99 Problems

Published on December 4th, 2017 | by Elizabeth Beauvais

21

Totally Fine, Also Rage

At some point mid-last week, I realized with a start that I was angry. Not really angry at anything in particular in that moment, and not in the wholly pervasive sense that I am an angry person, viewing everything through a little red lens. It was more that anger had become easily accessible, like a handbag, or language fluency. Its focus isn’t sharp and pointed, but more of a diffuse, opaque layer, spread thin beneath the surface. And maybe anger isn’t even the right word. Maybe it’s rage. A rage so controlled and low level that it’s almost totally acceptable in polite company.

A casual, socially-acceptable accessory-type rage.

“Where are your car keys?”

“Inside right pocket of my purse, right beside my rage.”

The target of my rage isn’t an individual person or institution (except the obvious) so much as the constant Press and Pace of All the Things. The impotent-scream-into-the-void at not having been able to finish a sentence for the past seven and a half years, or the 3am terror of being stuck forever in the gig economy, unable to reenter the fulltime workforce at a level with any real future. It’s an overwhelm born of fear and frustration that I can’t focus enough of my energies in any one place, and certainly not in a thoughtful way, at precisely the moment in my life when focus seems required.

The impossible quest for balance among mothers working inside or outside the home is a bottomless well of fodder – for articles, novels, kvetching at book club. But this particular brand of rage feels unique to the midlife squeeze happening now among Generation X women. For the most part, we were told by our Boomer parents (when they managed to drop in) that anything was possible…in a Melanie Griffin “Working Girl” way. Those shoulder pads that seemed glamorous to my eyes behind oversized mauve glasses in 1984 later turned out to be cheap stuffing filling out a blazer never designed to fit me. I focused on education and career first, idealistically believing passion paid the bills. And it wasn’t as though it didn’t, totally. Because I started adulthood with far more opportunity than my mother did, catapulting myself from Louisiana to an east coast college to a first job in Los Angeles and back to New England for grad school, I assumed the rate of change would continue, and apply to pay, advancement, equity among domestic work, and opportunities.

But it didn’t.

Ten years in, my corporate job was drifting benignly along an endless plateau at the middle-management level, without women mentors or role models to illustrate where and how I might ladder up, or at least leverage into something more dynamic and fulfilling. I was in a maddeningly subtle stall that frustrates many women mid-career. According to the Center for American Progress, the rapid rate of change in the workforce women experienced in the 1970s and 1980s began to slow in the 1990s and 2000s, as the contracting of the gender wage gap stalled and the percentage of women in leadership roles stagnated. Across nearly all professional industries—medicine, finance, law, academia, tech—women in the leadership spots have been stuck at or below 25% for past decade or so, and in some fields, like venture capitalism, women have even lost ground in the C-suite in recent years.

In my mid-to-late 30’s I shifted my focus to being home part-time during my kids’ early years, partly as an escape hatch to my career frustrations and no doubt also in some reaction response to my own latchkey upbringing. And while rewarding to be with my children more, I found I had traded the stagnancy of my full-time career for the crazy-making of the freelance-caregiver juggle. There simply wasn’t enough. Enough versatile upward options with work, enough time or capacity to manage the hustle and insecurity of freelance consulting, enough share of the load at home, and definitely not enough of me.  It felt like the foundation that I tried to build it all on, that I wanted to build it all on, wasn’t strong enough because it was made out of those goddam squishy Melanie Griffith shoulder pads.

I’m so aware of how #FirstWorldProblems this all sounds, and actually is. I have had unbelievable fortune in getting a great education, managing a flex career in an equitable marriage with a man I like to refer to as the Co-Mama. Hell, it’s a mark of privilege to even talk about a midlife crisis. But however much I and others like me might not deserve to feel at a loss right now, the stats validate that many of us nevertheless do. Nearly 60% of Gen Xers describe themselves as stressed out, with 30% stating their stress levels feel higher than the year before. A little over 20% of women in their 40s and 50s are on antidepressants, a higher percentage than any other group by age or sex. In addition, a significant portion of us are shopping online too frequently, or drinking a little too much and too often, or constantly tunneling into our smartphones.

I’m certain that with many generations approaching mid-life, there’s probably always been a great uncertainty and identity-come-to-Jesus when realizing that doors and possibilities are closing (“I will never be an ingénue novelist”), while not quite being closed (“but maybe I could still get an agent!”). But modern women of my generation, and working mothers as a subset, have precious little framework for referencing and navigating this time. There’s the tired old trope for men: the Ferrari and affair, which should now probably be updated to Paleo and an Xbox 360. But what do women today have as reference? Especially if we delayed motherhood in order to get our careers started, or are struggling with fertility or raising small children in our 40’s, right at the moment we are supposed to be “leaning in?” We are a new inflection point in American history. As members of the “sandwich generation,” there is added pressure in realizing you’re beginning to be lapped by Millennials while Boomers are not retiring fast enough at the same time your children are still in nursery or elementary school. Nursery and elementary schools that expect Pinterest-worthy involvement, I should add. This is to say nothing of the women in my generation who are single mothers shouldering the entire household burden, or those would still like to become mothers and are walking through a painful uncertainty and grief in their 40’s.

Mid-life is also tough because it’s when the shit starts to go down. The inevitable loss that finds us all four or five decades in—illness and death of our parents, health scares of our own, marriage or relationship trouble, shifting priorities and identities—all seems to beg for attention, whether impulsive or reflective. For working mothers, neither seems possible. There isn’t time to grieve the large or small. I have the distinct feeling that a mountaintop retreat would be watershed for me in sorting through so much. Or even just a long walk. But instead I have a load of clothes mildewing in the washer, or a client deadline in half an hour, or carpool to run, or a late-night of writing back and forth work emails. These are small things, they are daily choices I make with the incredible privilege and relative wealth I have to make them, and—and—they also accumulate into something hot and simmering on my stove that bubbles over at the inconsequential.

I think that’s the essence of the pocket rage: in addition to the challenge of trying to keep a toe-hold in a career while raising small children and managing the “mental load” of the household, I am facing a time in my life that demands I take stock  (mortality? rediscovered sexuality? the call to make a major life pivot?)—and give it sustained thought. But then I get interrupted. Again.  And I want to punch through a wall.

Several friends I’ve spoken to feel the same. When I asked one woman, the mother of two and a vice president in a global boutique firm, whether this resonated, she didn’t hesitate.

“I keep feeling like if I tweak something—or if I had made a superior decision about career or education or partner or insert major life vector here—then it would ‘work’ and so the mess and overwhelm is ultimately my fault. What I actually feel beneath the rage is despair and impotence.”

Another friend, mother of two and executive director of a nonprofit, quickly jumped in: “Impotent despair and anger of highly educated, highly motivated, capable women? YES. I have everything I want yet feel constantly bombarded by texts, emails, phone calls, which all seem to require a response or a level of energy I can’t find.”

Understanding that sense of impotence is key to un-pocketing this rage. I’ve always loved the widespread myth that daddy longlegs spiders are the most venomous spiders in the world. We’re only safe from their bite, the story goes, because their fangs are too small and weak to break through human skin. It makes me laugh to picture this furious little spider, raising one of his eight tiny fists to the sky as children try to tickle him into skittering across a wall. “Fools!” I imagine it shouting with its teeny-tiny mouth, “If only you knew. If only my fangs were bigger—it’s you who would be skittering away!”

I laugh a bit less when I realize how much like that daddy longlegs I am right now, standing where I can catch enough of a vista to know there is important work to do, this work at life mid-point that’s begging me to sort through, to redirect, to jump on a few big life goals and sink my teeth into them while I can. And yet I can’t for the life of me get myself free to do it.  Or not as I’d like to anyway. I’m overwhelmed—and I’m furious I’m overwhelmed.

Another working mother friend entering her 40’s, who I’ve never seen sit still, put it this way, “you feel powerless and start blaming yourself for either having too high of expectations for yourself or others or for not having your shit together. And even though you love your kids and your husband more than anything in the whole world and can’t imagine your life without them and don’t want to, ever, you sometimes wonder how much easier it would be if you could just do your own thing and maybe do more good in the world solo… I wind up feeling like a character in a feminist short story who I used to mercilessly judge as being a selfish bitch, just because I wondered.”

It’s ubiquitous, this feeling, and it never shows up on Facebook’s highlight reels. We’re some of the best educated women in history, but hit with two recessions in our early adulthood, significantly rising costs and stagnant (still gendered) wages—all while we made decisions, by choice or necessity, to devote a significant portion of our energy to our families—we are also the most downwardly mobile, with well over half of us less wealthy than our parents at the same age.  In my terror-filled 3am moments, I’m keenly aware of how far too little I have saved for retirement, and according to the Pew Reseach Center, 44% of my cohort are lying awake at the same time, fearing the same.

Even those of us whose careers do seem to be skyrocketing are feeling the double press of inadequacy and stress. A friend who’s managed to build a successful start-up in a creative industry while also volunteering to plant a garden at her daughter’s school told me that it’s rare that she has a day when she doesn’t feel overwhelmed or under-accomplished.

The sense of overwhelm and the fury or despair around it doesn’t just come from a juggle of the here-and-now, the family-work polemic. We are also now facing the interdimensional juggle of examining the lives we might have lived, the forks in the road behind us, and the ones we still might have ahead.

I want to take time with these questions—sustained, uninterrupted time to listen, and think, and understand, again, what I want and who I am. I sometimes get a desperate feeling to complete a thought, the kind of thought that might lead to life-altering realization and can only come with a quiet room and good window. But small children and hustling for work don’t allow for mid-life reckoning. I’m ashamed that the frustrated yearning for space and time often manifests in me as white-hot anger directed at my husband and children. I snap and yell or even throw a pillow across a room, reveling in the delicious feeling of knowing I’m about to give over to the anger…before acknowledging I’m just going to have more to clean up. Many weeks I’ve had to put myself in Time Out more often than my 4-year-old.

I don’t presume to have a cure for my pocket rage. I’m steeped in self-care language and have three meditation apps on my phone, a membership (and teaching gig!) at my local yoga studio and am off to hear an Anne Lamott talk next week. All these things are useful, but the one that seems to hold the most value for me is the discussion. Sharing openly with friends, as well as amplifying the exchange on how, generationally-speaking, it would be almost impossible to feel any other way helps me to remember that this path is unchartered and that I do not walk it alone.

The more conversation we have around it, the more lanterns get hung.

And the better lit this road is, the more we can see the good company we’re in.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Beauvais

Elizabeth Beauvais is a writer, sustainability consultant and yoga instructor.  She writes on the regular for Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and her work has appeared in MUTHA Magazine, Dead Housekeeping and Elephant Journal.   Currently, Elizabeth is working on a memoir project and blogs at https://ebeauvaisblog.wordpress.com/.  She lives in Shreveport, LA with her husband, three kids and beagle-mix.



21 Responses to Totally Fine, Also Rage

  1. Sarah says:

    Well, that hit home. You’ve put into words the yucky, frustrated feeling that creeps up into my throat whenever I have a moment to breath, to think. It swirls around wildly just below the surface and every small success helps to keep it there, but it doesn’t go away.

    I’m glad you only throw pillows, because I’ve thrown a lot more and broken a few things in the process..

    Thank you for putting voice to this lived experience and validating other women who need to know that this road is not theirs to walk alone.

    • Elizabeth Beauvais says:

      Sarah, thank you! Glad to know it resonates and you’ve got a pitching arm as well (though I hope it can also find some moments of rest)!

  2. Barbara McGinnis says:

    I kept my rage under a patch of very thin skin. Like an implant.
    I loved my career! I was good at copywriting and production—had a few awards as proof. I also loved my three very high energy children, whose recognition of my work included macaroni picture frames and indecipherable art.
    I chose being a stay-at-home Mom, because I wasn’t strong enough to be pulled in both directions. My peer group was not supportive. (Way back in the late ‘80’s.)
    I’m still not sure it was the right decision. But. I know without a doubt that my sixth decade has brought many second chances!
    The opinions I offer are now honed by experience and living history. So believe this: YOU WILL RISE AGAIN.

  3. sharon says:

    Amazingly keen, relatable, accurate and exceptionally well written piece, on the very many scatterings of pieces that make up the whole of a subject of emotional pain and unsustainability, that even as a woman in my 40’s without being part to the mom/parent subset, I also cannot contain, in my current and similar overwhelm! It is and has been what I thought was a personal, individual, emotional, psychological, circumstantial or existential crisis and feeling for so long in my life, without any hopes, or paths through or out, or with any indication of an end or transformation, that just to read any similar thoughts or experiences being expressed by someone who has at least gotten a grasp of the experience and emotion they are experiencing and articulating it for others to openly share in, is encouraging! Thank you.

    • Elizabeth Beauvais says:

      So grateful to you for commenting, Sharon. I think there can be a lot of comfort and even solace taken in talking candidly about the Press and Pace so many of us feel – even as we know all the good self care steps to take. Validation counts for a lot. Sending peace and strength to you!

  4. The third to the last paragraph is the key. Ms. Beauvais, forgive me but you’re working too hard. No wonder you’re stressed out. Rather than GOING to yoga or to hear Ann Lamott speak, step outside into your backyard, grab a lawn chair and look up at the stars and breathe. I’m afraid you’ve bought into the lie that you must be busy doing everything, pleasing everyone and searching for answers that are already inside you. I say all of this as a 57 year old woman. I’ve been where you’ve been and I didn’t listen either. But l’m telling you, life gets so much better when you slow down and realize that YOU are enough. You say the path isn’t charted. Quite the contrary my friend. Guidance is available from women like me but perhaps life is too noisy to hear our quiet voices.

    • Elizabeth Beauvais says:

      Hi Grace, I hear you, and it’s one of the reasons I regularly seek out the good wisdom and friendship of women a generation older (in fact, I have a personal goal of reaching “emotional 65” well ahead of “biological 65”! Some days I get closer, some days further away :)… ) There are so many good and Right steps we all can take (especially in the harried working mother place) – that all point to that fundamental truth you highlighted – slow down, step away. I don’t discount that at all. But my hope with this piece was to name and illustrate the particular nature and shape that the Overwhelm takes for many in my generation (which is not totally different than other generations, but is uncharted in the sense that, as a generation, our opportunities, economic pressures and age when we had children are different from our parents and grandparents). It seems therapeutic for some of us to first acknowledge it, call it like it is and put a light on it — then take up the advice of our wiser older sisters and bring a lawn chair to backyard for some star gazing! Thank you for reading and commenting.

      • Natalie says:

        Elizabeth, Thank you for articulating how I feel as a 38 year old former academic stay at home mom of a 2 year old attempting to write part time and teach yoga…I lean on several women in their 60’s and have to say I have found myself trying to explain how my generation is unique in terms of coming up during economic downturn etc. I do value articulating that uniqueness, but so many times I feel that articulating this just makes me feel more like a victim, especially in that I feel my friends in their 60’s don’t get ‘it’ fully….so I am always reflecting on ways to work with all of this productively….I think you hit on this in terms of ‘first world problems’–I think our generation has high expectations, as we grew up in prosperity and are highly educated–and expectations set me up for stress….My husband, who is 40 and grew up in economic hardship in Colombia, definitely thinks my expectations are too high, but then again, he is reeling looking at the economy inequity and corruption growing in the US. He grew up thinking the US was the promised land and now it’s hard to feel positive in the face of stagnation…retirement? I don’t have anything! I see you teach yoga–I am definitely trying to focus on practicing more yoga to sublimate my anger. And I try to count my blessings. I am bringing in some money and using my strengths while staying home. And yet on the other hand, more and more are pointing to the fact that we do live in a culture, (unlike Europe) that doesn’t support women financially to find childcare or to stay home, so we do carry stresses that need to be articulated. I am personally hoping to channel this anger into political activism. Thanks again for your great work here.

        • Natalie says:

          Oh, one piece I forgot to add that I think is part of the puzzle: a cohort and I have discussed this for years: I think many of generation wants to do work that is satisfying, healthy and fufillling. This shouldn’t be new or a privledge, but in our culture, it is. I think we are pioneers in this sense. So in my situation and my cohort’s situation, we made certain financial choices over the years to do such work, and then one day at 38 you wake up and go, oops, maybe that wasn’t smart for my retirement…or was it smart of my heart and guts and what I wanted to do at the time?

          • Elizabeth Beauvais says:

            Nancy, so glad this resonated with you and I do think you are right — the quest for _meaningful_ work and the opportunities we have to choose it, while giving up other things and making trade offs, has been both freeing — and (because so many structural inequities are still in place) also really limiting. Thanks for your note.

        • Elizabeth Beauvais says:

          Sorry – Natalie, not Nancy!

  5. Colleen says:

    Thank you for this very perceptive piece on the squeeze we all feel. A few reactions:
    1. Ms. Beauvais, never specifically says what her goal is or what her personal expectations are, but she gives a few hints that suggest that she has corner office aspirations “drifting benignly along an endless plateau at the middle-management level, without women mentors or role models to illustrate where and how I might ladder up, or at least leverage into something more dynamic and fulfilling..”
    2. As a reader, it’s natural to automatically sympathize with the author, and in this vein, I guess we are supposed to assume that she is accomplished in her field and deserving of advancement opportunities she alludes to.
    3. She mentions that she made career sacrifices to spend time with her kids, but what industry or profession in the US rewards, respects, or even dares to encourage a woman to take time to prioritize her family? I’ve heard stories of supportive environments but they are all from women who happen to live in Europe or Australia. Advocacy for women’s rights has never been more important in this political environment.
    4. Her frustrations are palpable, and very relatable, and while she laments about being caught in a sort of middle-management vortex, hoping for mobility opportunities, two of the three friends she mentions share her frustrations, yet they happen to be “a vice president of a global boutique firm” and another is an “executive director of a nonprofit”.. if these women who apparently are at the top of their respective org charts suffer from the same issues, then how desirable is it really to be like them?
    5. The friend who built a successful start up and at the same time managed to plant a garden at her daughter’s school, but every day feels overwhelmed and under-accomplished. That sounds like a personal problem if she can’t (with humility) recognize her own accomplishments, and that’s aside from the simple fact that the people in the most senior positions tend to be the most type A of all..
    6. Related to #1, if what success looks like is not clearly defined, then how can you conclude that you are failing when you do not have a clear vision for what it is you are trying to achieve?
    7. I think there are realistic ways to free up time and reduce stress like saying NO to people (including declining meetings), choose to ignore fires that aren’t worth fighting, delegate, live close to your work, hire or ask for help when needed. (Please note that I am not at the top my the org chart at work, but it is also not my goal to be there. I would rather leave work by 5 so I can take my kids to soccer, then go home to listen to them criticize food that I cooked myself, but these are personal choices)..
    8. “In addition, a significant portion of us are shopping online too frequently..” So long as you are shopping within your means, what is wrong with online shopping?

  6. Diane R says:

    As a woman slightly ahead of you in life I relate to this, plus.

    I’m 56, have a child in high school and one in college, and am divorced, my husband left 6 years ago. I’ve got two colleges to pay for still and only a small amount of financial help from the ex. I do all of the work related to the kids – admissions, financial aid, homework, extra curricular, all of it.

    I have a career in sales, but have now been unemployed for 8 months. For the first time in my career I cannot get an offer for a new job. Talk about scared. And I hate scared.

    I had an out of control rage fit about 18 months ago, and had to take a step back and look at myself. I manage it now, but am more angry than ever.

    And yet I signed up to be the co president of a PTA and on the leadership team of a volunteer political group. We women take on a lot, a real lot. It’s all good work and meaningful, but is it right to expect this much from ourselves?

    And we need to help each other more. I hesitate to be critical, but it would have been awesome if more of the artwork on this page had been by female artists.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Mutha Magazine Mutha Magazine says:

      Wanted to pop in to state that the magazine provided these images, not the author. Your point is noted. We use creative commons images and look for a variety of artists and images to complement the writing.

  7. Liz says:

    I am exactly in this place. Thanks for writing.

  8. Tracy Line says:

    I found this article so interesting, maybe because I could relate on many levels. I think the rage comes living a life that doesn’t match or meet what the soul needs. Years ago I found myself beginning to panic on Saturday evenings because Monday was coming. I hated the weeks so much because I so busy all the time, with work, family commitments, all the volunteering, etc. I was doing everything I thought I needed to be doing but was stressed and unhappy. My husband and friend kept telling me to make changes, quit this volunteer gig or take on less work (I freelance) but I just didn’t see it as a possibility. It took going to a life coach to lead me to a complete shift in thinking and make changes in my life. I started thinking about every single choice and commitment, and looked at it from a time perspective. Of course I was stressed, who wouldn’t be with all I was doing each day? I gave myself six months to clean house (pair down all my commitments). I just said I’m sorry I have too much going on right now to do x, over and over again. It was thrilling to put myself first for a change and to release the guilt about doing so. Now years later, I still work, but much less. I still volunteer, but I only do things that I am passionate about. My apologies to the PTA. Creating a little time and space in my life made all the difference. It’s hard to do this but also necessary. We only get one life, why spend it with rage in your pocket? There are ways out and we as women/individuals must work hard to figure out how to get there. We deserve a (somewhat) calm, peaceful and most important happy life. And our families deserve a happy wife/mother. Granted, I am now 52 and only have 1 kid in the house, two in college. But, still, I think it’s more about choices than stage of life. I wish you well.

    • Elizabeth Beauvais says:

      I think you are so right about the rage coming from where the soul is not being met with what it needs. Anger is useful to see, because it usually telling us something, often demanding a change. Thanks for the comment – I wish you well, too!

  9. IASoupMama says:

    I was forced into a midlife crisis/reinvention/rebirth when my ex (the father of my 4 children) decided he would rather be involved with a 28-year-old the year he and I turned 40. He filed on my twins’ second birthday. I was overwhelmed, underemployed, and had a 6-year-old, 4-year-old and twin 2-year-olds. I had no time to grieve because my kids needed one parent choosing sanity and that was only going to be me.

    Now, 4 years later I have re-started my career at a company where the management in my location is 3/4 female. I teach dance lessons in the evenings. I mom 90% of the time as it is only convenient for the kids to be with their dad maybe two weekends a month. And I’ve taken all of the energy I used supporting him and am using it on myself to get my MBA.

    Despite all of the gains I’ve made in the last 4 years, I still see myself as lazy and underperforming. My house is a disaster. I’m fat. I don’t get enough sleep. I am pretty sure I’ll never be loved by anyone but my family again. I feel the stain of a failed marriage daily. My parents are healthy at the moment, but I live closer to them than my siblings. I know that eventually managing their care will come my way.

    And yet, I am swimming with gratitude. None of my life is easy, but it is all worth it. I hope…

    • Elizabeth Beauvais says:

      It sounds like you are doing a HERCULEAN job with all you have on! To be managing all of that AND teaching dance…. I hope you are getting to dance a little for yourself too. Thanks for your share and best wishes!

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