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A Metamorphic Midlife Journey

February '08

I just finished reading a provocative article by Strenger and Ruttenberg in the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review entitled, “The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change.” In it, the authors warn midlife readers to “roll up your sleeves,” because “midlife is your best and last chance to become the real you.” I’m not sure I agree with their basic premise here; my own belief is that growing into our full potential is one of life’s great journeys. For me, maintaining a growing edge is the sine qua non of a fulfilling life.

That said, these authors have a point. Midlife is a pivotal period for many women, who are catapulted into a period of reflection and reevaluation, as they come to terms with their own mortality and seek new ground for the purpose of their lives. That was certainly my experience. At midlife, I found myself a little restless on the job and facing an empty nest as my younger son was headed off to college. I was also a bit weary after years of working full time, going to school full time and raising two kids as a single parent.

I mistakenly assumed my emptying nest was an insignificant matter, since I already had a busy career as an Associate Professor of Education. I believed I was joking when I told my friends that if my kids were leaving the nest, then so was I! True to my word, when my younger son headed off for college, I embarked on a sabbatical year where I lived in London during the fall semester, came home to join my sons for their winter break, and then traveled around the world on my own during the spring semester.

I was fortunate enough to receive a generous fellowship to support this remarkable adventure. Phrases and sentences in my application describe a woman in the midst of a significant midlife transition. At midlife I stand poised at the proverbial turning point with a Janus-like view of past and future. For more than a decade I have been simultaneously cultivating the fields of family, graduate study and profession. And now a confluence of events in my life and a quiet interior voice, to which I occasionally pay heed, are commanding me to stop and rest.”

And, indeed, that year turned out to be a one of extraordinary self-discovery and personal growth. My largest challenge, and one that came as a total surprise, was learning to cope with the almost existential loneliness I felt while traveling in the developing world. My homesickness was palpable for months, as I continuously explored strange lands, where I knew no one, couldn’t speak the local language and had no traveling companions. Happily, my homesickness gradually abated as I began to discover the real home inside me. By the end of that trip, you could plop me anywhere – even a tiny hotel room, surrounded by pink plastic walls, decorated with generations of crawling cockroaches – and I could manage!

Learning how to live on my own was the perfect preparation for the next stage in my life where I would not have daily contact with my children. While my sons would continue to live at the center of my heart, they would no longer be living at home to provide the orbital focus of my day-to-day plans and activities.

This trip around the world at the midpoint of my life turned out to be a journey of the soul where I learned for the first time how to move to my own rhythms and to listen more attentively to that “quiet interior voice.” It was an amazing leg on what I see as a life-long voyage of living into my authentic self.

Perhaps this seminal, midlife experience explains why I am so drawn to helping women reinvent themselves at this vital stage of their lives. Or, perhaps, I‘m just drawn to the wonderful possibilities for personal transformation this period of life presents.

So what about you? What experiences have contributed most to your own ability to become what Strenger and Ruttenberg call your “real self”?

Happy cogitating!

Bonnie Leonard EdD, CLC