emerge once again.
Enjoy your chrysalis. Love, Cath