American Culture

What to do about the Mid-Wife Crisis?

Today one of my good friends will stand before a judge in the company of her husband and dissolve her marriage. It is in one respect a common act, though rarely uneventful: it happens thousands of times a day in courtrooms across the country. But more and more, it seems to be the initiative of women who have been wives and mothers for years – in this case, 26 years, a figure I can relate to, on the brink of observing my own 26th anniversary later this month.

My friend, like me, married young – at least by today’s standards. We are in our late forties. And our generation seems to be one in which women are making this decision in droves, turning the old stereotype of the male midlife crisis on its head, leaving behind hurt and often clueless husbands who are incredulous that this is happening to them.

It didn’t strike me till recently that eight of the ten divorces I’ve been aware of among my circle of friends and colleagues in the last five years have been initiated by women. In every case, these have been women with children who have been devoted to their families for years. None is wealthy, none is leaving on a caprice after which they reinvent themselves with cosmetic surgery and a convertible. And none is a pop-culture cougar, pursuing her own youth via a younger man in a new version of the classic life upheaval.

For all these women, divorce means that comfortable family homes in which they have lived for decades have to be sold, the material accoutrements of lives pruned and retooled to cram into an apartment with a daunting monthly rent. Many are struggling to bring old resumes into the 21st century digital job-seeker realm. Some have prepped in advance for this day, already lining up a couple of low-paying jobs – front office at their kids’ school, piano accompanist for the school choir – before taking the plunge.

Child custody is negotiated, usually jointly, and kids start shuttling back and forth between mom’s and dad’s new residences. And for the majority of these women who have not left their marriages for someone else, most will be facing singlehood as they approach or enter their fifties. There is the online dating realm to wade into some months later, with a steady stream of not-quite-right E-Harmony candidates to fit in dates with around the kids’ soccer games and prom dates and SAT tutoring sessions.

It’s not a very romantic picture.

Granted, while the situations I am pondering are anecdotal and each is distinct, I’ve done enough casual research since my surprising ‘discovery’ to identify a trend. It’s not just here in my Boulder, Colorado bubble that midlife women are the ones choosing to upend and move on.

Several years ago AARP magazine reported that the number of people ending marriages after 50 is increasing. Two-thirds of those divorces are requested by women. And, the article notes, while women do the walking, men don’t see it coming.

In 2008, Oprah.com ran an essay by Ellen Tien called “Confessions of a Semi-Happy Wife,” in which the author suggests her “Mid-Wife Crisis” is that of Everywoman stuck in a “thumpingly ordinary” marriage who yearns for freedom, novelty and alone time.

In “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” Sandra Tsing Loh wrote in The Atlantic last summer of ending her 20-year marriage, garnering criticism for universalizing what some saw as a selfish, petty move to jettison a good guy (and dad). Yet she seems to speak for many women who look ahead to a second half of life in which they no longer wish to settle for tedium and mediocrity, even if it means venturing into a vast, unknown sea tossed with some frightening gales.

I remember asking my grandmother, as part of a college oral-history project, how it was that she and my grandpa had managed to stay married for 47 years, and her best friend across the street for nearly 50, when each had at least one child who had divorced.

“I don’t suppose we thought we had a choice,” she replied, matter-of-factly.

That’s clearly not the case today.  So what is going on?

I have a theory.

I call it the gender-generation gap. Here’s what happens: you start with a woman who’s a Gen-Xer or at the tail-end of the Boomers, who came of age in a rather heady era in which she imbibed feminist visions of possibility trumpeted by her predecessors, women who had burned bras and pushed ceilings, lobbied for daycare and flextime, hashed out a new vocabulary in which ‘head of household’ and ‘housewife’ were swapped for visions of ‘co-equal’ partnership.

The young men they married in the 1980s, however, weren’t reading advice for career girls or ‘how to have it all’ in Glamour magazine, let alone Gloria Steinem in Ms. The greater numbers of girls who had joined them in college classes was an added bonus, not a social trend to scrutinize. And when they went home on weekends, typically they re-entered a nest in which their needs were cared for by a traditional mom who fed them, kept them in new clothes, did their laundry and probably made their beds.

What we are seeing some 20 or 30 years later, I think, is a glaring gap in gendered expectations of what marriage would – and should – be.  The men who are husbands in their 40s and 50s today — despite being a decade into the 21st century, despite feminism existing in the minds of their children as a history-book relic, despite taken-for-granted rhetoric of equality — are grappling with a world framed by legions of June Cleaver moms – or at least Carol Brady — yet shared with wives who thought they’d be Claire Huxtable.

And when these wives realized, rather quickly after the kids came along, that TV show images were just that, most seemed to resign, buckle down, and get on with the task of getting babies raised and keeping a family in order. All that partnership stuff they expected? Even the best-intentioned husbands seemed to be good at “helping,” for which they are commended by their wives’ more traditional female friends, suggesting they not be taken for granted. These husbands were, after all, a good step more progressive than Ward Cleaver.

But 25 years down the track, it doesn’t seem to be enough. One thing these divorcing women friends of mine have in common is years spent begging their husbands for help in improving things. To listen to them. To divide duties and manage details. To summon empathy. To support their goals and passions. To take them seriously.

In virtually every case I’ve observed, when a woman finally files for divorce she believes she has exhausted all other possibilities for a life of meaning and satisfaction. By this point, her desire to save her marriage is over. She’s already moved on, when her husband is at long last just waking up, slammed out of inertia by this utterly unexpected step – even when she’s raised or threatened it before.

“I want a divorce” falls on male ears as inscrutably as if she had been speaking Estonian or Swahili.

Tien, who like Loh has reaped plenty of criticism for seeming to advocate leaving perfectly good, well-intended husbands, has this to say:

As one girlfriend remarked, it’s the age of rage — a period of high irritation that lasts roughly one to two decades. As a colleague e-mailed me, it’s the simmering underbelly of resentment, the 600-pound mosquito in the room…

In the beginning, we felt obliged to join the race to have it all; being married was an integral part of the contest and heaven forbid we should be disqualified. Flash-forward to 10 years later, when we discover that we can get it all but whose harebrained scheme was this anyway? We can get jobs, get pregnant, get it done. We can try — with varying levels of success — to get sleep, get fit, get control, and get those important Me-moments where one keeps a journal with thought-provoking lists that go ‘I’m a woman first, a mother second, a laundress third.’ We get upset, we get over it. What we don’t always get is: Why.

Conventional wisdom decrees that marriage takes work, but it doesn’t take work, it is work. It’s a job — intermittently fulfilling and annoying, with not enough vacation days. Divorce is a job too (with even fewer vacation days). It’s a matter of weighing your options.

For more and more women, it seems the option of chucking the drudgery of ‘tried and true’ for untried potential is a risk worth taking. Life isn’t over for women at 40 or 50 anymore; as Tien remarks, “We are still visually tolerable if not downright irresistible when we’re 30 or 35 or 40. If you believe the fashion magazines — which I devoutly do — even 50- and 60-year-olds are…pretty hot tickets.”

What worries me, though, is what sort of social legacy will be left by this growing heap of crumbled marriages. There is the inevitable splitting up of holidays at multiple parents’ and stepparents’ and then grandparents’ homes (for some kids – as was my case – parents don’t stop at just one divorce). There is the financial fallout. For every divorce, you’ve got families trying to get by on half (or less) of the resources that were once there, and almost twice the energy and environmental impact generated by dividing those material essentials into two households.

One of two things has to happen, I think, for marriage to revitalize its future and become appealing to women again. Either a current generation of young people needs to get in synch with their respective expectations for gender roles in a marriage, or marriage needs to be rethought and redefined, as Loh provocatively contends, to permit more autonomy and less demand for fidelity, if we’re talking how to sustain a 60- or even 70-year commitment.

As a mother of a 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, I am comfortably situated in one of those ‘stable, utilitarian’ marriages.  I worry about what lies ahead for my kids as they consider such a commitment one day. While I’d like to think my son will be a different sort of husband – a genuine partner, a true equal in all things domestic and relational – he is nonetheless being influenced by parents who fit the generalities I’ve outlined above: an aspiring, frustrated mom and a decent, hard-working, well-intentioned dad who nonetheless strives against the apron strings of his own traditional upbringing.

It distresses me that young men today still have visions of that gratifying lifestyle in which they go off to a great job and come home to a doting wife who makes their domestic realm an oasis. Researcher Barbara Kerr, who studies gender differences in gifted students, observed in a 2000 speech called Gender and Genius that most young people, even those with superior intelligence and higher goals, succumb to society’s conventional image of what constitutes achievement.

Kerr cites responses to a study she did on gifted students’ “perfect future day” fantasies, a favorite vision of what they might be doing in 10 years. I will quote her at length because the results are telling, and disconcerting:

A typical college male’s fantasy goes something like this: I wake up and get in my car — a really nice rebuilt ’67 Mustang– and then I go to work, I think I’m some kind of a manager of a computer firm, and then I go home and when I get there, my wife is there at the door (she has a really nice figure) she has a drink for me, and she’s made a great meal. We watch TV or maybe play with the kids.’ Here is the typical college female’s fantasy: ‘I wake up and my husband and I get in our twin Jettas and I go to the law firm where I work, then after work, I go home and he’s pulling up in the driveway at the same time. We go in and have a glass of wine and we make an omelet together and eat by candlelight. Then the nanny brings the children in and we play with them till bedtime.’ What’s wrong with this picture?

Women dream of dual career bliss, while men still seem to nourish the hope that they might find a woman who wants to stay home and take care of them and the children. Despite extraordinary changes in the career expectations of women, many college men have yet to acknowledge the changes in gender roles that women’s expectations imply.

Kerr adds that “it is likely that even more men who publicly endorse equity in relationships secretly wish for a more traditional lifestyle. On the other hand, college women have as their goals romantic yet egalitarian relationships for which they have no roadmaps.” Just as their mothers did, who are now driving into a new wild blue yonder with no GPS.

How do we, as a culture, create these new roadmaps?  How do I teach my teenage son what it looks like to be a partner with women — and more importantly, to want to be?

Loh suggests we need to contemplate entirely new avenues, some that may verge into French (and other) territory in which the ideal of lifelong fidelity is put out to pasture to accommodate the vicissitudes of long relationships and the realities of day-to-day life that simply cannot sustain the romantic — and utterly unrealistic — demands we place on it.

One thing seems certain amidst all this uncertainty: now that women have a choice, marriage is going to have start adapting if it is going to survive.

12 replies »

  1. As long as both partners are aware and agree… I know polyamorous marriages with much more complicated rules, and they seem to do okay.

  2. I find it strange that men still fantasize about the life of Ward Cleaver, or maybe it’s just because my fantasy is to be a house husband. It might not help that i’m the oldest son of a hardcore, Boomer feminist. But really, that sounds like it would suck. It’s hoping for another person’s life to revolve around you and yours, which would make her dependent on you…and eventually resent you.

    I run the marriage minefield on a regular basis. Robin wants it and i’m philosophically opposed to marriage as an institution. Never been baptized, so i don’t need a church to sanctify a marriage. And i’m not interested in having the State do any sanctification for me either.

    But i might have stumbled upon a hilarious way out. Rather than marriage, we’re thinking about entering into a Limited Liability Partnership. We’ll have an officer from the bank preside over the ceremony and may (i hope) be able to claim all the benefits of corporate personhood.

    Great piece, Wendy…and i didn’t even wet myself.

  3. Not really interested in the polyamory route–keeping one relationship healthy and happy is enough work. I don’t need any more complications.

    But I can relate to the differing expectations. My husband is frequently gone 3-5 nights a week (150+ nights last year). Sure, I miss him, but I can work at night without feeling guilty, start writing again, etc. I’m reasonably handy, so there is not much I can’t handle in a pinch around the house (except some of the electrical–I had a ballast blow on an old fluorescent fixture a couple of weeks ago and I waited until he came home to replace it–yes, we saw each other 36 hours in the previous 3 weeks before this past weekend).

    Sometimes I wish I had a break from the house, but I’m learning to ask for help (I’m finally buying into the “men are NOT mind readers” school of thought.)

    I don’t know a lot of stay-at-home moms, but the ones I do have sometimes fought depression with anti-depressants or self-medication. I was never able to have kids, but I’ve been in that place where the only way to stay in the relationship seems like Prozac. And when that’s all there is left–a medicated existence to preserve the vows–it doesn’t seem like much of a life.

    I’ll take my odd sort of modern marriage over that, anyday.

  4. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece, Wendy. Going through a divorce myself at the moment (one I initiated, not my wife), I can relate to much of this.

  5. “One thing these divorcing women friends of mine have in common is years spent begging their husbands for help in improving things. To listen to them. To divide duties and manage details. To summon empathy. To support their goals and passions. To take them seriously.” – Very nicely written. My mom divorced my dad recently out of a very similar situation, and I am so thankful for her that she did not take the action when I was a baby girl. It was a pain – even for me, but she does deserve a chance to set herself up for something new by breaking the old.

  6. I’m sorry to hear that, Chris, as divorce is always tough — no matter who initiates it, and even if it is for the best — but I hope you come out strong and happier on the back side.

  7. One of these comments reminds me so much of myself eight or nine years ago.

    I was married and had no children; my much younger friend and colleague had two small boys with her husband, who was behaving at the time like a raging Gen-X sexist asshole, with issues (yeah, okay, we all have issues, but he really was being a jerk). I was privy to much of their situation, was sympathetic to her, tried very hard not to offer her advice, but she knew what I thought. Could it truly be best for the children to grow up with unhappy parents? Did she want her sons to treat women the way their father did? And I’m very much afraid that she could feel my eventual contempt for him and her both… Finally she said those classic words: “Until you have children with someone, you can’t understand.”

    Right, I thought. Pop out a baby and lose every principle. Classic excuse. Weak.

    Then I had a child. And guess what? Until you have a child with someone, especially if that someone loves that child, you really can’t understand. Sorry. There’s simply no analogous experience.

    Do I still think my friend should have left her husband? Probably. Better than what actually did happen, in my opinion, but more than anything else I know now that my opinion about someone else’s relationship is meaningless. Presumptuous. And by necessity, ill-informed.

  8. Very interesting piece. While the rise in divorces for women over 50 is interesting, it cannot be entirely surprising.

    I am 39, divorced and the mother of a teenage son. My ex-husband and I married young and really had problems making our visions of marriage into a reality. Both of us came from rather traditional families and there was too much interference from their worldview as we tried to carve out our shared reality. Unfortunately, we were not strong enough to weather family disapproval combined with harsh economic conditions and divorced after 10 years of marriage.

    Now, almost a full decade after the divorce we are strong parents to our son, supportive of each other and the closest friends. We still love each other and our son is being raised with the notion that a relationship means open communication, equal partnership in domestic tasks and the support for the dreams and aspirations of both. Sometimes dad gets his dream, sometimes mom gets hers, but if dad gets a good meal cooked for him when he gets home, he is doing the dishes while mom enjoys a little me-time.

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