Questions from a Midlife Crisis

How do you remain enchanted with your life? Since becoming empty nested I have days at a time where I lose my enchantment and wonder about the meaning of it all. Is there meaning or are we just a bunch of atoms endlessly swirling around the universe? If life is choose-your-own-adventure, then does it matter what I choose? Would one choice matter:mean more than another? If we make our own meaning, then doesn’t that imply life is inherently meaningless?

Why does a big part of me feel done with purpose now that I raised my babies? It will always be my greatest accomplishment, but it isn’t everything.  Motherhood was never supposed to be everything. I tried not to let it define:confine me by also being a nonprofit professional, an artist, and a community builder. And yet now I feel lost without motherhood directing my choices. Motherhood gave me a container, a shape, a purpose, and now I feel like an amorphous blob with little definition. I keep trying on new shapes and they don’t fit, or perhaps I don’t yet know how get them fitted for me. I had to make motherhood fit because my babies needed me. I was the only chance they had to transcend the circumstances they were born into. And maybe that is the underlying loss – I am no longer needed. I am no longer necessary. I am a choice and a lot of people have said no to choosing me. Four jobs let me go since moving to Portland. Countless social media “friends” I reached out to weren’t interested in deeper connection. I don’t know where I belong, if anywhere, beyond the walls of my home and marriage.

All those years of mothering alone and serving my community all I wanted was a healthy partnership. Now I have my dream partner and a chosen family in our adoption triad, but everything else is a mess. I am writing, but I can’t seem to finish anything beyond these daily posts. I am making art, but I don’t know what will come of it. I am supposed to be trusting myself this year, but today it is all doubt. And the comparison gremlins are shouting at me that I am nothing next to all of these brilliant humans I know making meaning in their ways and being chosen for it. Today I am lost.

Devotion

Devotion. Since losing my faith 5 years ago I have been asking again and again – what am I devoted to now, other than my own healing? It’s as if I was an almost completed puzzle that was thrown back in the box and I had to start piecing myself together all over again without the god and mothering pieces that held center for so long.

I am devoted to myself and my precious little life. To being my own guru and my own savior. Liberation in every dimension of being. Beauty. Creativity. Self expression. Turning my insides into art. Following the threads that make my soul sing. Living my medicine. Honoring the medicine that others offer. Loving well. Being in right relationship with the magic of life and the world around me. My Beloveds.

The question that I am wrestling with is whether this is enough? Or should I also return to my devotion for community, leadership, and social justice work? If I gave almost my whole life to my children and my community for 25 years, is it selfish to focus on myself for 5 years or more? Is it selfish now that I am no longer lost in the fog of grief? Is it ok to return to “being of use” on my own terms? Is art and writing of enough use? Is it enough to come back from the darkness and share the stories of what I learned about love or am I supposed to teach:consult:mentor:lead? Can I/should I sell the wisdom I found?

Is following the song of my soul of use to anyone other than me and does it matter? Why do I honor the significance of the soul song of others and yet assume my contribution has to look a certain way to be valuable? And why do I feel such a responsibility to the rest of humanity in the first place? Is this mine or was it put on me somehow or is it some combination of nature and nurture? Did the sacrifice they said Jesus made for me and the guilt I took on for being a sinner make me feel responsible? Or growing up a woman in this culture? Or working in white saviorist nonprofits for so long? Or being inundated with messages that we all have to change the world? How do I untangle this mess to find my liberation from what is not mine?

Impact

I grew up in a home with a narcissistic/depressed/addicted mother who took up nearly all of the emotional space, which led to me developing this inner child archetype I call The Invisible Girl. She is the girl who wasn’t allowed to take up space with anything that didn’t reflect Mom, which means she was rarely allowed to exist beyond Mom’s expectations and her own imagination. She is the girl who believes she doesn’t exist unless she’s actively serving others to earn both visibility and love. She is the girl who believes she doesn’t exist in people’s minds once she leaves the room. Consequently, I only have an intellectual awareness of my long term positive impact based on what people have told me over the years. I’ve received very little negative feedback, I think because my shadows are generally passive and internally focused rather than aggressive and externally focused.

Until the adoption. In the transformative justice work we did as birth parents in order to be able to restore relationship with our birth son’s adoptive parents, we each had to be accountable for the ways we caused hurt to the others before we sat down at the table together. Everyone had to face themselves before they could face the other, which means that I had to look at the ways I that I violated people that I once called partner and chosen family (for these purposes, violating is the opposite of intimating, so it can look like avoidance as much aggression). I had to face the fact that I caused someone else as deep a hurt as they caused me.

My Beloved Fiend facilitating the process lovingly told me what is real for the others involved – that no matter my intentions I caused pain with my deep introversion, my avoidance, and my expressions of grief. Then when conflict arose, I caused pain with words used like weapons and ending the friendship. While my reasons may be judged as valid for the situation, what was necessary in the process of relationship restoration was my accountability for my impact rather than my intentions and justifications.

I intended to be a good parenting partner and friend. What I chose day-to-day was mostly keeping to myself rather than actively relating and nurturing intimacy. I intended to be conscious about nurturing our little intentional community, even reading books on the psychology of community and recognizing steps that needed to take place in order for us to remain healthy. Instead what I chose was to avoid the emotional tension that was mounting rather than talking it out. I intended to maintain relationship after we moved out of the shared home. Instead what I chose was not to relate at all beyond visitation details for our shared son. I intended for us to be a family. Instead what I chose was healing my grief in isolation.

My Beloved Friend told me that it is a loss for her (and others) that I hide myself and my light. It never occurred to me that I was causing others pain by hiding with my gigantic grief and other big feelings. I thought that’s what I am supposed to do. What I was taught, and then was reinforced by recreating my trauma over and over again in relationships, is that my emotional world isn’t allowed to take up space. I am supposed to center the other’s experience, especially in the family home. When my grief was so big that I couldn’t center others, I went into hiding. I took up space in the only places I knew it was safe to – in my bedroom and on my blog.

I am prone to intimacy. Getting close to people isn’t an issue for me. But now I see how I kept people away when I was in pain. When I was a young adult single parenting and feeling like I was losing my mind due to complex PTSD, I would sit in my dark closet for hours, literally hiding myself away. Now it’s my bedroom. I live in my bedroom, not just because it’s more comfortable for my body, but because it’s the place that has always been safe. Whether living with my mom or with my kids, my room was always sacred space where I could reveal all of myself to myself and to whatever god I was praying to at the time.

Understanding my impact is healing the Invisible Girl, because having an impact means that I am not only visible, I am touching people’s hearts with my words and actions (or lack thereof). There are people who care that I exist and are invested in relationship with me. That is both a gift and a responsibility that I need to honor in the ways that I am able despite big feelings, chronic illness, and all the rest. It isn’t about giving myself away in order to be loved, or putting the other first. It’s about nurturing reciprocal connection. It’s about love as an action rather than a feeling. It’s about understanding my impact and making my choices accordingly.

Poem: Cold Thaw

fingers
pin me
down
beneath
spring letters
spelling yesterday
and tomorrow
with a kiss
walking
my parched
winter lips

thigh clasping
arches
capture my
marionette hands
submissive
to your gifted
alphabet strings

you are
etched
in cement
of my warm
woman flesh
though absent
from my
corporeal vision

April Cheri : Published 1998 PIF Magazine

Poem: Thank You to Lucille Clifton

Thank you
to Lucille Clifton

i listened to your story
with my eyes today
four books
a hundred poems
growing linear landscapes
naked word gardens
i cultivate into curves
inside my own woman spaces
and it’s curious
because i found
the whisper of my boldness
tucked beneath these healthy breasts
bursting into screams
from inside these magic mother hips
and even in that almost hole
above my eye
that echoes
“I don’t want to die”
and my first words
spoken out loud
are
Thank You

April Cheri 12/1997