A colleague of mine and I were reflecting recently on our respective middle-aged women clients who are grappling simultaneously with perimenopause, empty-nesting impacts on their intimate partnered relationships, job issues and the looming shadows of the second halves of their lives. Laurie commented that she was noticing women clients using this stage of their lives as a period of discernment. I figured I understood what she meant from the context of the discussion, but at the same time, “discenment” is more than just simple decision-making, so, being the Word Nerd that I am, it behooved me to both look at the word itself, and reconsider what I thought I was understanding about its deployment in the context of the discussion.
Turns out, there’s a lot more nuance to the word than my internal working definition of “a more in-depth analytical process underlying decision making”.
Discern, the verb:
1a: to detect with the eyes
b: to detect with senses other than vision
2: to recognize or identify as separate and distinct
3: to come to know or recognize mentally
Discernment, the noun:
1: the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
2: an act of perceiving or discerning something
Google definition of dis·cern·ment
1. the ability to judge well. “an astonishing lack of discernment”
2. (in Christian contexts) perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding. “without providing for a time of healing and discernment, there will be no hope of living through this present moment without a shattering of our common life”
There are several aspects of these definitions that fascinate me in the context of applying the word to a midlife assessment process, especially such as I witness in women around me:
- recognizing or identifying as separate and distinct
- developing an ability to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
- developing non-judgmental perspective with a view to obtaining direction and understanding (spiritual or otherwise)
The classic midlife crisis, as previously discussed, is most commonly seen as a catastrophic adjustment in relational and personal understanding. It’s a time when big changes occur, sometimes as knee-jerk reactions, and sometimes as calculated preaption responses. A friend of mine in a local service organization, told me recently that the single largest group of new members most service clubs take in annually are men in their 40s-50s. Service clubs report this being a confluence of factors, many of them tied to traditional masculine definition through actions, things men *DO*:
- kids are older and more self-sufficient, or leaving/left home
- more disposable time
- more expendable income
- a need to have “extracurricular activities” that look good padding out resumes for “C-Suite”-level executive or Board of Directors positions
- a need to have something in place that will provide direction in terms of social and activity purposes after retirement (especially for candidates for early retirement)
Women, while they will also seek service club memberships for many of the same reasons at similar life stages, apparently don’t pursue these clubs in anything like the same numbers as men. The women to whom I’m exposed (personally and professionally) seem to see middle age as an opportunity or provocation for increasing self-reflection. It’s like we come of age and use our midlife point as the trigger to redefine what we know about who we are, why we are, what our lives mean to us as our bodies change out from under us in uncomfortable, unpleasant ways. Shifting from our “fertile years” into menopause means confronting a shift in our definition from Mother to… Crone, at a time when many of us still perceive ourselves as far from Old.
There has been a cultural shift as the Baby Boomers have aged into retirement that everything that happens from midlife on isn’t necessarily the death knell it once seemed to be. Retiring even at 65 means a significant stretch of life ahead of us, and 55 even more. Retiring men fret about what to do with their days, and as their boredom begins to blossom, they are frequently underfoot on the home front, or trying to assert some presence/input/control in the home sphere… and the women who have traditionally been the homesphere managers and controllers are increasingly finding they’ve Just Had Enough. These women are more commonly saying, “I just got done taking care of my kids, I’m damned well not going to take care of HIM now, too!”, but the process of watching their partners move from purposeful to less-purposeful lives is raising a lot of questions for themselves, too.
As I cooked dinner the other night, I thought about the women I had been talking to. They’re just entering, slogging through or just leaving their 40s. They belong to Generation X, born roughly during the baby bust, from 1965 to 1984, the Title IX babies who were the first women in their families to go to college. Or go away to college. Or to live on their own, launch a career, marry in their late 20s (or never) or choose to stay home with their children. They’re a Latina executive in California, a white stay-at-home mom in Virginia who grows her own organic vegetables, an African-American writer in Texas, an Indian-American corporate vice president who grew up in the suburbs of New York, and dozens more. They’re smart. They’re grateful for what they have. They’re also exhausted. Some of them are terrified. A few of them are wondering what the point is.
I called my best friend, a reporter a few years older than me who grew up in the Midwest. She has three children and lives on a quiet, leafy street in Washington, D.C., with her boyfriend. They recently adopted a dog.
“Hey,” I said, happy to have caught her on a break from her job, “do you know anyone having a midlife crisis I could talk to?”
The phone was silent for a second.
Finally, she said, “I’m trying to think of any woman I know who’s not.”
— Ada Calhoun, “The New Midlife Crisis: Why (and How) It’s Hitting Gen X Women”
Somewhere between the perimenopausal PHYSICAL transition and the retirement SOCIAL transitions, women are increasingly grappling with the destabilization, undermining, chaotic shifts in their identities. Middle-aged women suddenly find themselves social “invisible” in an extremely ageist culture. Menopause robs us of our identity as fertile creatures, menstruation being the one thing that sets us so far apart from men as to create unsurpassable gulfs in cross-gender comprehension; even those of us who never had or wanted children feels the shift as a curse we’ve been contending with since we were 12 or 13 first becomes wildly unpredictable, then disappears altogether. Most of us rejoice that absence, but the meaning, the impact of a self-descriptive, narrative level, is a different issue entirely. But it’s happening to women at a time when, on some societal levels, we’re just “coming into our own power” in our careers, at least in industries that allow equal advancement for all genders. Many of my friends experiencing perimenopause as they move up corporate ladders or across fields into other companies (or, in my case, across to another complete field) spin terrible, or terribly funny, tales of hot flashes and sweats or bouts of incontinence in meetings and interviews, or the disruptions of their personal AND professional relationships from hormonally-driven mood swings. We may be delighted to get past the symptomology, but things can often be as complicated afterwards when we’re left alone with the questions, “Well then… who *AM* I now?”
The discernment phase, then, is sparked by a multitude of shifts in a woman’s life. Men ask, “What do I *DO*?”; women ask, “What do I *MEAN*?” (…which is not to say they won’t also get to a point of also asking, “What do I do?”, but it’s not the typical starting point in a discernment process, rather more the outcome state as a result of the reflection).
Coming back to the three points that interested me, midlife individuation and differentiation mean a new opportunity for women to reconsider who they are inside or outside the family or group structures of their lives. They may find themselves examining their roles or functions within the relational partnership now that childcare is not the relationship’s primary focus. They may discover a lack of direction in their professional lives once their internal sense of meaning and purpose, especially if they are encountering any kind of glass ceiling effect in their chosen industry. What does it mean to be a “good employee” if any advancement path is limited by the very fact of their gender? What does it mean to be a woman in a world where these invisible boundaries and implicit expectations (from employers, colleagues, clients, families, and intimate partners alike) dictate what we’re PERMITTED to be? And what does it mean to be a woman “of a certain age” trying to function in a professional context when society in general is trying to render us invisible?
The discernment phase is one in which we as therapists see a lot of women “waking up” to a predicament of emptiness. The need to fill that emptiness is often what drives us into relationship in the first place, but over time, the relationship itself can become dissatisfying, disillusioned, disconnected. One of the questions either partner will often pose at this stage is, “Is it worth the work to effect repair and reconnection?” Men in therapy will often lament not understanding what it is their disconnected partner wants them to do; if they only know what to *DO*, they could do it, and everything will be all right. Women, however… it’s not about the doing, it’s about the hearing. Being effectively validated by a partner *MEANS* something significant to them; it tells them something about both their own value to the partner, and about the partner’s willingness to show that value, in ways that are substantially different than “If you tell me to just help out around the house more, that will make everything better, right?”
Ask a person in this stage of life, what is meaningful to them, and it might be an interesting experience to observe their reactions as they try to figure out what YOU mean, then try to figure out their answer. Ask a woman in the discernment phase, what is meaningful to her, and odds are good you may be the first person to have ever invited her to consider such esotericism. “My marriage, my kids.” Maybe, “My work.” Okay, so if we take away the ROLES of “Mom, Wife, Employee”, what’s left? Who is the person at the core of those roles, and what is meaningful to her? Marriages change into parallel lives rather than twined intimacy, kids grow up and (hopefully) move out, jobs may be less than satisfying. What, then, is left as our meaning in all of the space leftover?
Michael White‘s narrative therapy includes a process called a “definitional ceremony” that becomes useful, if not downright significant, to the community of women waking themselves up into this lengthy space and time of their lives, wondering what it’s all supposed to mean:
“These ceremonies are rituals that acknowledge and ‘regrade’ people’s lives in contrast to many rituals in contemporary culture that judge and degrade people’s lives. In many of these degrading rituals, people’s lives are measured against socially constructed norms, and they are judged to be inadequate, incompetent, disordered, and often a failure in terms of their identities. Definitional ceremonies provide people with the option of telling or performing the stories of their lives before an audience of carefully chosen outsider witnesses. […] It is not the place of outsider witnesses to form opinions, give advice, make declarations, or introduce moral stories or homilies. Rather, outsider witnesses engage one another in conversations about the expressions of the telling they were drawn to, about the images these expressions evoked, about the personal experiences that resonated with these expressions, and about their sense of how their lives have been touched by the expressions.
In these outsider witness retellings, what people give value to in their acts of living is re-presented in ways that are powerfully resonant and highly acknowledging. Additionally, it is through these retellings that people experience their lives as joined around shared and precious themes in ways that significantly thicken the counterplots of their existence.” — Michael White, Maps of Narrative Practice
White is addressing a particular psychotherapeutic practice, but this use of the outsider witnesses also speaks very strongly to the phenomenon many women in this discernment phase pursue in the course of developing their own “tribe” or social connections. Midlife transitions provide their own definitional rituals, even if most of them seem, from a broader cultural perspective, informal, unconscious, or covert. Often starting from looking for socio-emotional connection and forms of support not accessible through family or employment connections, this deliberate tribal development is a part of how women moving through conscious discernment begin to reshape their environment. These outsider witnesses become sounding boards, reflective surfaces and sanity checks. These tribes speak to helping develop that third point, the non-judgmental perspective; women moving into discernment don’t always have answers for self-defining questions, so their tribes become the safe spaces in which they work out their clarified values and direction. Sometimes the outsider witnesses include professional therapeutic support as well, and those in the discernment stage look to uncover what has possibly been obscured in their lives by “putting pieces together” from such diverse resources in new ways. In the office I visualize this as spilling a bag of children’s letter blocks onto a table, and moving the pieces around until we spell something that resonates with the client. Women in discernment stages are likewise seeking something, some kind of meaning or purpose that that resonates.
Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of the Applied Positive Psychology movement, suggests that meaning is a fundamental element of well-being, and that it is not strictly subjective in its value (Seligman, 2011). Likewise, he also suggests that “positive relationships” are also a critical component of well-being, so it becomes very unsurprising that when women — anyone, really — feel they are in an unsatisfying or unsupportive relationship, they seek to establish both positive relationships and meaning (subjective or objective) as a way of resetting themselves for the next stages of their lives. It’s no coincidence that the highest-growing age group experiencing divorce, then, is the 50+ age group.
Women in this discernment process are uncovering themselves: values and needs and dreams that have quite possibly been buried by relational expectations for their entire lives (family of origin, their own family units, social/cultural expectations and messaging, etc.). Chogyam Trungpa writes often about “awakening the sanity we are born with“, describing how we strip away these layers of messages and imposed values to uncover our authentic selves. Women have, in many ways, been doing this work in a less-well-documented way for generations; sometimes we’re privileged enough to be able to break free entirely from the obscuring structures imposed on us; sometimes we find effective ways of achieving discernment, redefinition, and renewed headings in personal development, within the context of our existing valued relationships. Sometimes we’re not free to make that scope of change, but we can think about who and how we are within those relationships in new ways, and perhaps shift how we chose to relate and operate inside those potentially-inescapable contexts. In doing so, potentially for the first times in conscious memory they are invited to see themselves as distinct entities from the systems in which they are members (implicitly or explicitly). And in seeing themselves as something both part-of-yet-distinct-from, there is also an invitation to consider HOW we operate within those systems: what is meaningful to each of US?
With women living longer, there is a lot more to life from “middle age” onward than historically women have been granted. It would be nice if we had better tools to prepare ourselves to enjoy that “second half” in spite of the physical and relational changes that normal life process force on us, but historically, we’re not well-armed. Discernment therefore remains a largely individualized, somewhat-haphazard phase without clear processes and direction. But more and more women in middle age, both peri- and post-menopause, are beginning conversations that render us less invisible to *each other*, at least. And in doing so, in finding more of these communities and relationships with other women in the same boat, we find meaning in the shared experiences, those aspects of our stories that resonate.
We are not alone. And that’s the biggest joy in this entire transitional phase. We are NOT alone.