Opinion | Family

What the New Midlife Crisis Means for Christian Women

Middle-aged women contending with stress can find solace in this gospel message.
What the New Midlife Crisis Means for Christian Women

The holidays are upon us. My mailbox is brimming with catalogs, our family calendar is stacked with end-of-year events, and I’m not the only woman feeling the irony of hauling out plastic totes of decorations proclaiming “peace” and “joy” when often this season feels quite the opposite.

In our house, at least, the lion’s share of meal prep, travel arrangements, holiday shopping, and household scheduling falls to the lioness. It feels like someone hit the fast-forward button in mid-November, and I’m barely hanging on.

However, for Generation X women like me, stress isn’t limited to the holiday season. In her recent piece “The New Midlife Crisis for Women,” Ada Calhoun documents the acute and chronic stresses faced by women born between ’65 and ’84. Ours was the generation with the unluckiest of timelines: We were young children when divorce rates were highest, teens as high crime and AIDS were all over the news, and buying houses just before the greatest recession in three generations.

At work, we feel stuck and stalled in careers—more educated than our female forebears but financially and vocationally insecure. At home, while some are struggling with the care of older parents and a rising number of children with special needs, others stare down the ambiguous losses of singleness and childlessness. Add to this the real (and yet seldom discussed) phenomenon of perimenopause with its sweatiness, insomnia, and increased susceptibility to depression, and the descriptor de jour becomes all the more apt: We are a hot mess.

“Me too,” was the resounding response when I posted Calhoun’s article on Facebook. “This really resonated with me,” wrote a friend who is a mom to small kids and a tenured academic. “I feel a constant tension of purpose, joy, ambition, and utter exhaustion.”

Although these challenges are common to many American women, Christian women, in particular, face an additional problem: the illusion of easy, spiritualized solutions.

For my professor friend, church has felt like an unsafe place for her to talk about her stress, and hearing advice laden with shoulds has added to the burden. The flurry of “you should trust, pray, observe the Sabbath, and be at home with your kids more” feedback isn’t helping. “If I have to listen to one more sermon at a women’s retreat about how I should be more like Mary when the world expects us to be Marthas, I may scream,” she wrote.

When I feel the weight of work and parenting and mounting to-do lists, I, too, appreciate compassionate listening more than well-intentioned advice. And yet, as someone who seeks to disciple and care pastorally for women, I fear I have not always done this well. My desire to see women cultivate a vital spiritual life and establish healthy rhythms of work, life, and rest has perhaps come across as me “trying to fix” people before really listening to their frustrations. Perhaps I have added spiritual shoulds.

Instead, I need to consistently and compassionately point others—and myself—toward an essential message in the gospel: Jesus’ invitations to find life and rest in him.

The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:1–4 that “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by … being like Christ.” The women around me are pouring themselves out in service of their families, coworkers, friends, and communities—emptying themselves in every way they know how. The question for these believing women is this: What encouragement is there from being united with Christ? In this extended season of stress and Sisyphean to-do lists, what comfort is there in his love?

Counting one’s blessings is a vital component of spiritual health, as Ann Voskamp reminded us in One Thousand Gifts. Alongside the list of things to do each week, I also need a list of things to give thanks for that draw me deeper into the gospel promise of life and rest in Christ.

First, I am thankful for God's comfort, mediated directly by the Holy Spirit. We are cared for by “the Father of compassion and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (2 Cor. 1:3–4). “I am with you, even to the end of the age,” says Jesus. We are not alone.

Second, I am thankful for God’s comfort, mediated by his people. In 2 Corinthians, Paul attributes the comfort from fellow believers to being an overflow of God’s comfort (2 Cor. 1:5–8). Or, in less churchy language, God has made it so that we “get by with a little help from our friends.” Whether through prayer requests, funny group texts, or the real-life gifts of carpools, casseroles, and childcare, God has given us each other to bear the load.

Third, I am thankful for hope offered by the gospel. The fear and anxiety we carry about the future—our children or our barrenness, our strained marriages or the uncertainty of singleness, our retirement accounts or lack thereof—can be put into the perspective of a greater story.

“What if this is as good as it gets?” Jack Nicholson famously asked in the 1997 movie by the same name. Indeed, Calhoun wonders the same thing: What if ours is the first generation who gets stuck in a nadir of discontentment? But Scripture assures us of a better ending. Everything’s going to be okay is not a whimsical wish for those in Christ—it is a promise. He is the Alpha and the Omega. The ending is secure.

Another friend of mine knows firsthand what a difference this promise makes. On top of juggling a family business and kids with complicated schedules, her mom has been in hospice care for the past few months. “How are you doing?” I asked, wondering if she was feeling as overwhelmed and exhausted as the women I’d just been reading about. “It’s hard, but I’m okay,” she said. “God has put a lot of people in my life, and it helps. We are going to be okay.”

Her testimony is reminiscent of other believers who have gone before us: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley … you are with me, you comfort me,” wrote King David in Psalm 23.

My life as an overwhelmed Generation X woman in suburban America may at first blush seem to have little in common with an ancient Middle Eastern king, but for this: We both need the care of One who cares for people who feel “harassed and helpless, like sheep” (Matt. 9:36).

“Come to me, all you weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” said Jesus (Matt. 11:28). The Good Shepherd’s invitation still stands.

Bronwyn Lea is a South African writer and speaker living in Northern California. You can find her online at bronlea.com and connect on Facebook and on Twitter @bronleatweets.

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