Middlehood. It’s not in the dictionary, so why did we coin it to describe the middle years of our lives? What is wrong with the word middle-aged? The simple answer is that, when we look at how language reflects culture and values, we see that middle-aged is too small, too shaped by our fears of getting old. We say middle-aged and old-aged, but we never say young-aged. We love the word youthful, but we will never hear anyone joyously called middleful or oldful.
In modern, youth-oriented cultures, the word aging carries negative associations, particularly for women. For example, we do not refer to turning twenty-one as aging; we call that growing up. We use aging only in connection with people over forty. Although we may love wine and cheese that have aged well, we do not seem to appreciate or respect that process in women as we get older.
The words we use matter. They consciously and unconsciously affect our attitudes and feelings about ourselves and others. When we put the emphasis on middle instead of on aged, the question “What does it mean to be in the middle of my life?” is full of far more creative possibilities for exploring the challenges, joys, and complexities of this phase of life.
There are no universal answers to our questions and the contradictions that fill our middle years. One moment, we may feel healthier and happier than we have ever been, more fulfilled and truly ourselves; thirty minutes later, on our third trip up the stairs for something we forgot, we have no idea where we are in our life and have completely lost our sense of balance. Most of us probably manage to combine this clarity and disorientation as we actively struggle with the push and pull of this time in our lives.
We have spent decades gathering experiences, knowledge, and skills. We have fulfilled early dreams and built relationships—and we may have accumulated some regrets. But we are not over the hill and on our way down; the best is not all behind us. After all, Middlehood is almost one third of our lives and we still have new dreams, loves, experiences, and accomplishments waiting to be discovered. We can choose to walk through Middlehood with our eyes wide open, full of curiosity, hope, and courage.
Why Middlehood? We need a larger concept of this life stage that provides richer and fuller possibilities. Are we becoming more limited? Maybe so, in some ways, but we are also becoming more powerful. We may find that we have new kinds of creativity, energy, passion and the beginnings of true wisdom about how life really works. Most of us do not realize this until we are solidly into our Middlehood, when it dawns on us that some things are better than they have ever been!