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Can I stop being resilient now please?

Children, parents, careers and homes — the stuff of midlife comes with one hell of a to-do list and a mandate to just keep going. Must we handle it all?

We’re taught that being resilient is admirable and that digging deep will serve us well. But what if bouncing back is actually holding us down? Tillie Harris takes a look at the boom in resilience and asks, When can we stop?

One of the things no one tells you about midlife is the staggering level of admin involved. In the past two years, I have buried my father, closed down my childhood home, filed for divorce, sold two houses, bought another one, had Covid twice, and continued to work and look after my kids. “Just get through the next week” has been my mantra for longer than I care to remember, and in that, I know that I am not alone.

Read Tillie’s story:

“I had two kids, no parents, no husband

and no idea how to pay the mortgage”

Never time to rest

“I’ve been tired since 2012,” said a woman I interviewed last week. “Basically, ever since I had my children. I remember when I came out of hospital, I had a bunch of paperwork to sort out. I thought I would just wait until things calmed down. But they never did. That was nearly a decade ago, and those papers are still in my desk.”

Righteous busyness has become a way to live for so many of us, and exhausting as it might be, we wouldn’t do it if there weren’t pay-offs. At its simplest, we get the dopamine spike that comes from getting it all done, and on a more profound level, being in a perpetual spin allows us to avoid noticing things that we don’t want to know.

We take pride in handling things

For me, getting through each day on a mix of caffeine, adrenalin, and the buzz of my own efficiency (look how resilient I am!) felt like who I actually was, rather than what I did. And for all the martyrdom involved in that, my overwhelm was also a source of great pride.

We live in a culture that celebrates the capacity to tolerate the intolerable, and soldiering on is the path to much reward. Society values a woman who can continue to smash it despite her toxic boss, and there’s much admiration to be had for making a dead marriage work. But the continual slog of piling life on top of ourselves hits a kind of pinch-point in midlife that makes it harder and harder to pull off.

How being resilient changes in midlife

Our 40s and 50s see the dial getting turned up on parents and kids, just as careers hit overdrive and the menopause comes. We are exhausted and the perpetual not-minding simply stops feeling like our best plan.

“You don’t have to do anything. In fact, you have to do less”

For many, the forced slowing and solitude of lockdown gave them an unexpected space to breathe. And having stepped off the treadmill for long enough to paint the bathroom and take up yoga, they realised that they wanted more from life than one endless commute. Some found that the main reason they had gone out so much was because they no longer loved the people they were supposed to stay in with. Others found themselves wondering why they work to live in the city, when they would rather live by the sea.

When the penny dropped

For me, the bottom had just fallen out of my life and there was still a lot to do. But when I found myself in the “long Covid” clinic explaining the strange cycles of exhaustion and breathlessness I’d been experiencing for 12 months, the penny started to drop.

“Tell me what I need to do to get better” I asked the consultant. “I really don’t have the time to be ill.”

“That’s just it,” he told me, “you don’t have to do anything. In fact, you have to do less.”

This idea did not land well with me, as “doing” had been my way to avoid the discomfort of “being”, and as a result I’d built a life that required me to get a lot done.

“I’m a single mum,” I said weakly. “I work full-time and I also write.”

“Well you’ll need to slow down,” he said. “If you want to get better.”

How less busyness equals more happiness

I struggled to accept this prescription. I’d had a lifetime of believing that to make anything better, it was going to take work. But I have begun to value taking time to pause. And I see now that it is in the moments of quiet and reflection that we remember who we are and what we truly need. And like so many women in midlife, I am starting to find a new, deeper type of resilience that comes from within, and gives me licence to say no to that which serves others, and start to build the life I want to lead.

Has being resilient has become a way of life for you?

 

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