The tasks of midlife are many and often underestimated. We’re confronted by the gaps and shortfall of our youthful dreams compared to the life we’ve actually got. Our deeper self calls us to a soulful journey of recalibration, what is often referred to as a “midlife crisis”. This can be immensely painful, but also richly rewarding if we choose to explore the path down through the layers of our carefully (and often unconsciously) constructed ideals and fantasies. There’s real grief to be felt, and a sorting through of our beliefs of what is really authentically me and what is actually someone else’s idea of who I should be eg. what the family or the culture believes we should be or have achieved by now.
The hard part is that these are invisible losses to those around us. There’s often no clear happening in our lives for others to see lending validity to our grief. But we do grieve, and our self-belief takes a battering. Deconstructing the ideal image of ourselves can be confusing and disorienting, causing anxiety, irritation, anger, melancholy, depression, loss of energy etc. It can undermine or disturb our relationships, and our capacity to do our work. How much is very individual, but for some people this is profoundly so.
Coming to terms with infertility was my first encounter with this. It’s a journey that’s had profound impact on my sense of self, and that has many layers and twists and turns of grief embedded within it.
I never expected my body would fail me in something so fundamentally natural as becoming pregnant. It’s been hard to discard the sense of failure that feels like it lies deeply, yet subtly, embedded in the very cells of my body. It can’t just be “decided away” through an act of will or overlay of positive thinking. Woman as fertile source of life is one of the most ancient and pervasive of all archetypes, and is not so easily dismissed or re-framed. The feelings of loss and despair, whilst very personal, can sometimes feel so vast and inexplicable I’ve come to understand that at times we also touch into the archetypal layers of these feelings. As if we enter a place where the grief and despair resides of all the women who’ve gone before us throughout all time. Finding ways to hold to and engage fully with our grief is vital eg. through the support of therapy, dream work, creative expression, online communities like Gateway Women etc, and ones who love us even if they may not fully understand this particular loss.
Ten years on, and after much inner work and acceptance that I’ll not have children of my own, menopause has brought more layers of this loss and grief to the surface. I instinctively followed a strong need to actually see my grief on my own face (something that was very difficult to do and very confronting, but ultimately liberating, for me as an introvert who tends to keep feelings below the surface). So, out came my iPhone, and what followed was an almost obsessive series of “selfies” showing my far-from-ideal-self to myself. I needed to really get just how deeply I’d been affected by this “invisible” loss, to feel compassion for myself and my “failing”, and to genuinely see and feel myself as beautiful, even in such grief and “imperfection”. Pushing these images through various photo filter apps, degrading and overlaying the images with various treatments, created portraits that seemed to come from the hidden layers of the unconscious, the selves that hide behind the ideal self. Some of these became my exhibition Layers and Shadows.
In a blog on infertility and grief on the Gateway Women website, Jody Day wrote “But no-one can grieve alone, inside their head, because that’s not how grief works. Grief is a form of love, and it requires company – it needs to see its reality reflected back to itself from the heart and soul of another human being. Just as love does.”
As Jody says, grieving is not the problem, not grieving is the problem. There are few maps for this kind of grieving, and it can take a long time to work through. This particular “ideal self” is so embedded in our society we are surrounded by it at every turn, and through every form of media. Laying this ideal to rest asks us to find another sense of identity that is life affirming and positive, and not defined by what we have failed to do. To let ourselves off the hook and return to the land of the living, in our own time. “Childless by circumstance” women are beginning to make their voices heard these days, offering support to each other and seeking to transform the public conversation around this issue. If you are exploring this, some helpful websites are: Silent Sorority, Gateway Women, Lesley Pyne and The Cycle: Living a Taboo.