“Midlife (Ages 35-50): Contemplation – After many years in young adulthood of following society’s scripts for creating a life, people in midlife often take a break from worldly responsibilities to reflect upon the deeper meaning of their lives, the better to forge ahead with new understanding. This element of contemplation represents an important resource that we can all draw upon to deepen and enrich our lives at any age.”
-Dr. Thomas Armstrong, The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life
My therapist recently made a comment that sounded eerily familiar. “You know this is just a phase of life.” My mind quickly wandered back to when I was a young mom and the idea of “phases” brought me great comfort. I once found peace in accepting the temporary state of our lives.
When I was pregnant with my daughter and my son was 18 months old, I kept asking myself, “What was I thinking? I can’t handle another one!” It felt as though it took all the strength I could muster to keep him alive in a 600 square foot apartment in the jungle of NYC. Now, soon there would be two of them. “What have I done?” I asked one of my mom friends. She was also expecting a second child. She flippantly responded, “Don’t worry about it! This is just a phase.” While this answer seems like a one-size fits all way to justify behavior ranging from temper tantrums to experimenting with drugs, it clicked with me in this context. She reminded me that my son would be 26 months old by the time my daughter was born. “You’ve seen the toddler books! That’s a whole different stage. He will not be the same by then.” I try to surround myself with rational people - for obvious reasons. Her theory talked me down.
So as my therapist reminded me of this sage advice, I thought about how this concept was relevant to my current situation. Could it be that in six months I might not be the same person, with the same habits, fighting the same battles? Why are “phases” isolated to children and developmental benchmarks? If I aim for continual personal growth, won’t I always be moving through stages? Essentially, doesn’t changing phases mean that I am still living, not simply existing or stuck in a rut?
I decided to take my search to our most beloved, ever-faithful teacher: Google. A quick search dropped me at a parents.com article titled “Toddler Developmental Milestones.” Imagine my surprise when I realized that the phases of life I am now experiencing are a mirror image of toddler development at 12-36 months! I have highlighted some of these similarities side-by-side.
The article closes with this comforting message: “Don’t worry if he ‘unlearns’ a skill.” Amen, editors of parenting.com! We can all afford to “unlearn” a thing or two. Take down the veils, lift off the masks, and pull back the curtains to see what is underneath all these years of protective shielding. Shed the outer layers of hardened resentments, anxieties and fears. Unlearn the old to make room for the new and improved.
If I can visualize my life as a complicated choreography of changing phases, then I am better equipped to be fully present in each moment. Currently, I am a writer, teacher, coach, mother, and partner mourning her mother’s illness. My good friend says that I am learning to dance with a limp. I keep dancing, but I know this limp is not here to stay. It is a temporary phase. I have already stumbled through periods of life as a frazzled graduate student, an overwhelmed new teacher, a terrified gambler’s wife, and an insecure new mother, just to name a few. Each phase represented new challenges as novice or expert, happy or sad, determined or helpless. Impermanence was their common thread.
Part of being aware and mindful is realizing that everything is temporary. We must enjoy the good times for they are fleeting and take heed during the bad times because “this too shall pass.” We learn to relax in the ebb and flow of life events, which might surprisingly lead us back to where we started. Perhaps this new beginning comes with a toddlerhood of its own. Each new phase demands fresh-tilled soil to start anew with a tiny seed. In the words of Dani Shapiro, “Beginnings are like seeds that contain within them everything that will ever happen.” Phase by phase, the story will unfold.