A Time to Seek: Meaning, Purpose and Spirituality at Midlife by Susan Pohlman (Book Excerpt)

My midlife disequilibrium began unexpectedly. I started experiencing pseudo panic attacks when Katie left for college, a feeling that I couldn’t inhale deeply enough. The doctor assured me that it was nothing major—this was life. Katie was happy and thriving on her campus in California, but I missed her desperately. Even when we think we are ready to send our kids off to college, it’s hard to see an empty bedroom.

And I was jealous.

It took me a while to own that feeling. What kind of mother admits that part of the angst of dropping my daughter off at school was the sudden realization that I wanted to be her? I wanted to be starting again. I had forgotten about the raw sexual energy of a college campus, the excitement of higher learning, the intoxication of questioning. I wanted to be free to roam, free to learn. I wanted to be able to want. Of course, all of this wanting was ridiculous. I loved my family, and I didn’t really want to go anywhere, but my spirit began to rattle its cage.

I awoke one Wednesday and observed myself in the mirror as I applied my new special cream and affixed my new estrogen patch. Who was this restless woman standing here minus a uterus and sporting fake hormones? It scared me. I knew what came next—skin tags and hair loss. That panicky feeling returned, and I gulped for air. Why was I putting so much pressure on myself all of a sudden?

I had two more years until Matthew would leave for college. I loved having him home alone with us—giving us time to enjoy him front and center, but I was already fearful of the upcoming empty house. Already fearful of an empty me. My children were not just graduating from high school; they were graduating from us. You would think that I’d be an expert in navigating change since we had moved so many times, but this was different. I was always the same person during those moves, playing the same role. I was the mom doing “mom things.” I didn’t have recent experience in doing things that weren’t mom-ish. Who was I to become now that I had no children at home to blame my constraints and failures on? I honestly did not have the energy for redefinition. The whole idea was disturbing, so I handled those thoughts like I always did, by quashing them, throwing in a few loads of laundry, and heading to do some errands.

I spent many an evening with a bowl of denial in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. I filled my journal with essays about time. One night it would be a poetic discourse about how its passing was marked by sunlight, moonlight, and starlight. Then the next, an angry attack about how I resented its subtly imprinting itself on my body and etching its memory into my face. How it ruled the world and how it imprisoned it. How I loved it, and how I feared it. How it continued to march me, like a clingy, school phobic child, down corridors I was not ready to walk.

I began reading articles and books about midlife. There were dramatic stories of crisis, reinvention, and anger sometimes aimed at entire generations of societal philosophy. Tales of women who handled this transition by narrowing their scope to what they could control. Plant a garden! Feed the children in Burma! Others took off for the unknown and never came back, discarding husbands and careers willy-nilly.

A few of the readings were thought-provoking and poignant, and I especially appreciated revisiting basic research in human psychology that I hadn’t referred to since college. I refreshed my understanding of my id, ego, and superego, and contemplated Abraham Maslow’s take on self-actualization. I agreed with Erich Fromm’s needs for stimulation, unity, and effectiveness. I pored over Erik Erikson’s ideas on generativity and integrity and nodded in agreement as I reread Carl Rogers’s definition of what it means to be a fully functioning person.

Regardless of the psychological school of thought, it was apparent that most of these experts agreed that there was enough going on socially and emotionally that this life stage deserved its own designation. There was an underlying awareness that at this tender time we are searching for meaning, authenticity, and a redefining of our relationship with and contribution to the universe. We want reassurance that our life choices have been worth the ride, and, if not, that it’s not too late to change.

After all the reading, I reluctantly embraced the fact that I was in the midst of a profound and personal transition. Like all transitions, it would probably prove to be rocky. I was grieving on many levels. My autumn had begun, and I had not prepared for the change of season. I was a tall, spreading maple not ready to lose my leaves and, yet, I could sense an excitement at the hint of color that was seeping through my branches—scarlets and golds, and an orange that matched the sunrise.

Though I understood I was entering transition, it didn’t mean that I knew the answers to my questions, the greatest of which was why I was so antsy and agitated when my life had seemed perfectly fine just six months ago. Perhaps I was being silly and only riding the thrill of possibility, like a huge swell in the ocean that lifts your toes from the sand and delights you with a sense of freedom and weightlessness before delivering you back to the safety of two feet planted ashore.

Suppressed restlessness became a pebble in my shoe. I sensed an overpowering need to travel again. Travel was my salve. I understood, as a result of my time abroad, its regenerative nature. I needed to go somewhere far away and ponder myself through this transformation, into a deeper understanding of myself. But let’s face it—travel is expensive. This was not something you casually mention to your husband after a long day at work when a recession is starting. Honey, I’m having a hard time hearing the language of my heart. Have you noticed that I’m starting to lose my identity? Have you seen it anywhere? I think it might be in Europe.

Susan Pohlman is a freelance writer, editor, and writing instructor/coach. A frequent presenter at workshops and conferences, her essays have been published in a variety of print and online publications. She is the author of Halfway to Each Other: How a Year in Italy Brought our Family Home (Guideposts 2009). It was the winner of the Relationships category and a finalist in the Memoir category in the 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Her latest book is a Time to Seek: Meaning, Purpose and Spirituality at Midlife.



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  1. One Response to “A Time to Seek: Meaning, Purpose and Spirituality at Midlife by Susan Pohlman (Book Excerpt)”

  2. Great, great post! So well written an expressed. I can definitely relate and so appreciate your honest revelations. Kudos!

    By Ali Skylar on Nov 5, 2020

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