Mom’s Midlife Crisis

Anxiety among middle-aged women is on the rise.

Michelle blames the whole thing on Instagram. It was Thanksgiving 2013, and her son was home from Boston University. He’d had a successful start to his freshman year, fully embracing college life while remembering to text and call his parents regularly. Then 48, Michelle felt up-to-date on her son’s life. But there was something missing. Her son wasn’t posting many photos on Facebook, and she missed seeing pictures of him with his friends. “My son said, ‘Facebook is over, Mom. Everyone’s on Instagram.’ He pulled out his phone and showed me,” she says.

Photo after photo scrolled by, filled with faces Michelle didn’t recognize. There, on Instagram, was her son’s new life, and Michelle didn’t know anything about it. “I just suddenly felt disconnected from my son,” she says. “And it scared me.”

What else didn’t she know about her son’s life? Who were these new friends? Was he drinking too much or maybe studying too little? Over the next few weeks, Michelle worried about what her son ate, whether he had clean laundry, the dust mites in his dorm room, even if anyone around him had symptoms of meningitis. She called and texted him constantly with questions. On the day of Boston’s first snowstorm, Michelle watched the Weather Channel until 3 a.m., her hands shaking as she texted her son.

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On some mornings, she’d stay in bed for hours praying for him … and texting him. This went on until Michelle came home one March afternoon to find her husband and two sisters sitting at the kitchen table of their Gladwyne home. “My son ratted me out,” says Michelle. “It was a mini-intervention. Until then, my concern seemed logical.”

It wasn’t just concern—it was anxiety, something Patricia Kelly sees in many women Michelle’s age. “The issues are different when you hit the midline of your life,” says Kelly, a psychologist who has practiced in Glen Mills for more than 30 years. “The kids are pretty much sorted out, finishing high school or entering college and needing their mother less. The women I see who have the most difficulty haven’t re-entered the workforce—or are just doing so.”

The need to be needed can create boundary-less existences for parents, especially those of financial means.” Psychologist Patricia Kelly

Michelle thought a part-time job in her husband’s law firm would keep her busy. But she was struggling with the computers and the office voicemail. “Going back into the workforce can require a re-ordering of who you are and how you look at yourself,” Kelly says. “You may be competent at home, but in the work world, you have to start in a new place, often having an entry-level job. It’s humbling.”

Feeling out of control at work, Michelle doubled down on motherhood. While her concerns about her son began with a nugget of truth, her brain exaggerated them. “Anxiety is about your body’s response to threats and changes,” says Anna Balfour, a therapist in Wayne. “The body responds as if faced with a lion or tiger: hide, fight or freeze. We need that response in cases of a real emergency. But in non-emergencies, it’s not helpful.”

A specialist in Schema therapy, Balfour says many women experience anxiety when their kids go to college. It’s typically not the same for men. “The husband still has his career and continues to be the financial provider,” says Balfour. “What does the woman do? Where is her sense of purpose? It’s like Star Trek, when the Enterprise goes into hyperspace and everyone holds on as things get bumpy, and you hope you end up in a good place.” 

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Did Michelle really want to be working at her husband’s firm? “Women in that age group are dealing with very real transitions,” says Balfour. “It’s a change of role that can trigger a real crisis of identity.”

Michelle’s top priority was to mend the relationship with her son. To do that, she had to rethink their dynamic. Did she need to be needed? Or did she want to nurture her son’s independence? “The need to be needed can create boundary-less existences for parents, especially those of financial means,” Kelly warns. “Young people today have protracted adolescences. But parents need to empower their kids to get the education they want and then find careers so they can move forward with their lives.”

Michelle moved forward with her life. She left her job, did some intensive therapy, and decided to volunteer with her church, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and as a tutor to ESL adults. Her life is now full and enjoyable. Her marriage is better, and so is her take on motherhood. As her son starts his senior year of college, she’s excited about his future—not afraid of it.

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