advice

Ask Polly: I’m Having a Midlife Crisis!

Photo: Panoramic Images/Getty Images

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Dear Polly,

One benefit of age is that you have so many chances to view repetitions of the same painful situations that eventually you realize how you yourself are causing them. I’m 45, and I was raised by two WWII vets who did their best but weren’t exactly enlightened. They both hated themselves profoundly, probably hang-overs from their experiences and their WWI parents. They found a way to piece their uniquely broken bits into something that worked for them in marriage, and they managed to raise two kids who to the outside world looked perfect — pretty, smart, fit, and tough. They put us in the best schools, and they also taught us some useful coping mechanisms. One that was particularly effective with me was the art of the codependent girlfriend/wife. I staggered along for years with different kinds of substance abusers and narcissists, each time peeling back more layers until I finally started seeing how the problems were linked to my behavior.

Recently I’ve found myself in a work situation that feels as bad as being with an abusive cokehead. It’s similar to the codependent thing — I’m mired in shame, so I smear it on thicker to make myself a zero. When I get overloaded with work, I don’t organize it well so I can get a grasp on how much I can reasonably do and set boundaries where I can be honest with myself and co-workers, and then I don’t call it out soon enough when I’m getting swept under. It’s like I think I should be able to handle it, and fuck me if I can’t, I deserve to suffer. Maybe a lot of people have this problem.  My boss is a bully and a terrible manager, but it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that I’m being called out on low performance like this again. And today he fired me.

I can’t believe I am so low that I self-sabotage myself out of a job that I used to like. The solution is obvious: Stop shaming yourself, start treating yourself with respect. But I feel I’m in too deep for that. I just feel ashamed of my shame and ashamed of my shame of my shame … it doesn’t seem to end. I feel sometimes like I’m at the bottom of a well, looking out at a little circle of light that is my life. It’s sad because there are some really amazing people who care about me, but it’s so hard for me to take in their support. They tell me what a bright star I am, how fun, caring, strong, and independent I am, and I’m like, Oh, thanks. I’ve got such a small fan club on the inside that I can’t really take the outside fans seriously. I feel like there’s just one fan inside me, lost in a crowd of 100 shit-assed critical voices. And they make fun of her too. Occasionally I look in the mirror and I get a glimpse of her and smile (and, amazingly, she smiles back!), but it’s like I’m stealing time with her until the assholes return.

Fifteen years ago I did launch myself out there and leave a comfortable home, circle of friends, the country I was born in, and a steady job as an engineer to pursue a dream of having my own fashion company. I wanted to help women feel good in their bodies. I wanted to do fashion in a different way — both by giving women a body-positive message, and by creating an environmentally friendly, family-friendly work environment and production chain. I made a plan to go back to school to learn the trade, then work for a few years for mainstream fashion companies to see what I was up against, what I didn’t want to do. Within a year I made it happen, and in the middle of serious momentum on ALL fronts, I had a kid (another, equally important, dream). I became a single mother shortly thereafter, and when my son was 22 months old I started my career in mainstream fashion. I’ve been climbing around the ranks of these companies for nine years now, and they have been like my “husband” — providing a patriarchal umbrella to shelter me and allow me some kind of financial stability for my kid. So here I am now — the single working hot-mess mother, living in a foreign country, and still scheming about how to make that company I always wanted. Single mothers really do have to do twice what our partnered-mother friends do; that’s just reality. I try to remind myself of this and give myself credit for the things I do accomplish, but still, the expectations and the feelings of inadequacy are always there, ready to tell me that I haven’t done enough.

Being 45 means having high highs and low lows. It means that you know that there’s a giddy rush of joy when you launch on a path after your dreams, but if you’re still stuck in shame, you will do a shitload of work and still never get to really be yourself. And it means that there is nothing scarier than imagining yourself on the street, with no steady job, when you’ve got a kid who relies on you alone. You write often about the courage in saying: I’m broken, I’m fragile, I surrender. Well, I’m there. I am starting to see that I am no longer swimming upstream; I’m now just becoming one with the sewage. I think what I want to know is where to go from here. It’s one thing to realize how low you are, but another to climb out from it.

Polluted Waters

Dear Polluted Waters,

Congratulations on losing your job! And today is my birthday! It feels like we were meant to celebrate this day together in some outdoor café in whatever country you’re living in — I’m picturing Italy — eating good bread and olives and cured meats and sipping a nice Barolo. You’re 45, I’m 46. Here’s a toast to no more narcissists, here’s a toast to kids who have their own crazy independent minds and no longer need their asses wiped, here’s a toast to emancipation, here’s a toast to being deeply, profoundly uncool but still dressing like you’re a million times cooler than you actually are.

It feels strange to even type those words about dressing well, because I try to embrace being messy and totally out of style. But these days, I’m experimenting with doing things I never let myself do before, and trying things I always said were fucking stupid. It turns out that sometimes you hate things only because you secretly love them. Sometimes the very things you loathe are the things you crave the most.

Likewise, I’m going to guess that, given your background, you went for substance abusers and narcissists because they did things you would never allow yourself to do: They talked endlessly about themselves. They were spoiled and flighty and wild and petulant. You wouldn’t let yourself be that way, but at the exact moment that you were going to give in to your own desires by pursuing your creative dreams, you had a baby. Now you had to be good and sensible again. Now you had to recede into the background. It was the “right” thing to do.

I like working hard, and I can tell that you do too. One of the benefits of growing up with self-hating WWII vets is that they teach you how to be tough and capable. My parents were like that too. They were all about toughness. If I was nothing else under the sun, I would be resilient and capable. I have this romantic notion that if I lost everything, I’d still find some way to make it work: buy a run-down shack and fix it up real nice. Build a mud hut and grow potatoes in the mud.

I mean, look, here I am, working on my birthday! I’m hoping to meet three deadlines today! Big deadlines, too, that involve 500-page books and sweeping notions about How Humanity Is Living Today!

To be fair, though, I love to write so goddamned much. I am sitting in my favorite café and sipping on a gigantic frozen-coffee thing with way too many shots of espresso in it and I know I’m going to write some good shit today. Right now I’m where I want to be. And actually, I wasn’t truly happy as a writer until I recognized how much I love to write. Recognizing that made me more satisfied and more ambitious — ambitious not for the sake of Becoming Someone (SOUND THE TRUMPETS!) but for the sake of savoring that feeling of writing interesting words, every day. I was so used to crouching in my mud hut, or bending over my potato plants, rushing to get shit done. Before, I worked in order to be done with my work. I wanted to make it to the finish line as fast as possible.

But the finish line is DEATH, dude. That’s why you have to savor your work and you have to sip your goddamned Pinot Grigio, too. That’s why you have to be as capable as a peasant but you have to relish every minute you’re alive like a fucking yogi or a lady who wanders from one day spa to another every day or like a woman who’ll sit in a café and drink a Barolo with a new friend just because it seems like something you both deserve. I have very rich friends who rush around town freaking out about their latest remodel like they’re in the middle of a war-torn country, and I have very poor friends who read good books and use the same tea bag over and over and luxuriate in walking their dogs through the park like they’re living in some sprawling manor in the English countryside. Reality is formed inside your head, inside your heart, inside your soul. You are the artist who creates your experience.

I have a friend who treats writing like she’s being chained in a dungeon and tortured by some sadistic captor. Her life is like a gory scene from Game of Thrones that never ends. I treat writing like it’s the most luxurious, satisfying thing I could ever do, like it’s a vacation in the south of France, like it’s a tour through the wilds of New Zealand. And if I were in the wilds of New Zealand, the actual river rafting or horseback riding there might feel like a scene from Game of Thrones to me, one where the fast zombies are coming and there’s no big oaf to block the door. I would want to be writing instead. When I write, I am the motherfucking Mother of Dragons, with flowing white hair and a placid look on her face right after throwing an impromptu Dothraki douche-bro barbecue.

That’s the connection you want to your work, to your life. If you have that when you’re building your own fashion company, then THAT is what you should be doing. You have to savor what you do. That’s all. You have to make sacrifices and adjust your head and your heart until you achieve that. That is everything. It’s worth a lot of sacrifice if you can make that happen.

I am demanding your indulgence this week, talking about myself too much. It’s my birthday, bitches, and you will indulge me. I am showing you how to indulge, Polluted Waters, because this is what you need to relearn at such a bone-deep level that you never lose it again. You don’t have to be the good one, the capable one in the background, or risk being too big, too vain, too spoiled and flighty and wild and petulant. Your kid is old enough now to need a role model in wild petulance. He’s had his generous, solid role model, and now he needs his Mother of Dragons. He needs to see you emerge from this burning building with a calm smile on your face and announce to the world, “The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands.”

But you also need someone to remind you of how far you’ve come, the way Jorah does for the Mother of Dragons, the way Ilana does for Abbi on Broad City, the way my husband does for me. It’s absolutely true that single mothers do twice the work, but that’s not what would break me about being a single mother. What would break me is not having another voice there to remind me that everything is going to be okay when it feels like the wheels are coming off. So you have to enlist a few trusted friends and feed them their lines when they can’t remember them. You have to be explicit. They have to look you in the eyes and say, “I see how hard you work. I know how much you’ve accomplished so far, just living here, just doing what you do, just raising your boy in this wild place, so far away from home.” Ask them to say it with feeling, while you sit there feeling it. And you will practice looking them right in the eyes as they say it. You will practice saying “Thank you” and feeling that gratitude in your heart.

You also have to say it to yourself. You will wake up in the morning and you will say in the mirror, “I see how hard you work. I know how far you’ve come. You can feel proud of yourself, and enjoy this day, because you are strong and brave and generous.”

I know that saying these things out loud will feel a little dorky. Dorkiness is emancipation. You can have your flowing white hair and your dragons and you can be imperfect, too. That’s what no one tells you. We’re all supposed to be shiny and perfect on the inside and out. Fuck no, my friends! Be soft and sloppy on the inside. Be sloppy on the outside, too, if you want to, or do what I’m doing lately and shellac the mother-fucking shit out of yourself, because it’s fun and you’re hot and Goddamn it, how many more years are you going to walk around making yourself smaller and smaller and smaller, all for the sake of the threatened, wobbly egos around you?

You have made yourself smaller and smaller because secretly, you know how big you are. You hide from everyone because you know that if you actually dared to get on top of that fucking dragon, you might just scare an enormous, unwieldy tribe of Dothraki enough that they’ll bow down in the dirt, on their knees, or shake their fists at the sky to praise you.

But don’t ride that dragon just because you want to see your enemies on their knees. Maybe that’ll be a tiny, you know, pleasant side effect of the whole thing. But don’t make that your motivation. Do it because IT JUST FEELS RIGHT. You were born to ride dragons, that’s all. You were born to be wild and fierce and haughty. You can be fragile and be haughty, too. You can be humble and be arrogant. You can grow potatoes and raise your son and also sip a pricey wine with your new bossy, high-maintenance friend. You can live in your mud hut and fly your dragon into the sun.

And while you love and take care of and provide for your son, who will love you and take care of you and give you everything you need? You will. You are not becoming one with the sewage. You are not swimming upstream. You are living your fucking life with courage and dignity, you are following your dreams, and now you’re going to really feel that for the first time. Today is your day to set those critical asshole voices on fire along with the Dothraki douche bros. Today is your day to savor every feeling you have, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Feeling your feelings means savoring every second you have left. Today, you are going to dare to be as big as you know you are in your heart. You’re going to feel yourself growing ten feet tall. You are going to feel gorgeous for the first time in decades. You are going to walk with the grace of an aristocrat and the heart of a peasant. You are going to dance in your living room and throw your head back and laugh out loud, and love will fill every empty space. You are going to say no a lot, and also: HELL YES.

Sometimes you hate yourself only because you secretly love yourself a lot and you don’t want to dare to give yourself what you truly desire. But the more you give to yourself, the more you give to everyone around you and lift up your friends and your family and complete strangers, too. So. Be broken and sublime. Be ALL the things. Here’s a toast to many more days ahead to climb on to the backs of dragons, to be big and gorgeous and scary, to feel what we feel, to savor exactly who were are, without shame, without hiding, without hesitation.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: I’m Having a Midlife Crisis!