Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Av 5766 - August 23, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

Crossroads at Mid-Life
by Sara Gutfreund

We have all heard the term "mid-life crisis," but many religious people believe that the term simply doesn't apply to them. After all, aging, in our value system, is supposed to be a positive process since more years bring us more wisdom and experience. However, in our generation, it is becoming clear that none of us are immune to the "young is better" motto of the Western world. Moreover, because most of us marry and have children earlier than our secular counterparts, we actually often reach our "mid-life crossroads" at a much younger age than expected. It used to be that the fortieth birthday was dreaded as some sort of indication that we are "over the hill." Now we are seeing some women feel that sense of dissatisfaction and need for re- assessment at the age of thirty!

Not every woman experiences this, but the following examples show how various women between the ages of thirty and forty are navigating this sense of premature stagnation in their lives. The following stories show a successful journey through some difficult crossroads, and each woman uses a different tool for her journey. The three skills that we see are: the ability to be open to change, the willingness to use one's support system and finally, the capacity to find meaning in one's life.

Openness to Change

Shira — Age 30

I grew up in a large, warm family in Brooklyn. I was a good student, and I chose to study computer graphics in seminary. Soon after graduation, I found a job that I liked in a large firm with a decent salary. I met my husband when I was twenty, and I continued working during our first year of marriage while he learned full time. When our first child was born, we decided that I should stay home with him, and my husband began part-time work in his father's store. Soon after, we had our second child and our decision seemed to make even more sense. Two babies took a lot of work! Then Hashem blessed us with twins, and so by the time I was twenty- five, we had four children all under the age of four.

I was very happy just to stay home with the children then. There was so much to do. I couldn't even imagine doing anything else with my time. But then on my twenty-ninth birthday, I suddenly had this weird sense of panic. I said to myself: Next year I'm going to be thirty! And I felt like I had nothing to show for myself. What had I really done so far with my life? When I spoke to my husband about it, he didn't really seem to understand what I was talking about. He kept saying that I was accomplishing so much by raising the children, and that the whole need for "professional success" was purely a secular concept.

Truthfully, I agreed with him, but I still felt like I was somehow not using many of the skills that Hashem has granted to me. But I didn't want to leave the children with a baby- sitter. For about two months I went through this strange depression where everything seemed fine on the outside, but I had this sense of tremendous restlessness. I kept feeling like time was somehow running out.

This whole stage was heartbreaking for me because I love my children, and being there for them was definitely my main life goal. I knew something had to change though. That's when I started looking for a way to work from my home. And the amazing thing was that once I was open to change, I began to notice many opportunities for freelancing jobs in computer graphics. I knew I was different from the newly married woman who can work long hours in a prestigious firm. That just didn't make sense to me anymore. I wanted to be with my children, but I also wanted to contribute to the outside world.

Eventually I created my own business at home, and because I could make my own hours, I didn't feel like I was losing those precious moments with my children. Next week is my thirtieth birthday, and when I look back over the past year, I am proud of how I struggled through my priorities. I think that I was able to find a successful balance because I was open to change, and I resisted veering to extremes. I realized that I didn't have to choose between full-time motherhood and full-time work. As I enter my 30s, I feel more whole because I took the parts of my personality that were somehow being buried in my mothering role and found a way to use them productively.

Support Systems

Malka, age 35

I grew up in a secular home in California. My parents were both professionals, and as their only child, I was expected to climb the ladder of academic success. I did just that for many years, and I became a very successful lawyer in New York. One day a few years ago, I was leaving work on a Sunday afternoon (the new recruits often have to put in overtime) and I saw a family sitting on the benches by the park. There wasn't anything extraordinary about this family. They were religious, as I could see from the kippah on the father's head, but besides that, they were just a regular family. But suddenly, I was hit with this overwhelming sense of loss.

The mother was holding the baby, and the father was playing catch with their toddler son. And I thought: A family! It was a new concept for me, since I hadn't really thought about marriage or children yet. I was 32-years-old and suddenly I felt like time was running out on me. I became curious about Judaism, and I started taking some classes nearby. That's how I ended up in Israel, married with two children, and I was thrilled to finally have a family of my own.

Then, last year, the diagnosis came. At first I didn't want anyone to know. I'm the kind of person who hates pity, and I didn't want anyone's sympathy. I just wanted to go through the treatments and get back to my life. But it was much harder than I thought. I was so weak, and the children were too little to understand. The first time I uttered the words: "I need help" to one of my friends, I just cried with relief.

She didn't pity me; she gave me encouragement and strength. And as I opened up to more of my close friends, I found a wellspring of warmth and faith. My friends brought me tapes of shiurim and books and the comfort of their presence. Today I am in remission, and I don't know how I would have made it without my friends. In order to use my support system, I had been forced to overcome a fierce independence that I used to value above all else. At the age of thirty- five, I am finally learning the value of inter- dependence.

Finding Meaning

Chaya — age 46

I grew up in a typical religious family in Chicago. I came to Israel for seminary, met my husband, and we have been here ever since. Early on, my husband and I decided that he would learn, and I would work for as long as possible. I found a job in a bank that had a decent salary and flexible hours. When our children were born, I worked part-time and we managed somehow.

In those years when all my children were little, I was so busy I didn't really think about any goals beyond getting through that day. And that was a goal in itself! But as time went by and the nest began to empty, I started to wonder. What is it that I'm supposed to be doing with my life? It was strange, because I still had three children at home, but suddenly I was looking beyond the home.

There were days when I didn't want to get out of bed. I wasn't really depressed; I had just lost my motivation for my daily life. I didn't want a career or anything like that. I just felt like I had all this potential bottled up inside of me, and I couldn't figure out how to channel it. One day I saw an advertisement for an oil painting class. I decided to sign up.

That was Hashem's gift to me. When I began to paint, I felt all the pent-up energy flow out of me and onto the canvas. And I felt like I could finally express the beauty of this world and help other people access it. Now that I have found what I call my new purpose in this world, I feel like I can find my way through what I later saw as a mid-life crisis. It's true that raising my children is my main vocation. But I have begun to learn that I am multi-dimensional, and I can develop different aspects of myself without threatening the other crucial priorities in my life.

Therefore, we see that openness to change, using one's support system and finding meaning in one's life, are all essential to successful navigation of life's stages. However, there is something else that is a common thread in the above stories, and that is the willingness to risk. In each of these women's lives, they came to a point where their previous assumptions were no longer functioning, and they had to stand at that cross-roads and ask: What now?

They each could have turned back to the familiar; in the short term that was definitely the more comfortable path to take. However, they each had the courage to say: This isn't working anymore. Now what?


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