Used to be, the fantasy of “later life” for us females involved a little brisk walking, a little gardening, maybe some scrapbooking, some cheek-pinching of adorable grandchildren. Growing up, that was how a woman over the age of—ssshhh! (stage whisper)—50 was meant to spend her days. Or at least that’s what I gleaned from mass amounts of TV viewing and magazine reading a good half-century ago.
But that’s about as relevant to how we live now as white cotton gloves and rotary phones. Instead, our generation is amazing, dynamic, and on-the-go. Maybe too much so. We’re prone to describing our existence as a combo platter of “too busy to breathe,” “stressed to the max,” and “dancing as fast as I can.”
I feel as if all my friends are in a contest to see who can be spread thinnest. It’s crazy!
You may well know the scenario of having lunch with a couple of friends that devolves into a stress brag-a-thon, with everyone comparing notes of who’s got more to wrangle. Sometimes, the struggle is real—kids who need help launching, parents who need help with an abundance of elder issues, and jobs that are more demanding than you dreamed possible. (Raise your hand if you have a boss who texts you on the regular!)
Other times, though, we elect to pursue passions that have us overwhelmed. “I thought being in my 60s would mean lots of time for long walks with friends, a matinee, that kind of thing,” says Leslie, 62, of La Jolla, CA. “But now everyone is racing around, saying, ‘I’m so busy—gotta run!’ and off they go to get the dog from the groomer, to their book group, their fundraiser or whatever.”
Agrees Sarah, 59, of Clifton, NJ, “I feel as if all my friends are in a contest to see who can be spread thinnest. It’s crazy! The conversation goes, ‘Wait till you hear how much I’ve got on my plate …’ and we’re all one-upping one another.”
So what’s going on here?
The Stress Equation
There’s no doubt: Midlife is indeed a pressure-cooker (or should we say InstantPot?). Research conducted at the University of Michigan School of Public Health documented that as midlife (40s through 60s) unfolds, we must navigate loads of change. Kids leave the nest, though “boomerang” children may return. Aging parents may require more care. Workplace stress often rachets up with additional responsibilities and increasing time demands. Oh, and let us not forget that menopause can cause physical symptoms, sleep-cycle disruption, and mood changes. There is an upside, though. Says Carrie Karvonen-Gutierrez, MPH, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology, “We studied almost 3,000 women over 13 years, and found that midlife is a time of tremendous stress but that levels of perceived stress did decline over the years for most women, perhaps because of high stress among women at the start of midlife.”
For many, complaining about the pressure is our default because our lives are so flippin’ stressful. It’s our way of venting, letting off some steam, and connecting with those who are in similar straits … the “misery loves company” effect.
Complaining about stress is the ‘misery loves company’ effect.
Mindy Greenstein, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in cancer and aging and co-author of Lighter As We Go, shares this story: “I’m 56, and was recently scheduled for a speaking engagement about the issues that caregivers face. At the exact moment I was supposed to give this talk, my mother was in the hospital on a ventilator, and one of my sons was at a different nearby hospital having a procedure done. When I had to cancel my talk, I said to the organizers, just tell everyone why I’m not there, and that pretty much tells you the truth about the issues caregivers have to deal with!” Acknowledging the crazy pile-up of stress we’ve been handed can help us handle this hard moment.
Finding a New Footing
But at the same time, midlife means our place in the world morphs. The PTA is no longer our second home. Maybe our workplace is looking to replace us with a younger (less expensive) employee. It can make us feel unmoored and a bit bereft. Less needed, less relevant. Says Greenstein, “Our identities shift. Maybe we’re empty-nesters and don’t have the kids’ activities to talk about as much. We start getting sense of being invisible, advertisers don’t care about us or try to cultivate us. So some of busy-ness is how we feel vital, in-demand, participating fully in life. It’s like, ‘Look at me, look how much I’m doing!’”
Allyson, 59, the founder of a college-counseling company in Westchester, NY, can relate. “Sometimes I feel I’m overscheduled, trying to do too much,” she says. “But I’m aware of the passage of time; each year hurtles by faster and faster. Maybe I’m trying to prove to myself that I can still handle a million things, like when my three kids were at home. I’m very aware of aging, of my bodily aches and pains. I know that a day will come when I can’t play tennis or travel, so I’m trying to pack it all in and wind up sometimes feeling as if I bit off too much.”
The day will come when I can’t play tennis or travel, so I’m trying to pack it all in.
Marcia, 64, an operations manager in Wilmington, Delaware, is also paddling hard against the take-it-easy currents. “I had to take a package at work and retire sooner than I would have liked. So I plan my weeks to be busy, busy, busy. I am not slowing down; I am pivoting and planning the next chapter. Taking classes, going to coding boot camp. And many of my friends are also trying to reinvent themselves. When we get together, we compare notes, we support one another. It’s not busy-bragging, it comes from a place of, ‘I get you and I’ve got your back.’ ”
Is Over-Scheduling An Excuse?
Of course, loading up on pursuits like these is hard to argue with. But here’s another angle on why we may be busy to the point of near collapse: It’s a somewhat counter-intuitive way of pushing back against any more demands.
Over-scheduling can be a way of avoiding any more demands on our time.
“I intentionally vent about how much I have going on,” says Natalie, 61, a video producer in St. Louis, Missouri. “I have the sort of friend group that is always saying, ‘Help me with this event, this fundraiser,’ or ‘can you come with me for my mammogram, I hate going alone.’ I am a good friend, but I don’t want to be roped into every last little thing. Part of aging and wisdom is learning to say no, gently. So I make sure I am good and vocal about how many plates I have spinning. It lowers expectations … people understand not to ask me for too much.” That’s one way to handle the competing responsibilities of life.
Says one woman who would rather remain nameless, “I think all this talk about stress is the new showing-off. I have friends who talk about how busy they are with yoga or redoing their deck. Things that are not vital. If you have a real emergency with your family, lean on me for help. But don’t bend my ear because you are ‘so stressed’ about planning a trip to Europe, please!”
The Good News Around the Corner
Whatever variety of so-called “stress-bragging” you may do or hear, there’s some good news about the pressure we feel, as Carrie Karvonen-Gutierrez mentioned. It’s going to get better. Our stress may be intense right now, but it will diminish, we will get better at managing it, and we’ll be happier as time passes.
Our life satisfaction hits a low in our mid-40s into our 50s. Then it increases as we age out of our 50s.
“There’s a U-bend to happiness. Our satisfaction hits a low point in our mid-40s into our 50s. Then it increases as we age out of our 50s. Those in their 60s have higher life satisfaction than those in their 50s; those in their 70s have more than those in their 60s, and so forth,” says Mindy Greenstein. “People should be aware that it’s not all downhill as we age—contrary to how the culture may make us feel! You care less about what pulled you down before, some responsibilities diminish, and enjoyment increases.” In other words, it’s not an endless stress-fest.
But what can you do if you feel you are indeed too busy to breathe? Mindy Greenstein says that, as both a professional psycho-oncologist (meaning a psychologist who works with cancer patients) as well as a cancer patient herself, she recognizes that we live in a culture that focuses on doing rather than being.
When undergoing treatment, she was not able to be out doing her usual activities, but she discovered there was still enjoyment to be had in life. “I discovered I love birdsong, the sounds outside my window. That gives me no social status or bragging rights, but the more you can find value in just being in the world, the more you can find ways to say no to some other things that are filling your time but not filling you with a sense of meaning and purpose.” Having coffee with an old friend doesn’t impress anyone or go on your resume, she notes, but it may be the best option when 101 other activities are fighting for space on your calendar. Something to chew on rather than squeezing one more “gotta/must/have to do it” thing onto your schedule.
Janet Siroto has held the Editor-in-Chief position at Time Inc.’s Family Life magazine, as well as senior editorial positions at Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Good Housekeeping. Her writing work has appeared in New York, The New York Times, Vogue and many others.