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Ask Jessica: An Advice Column for Women in Midlife

Ask Jessica: An Advice Column for Women in Midlife

Jessica on top of a mountain: Ask Jessica an Advice Column for Women in Midlife

Together, we can figure out anything!

Each week in my newsletter (sign up here), I share questions from my readers as well as my best attempts to answer them*. We cover all things related to midlife from changing bodies to career transitions to parenting teens to sandwich generation challenges to shifts in marital or life partnerships and everything in between (see below for an archive of responses). My hope is that in sharing these questions and answers I can women as we face the midlife journey together.

If you have a question or challenge that you would like me to address in my column, please fill out the form below. All responses will be kept anonymous, so please feel free to share whatever concerns or struggles you are having, as they relate to midlife.

Ask your questions here:

Ask Jessica Column Archive

Below you’ll find previous questions and their answers:

WHY CAN’T I HANDLE MY ALCOHOL?

HEY JESSICA: Why can’t I handle my alcohol anymore? Last Friday night, I had 1 ½ glasses of red wine while my husband and I watched a movie and ate pizza. But I woke up the next day and felt hung over. I was like “this is crazy, I did not have much to drink” but I really felt it. Then on Sunday night, we went to a birthday party. Again, I had some wine, about 2 glasses, and I felt miserable the next day. I looked it up online and it said that around age 50, our bodies change and women become more sensitive to alcohol. I am only 47 and still get my period every month but I am wondering if there is a connection between not being able to tolerate alcohol anymore and perimenopause. Beyond that, the deeper question for me is how to change my habits? ~A Wine Lover

DEAR WINE LOVER: First off, you are not alone! In fact, adults of both genders can experience worsening hangovers as they they get older, it just happens that women get some bonus side effects, too. Why does this happen to most people as they age? Well, as we get older, the enzymes in our liver that process alcohol become less active, which means that alcohol remains in our bodies for longer. Women always have less of this enzyme than men (this is one of the reasons that women tend to have a lower alcohol tolerance than men), so we get the added bonus of experiencing hangovers later in life more than men. In addition, it’s harder to stay hydrated as we get older and since alcohol is a natural diuretic, it can leave us further dehydrated (and, therefore, more hungover). So that’s for everyone. For some women in particular, though, there’s the added bonus of wine (and sometimes beer) being even more problematic as they can trigger certain menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. This is due to the presence of sulphites, histamines, and tyramine in the wine. Some women find that they do better with hard liquor rather than beer or wine (although go carefully, because the alcohol content is higher!), others find that white wine is OK but red wine is harder to handle (more sulphites), and still others realize that they sleep and feel better when they cut it out completely and that is worth it to them. In short, it is all about the individual. 

In terms of the second part of your question, whether and how to avoid drinking all together, I’ve encountered women who have handled this question in a wide variety of ways. Some decide to cut alcohol out completely. To help with this, I have found that it’s nice to come up with a replacement drink to enjoy instead — a sparkling juice or one of the now more widely available non-alcoholic beers or wines are great options. Other women I know have decided to cut alcohol out for most days of the week, but enjoy a limited amount on one or two nights of the week. This can give your liver more time to recuperate and also allow you some flexibility, if that is important to you. 

Personally, a few years ago I started having some really wicked hangovers and absolutely wretched night sweats after nights of hanging out (drinking) with friends. After it happened a few times, I realized that something had to shift, so I started paying attention to what were my triggers. I discovered that if I drank red wine or hard liquor, I was pretty much guaranteed to have a hangover and practically drown in my own sweat, but that if I took a couple specific actions I was able to enjoy up to three glasses of white wine without any nasty repercussions. So, now, on regular nights I have one glass of white wine, and on nights when I am out with friends, I limit myself to no more than three glasses of wine (two if they are big pours), I make sure to drink a large glass of water in between each glass of wine, and I make sure to eat enough (I have found that when I am socializing I often forget to eat enough and an empty stomach is the quickest way for me to get a hangover). 

So, I would encourage you to look back on the nights when this has happened to you (or future nights when it happens again) and pay attention to 1) what type of alcohol you’re drinking, 2) how much you have, 3) how much water you’re drinking, and 4) how much food is in your stomach. Once you have that information in your back pocket, figuring out the next steps might become just a little bit easier.

WHY AM I GAINING WEIGHT AND WHAT CAN I DO?

HEY JESSICA: Why, if I am eating basically the same amount of and kind of food that I’ve been eating for the past 20 years and exercising the same amount (if not more, to some degree), is the weight slowly, but steadily creeping on? And what can I do about it? ~Trying Not to Panic

DEAR TRYING NOT TO PANIC: Ok, let’s get honest about this: the weight gain that happens to many women during perimenopause (the 7-10 years leading up to menopause, which you have officially hit once you go for an entire year without having a period) is some serious B.S.! Whether you’re someone who has always struggled with body image, someone who never really worried about their weight, or someone who has done a lot of work to become body positive/neutral, the shift (which is often dramatic and rapid) can come as a real shock. But I do want to assure you that it is very common and not something to beat yourself up about (I know, I know, easier said than done)!

So why does it happen? First off, weight gain at middle age is common among both men and women. This is because as we age our metabolisms naturally slow down, which leads to a decrease in muscle mass, which, in turn, results in fewer calories being burned and more fat accumulating. For women, there is also a hormonal piece of the puzzle. As we all know, menopause is when our menstrual cycle stops. What many of us aren’t as aware of, though, is that there is also a major shift in our hormones at this stage of life. And, in the case of weight gain, there are three hormones that have an impact. First, as our menstrual cycles wind down, our estrogen levels drop. This decrease can lead to an increase in insulin production, which can then lead to weight gain. Second, many women experience an increase in cortisol levels, thanks to the large amounts of stress many of us are under in this stage of life, which can also lead to weight gain. Third, the hunger hormone, ghrelin, increases during perimenopause, which means we can feel hungry more often and, therefore, eat more.

I know, Trying Not to Panic, that you mentioned that you’ve been eating the same amount as always, but I did want to note that research shows that many women (consciously or unconsciously) actually eat more during this stage of life. One of the reasons researchers believe that this is true is our exhaustion levels. Not only is this stage of life pretty exhausting and intense, but the hormone fluctuations we experience can impact our sleep (hello, hot flashes) and also our insulin resistance (which can make us feel tired). And, as we all know, when humans are tired, they crave more sugar and caffeine (and generally more calories)…

As someone who has struggled to overcome my own personal demons when it comes to body image and is a big proponent of body acceptance and intuitive eating, I find that the question of what to do about the weight gain leads to a delicate balance. While I believe that there is great value in finding ways to love your body no matter its shape or size, there are some health impacts with this specific type of weight gain that, I believe, warrant an increase of attention, not necessarily with the express purpose of losing weight, but with the intention of improving our chances for an active and healthy future. The type of weight gain that happens at this stage in our lives is often focused around the midsection (someone people even call it “menopause belly”). This sort of weight gain is, unfortunately, often tied to a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory challenges, and stroke. I addition, added weight can further exacerbate arthritis. None of these are issues we want to ignore if we want to have an active and healthy next few decades. So, while I don’t advocate for weight loss per se, I do think it is worthwhile to take a look at our diet and exercise routine to see if there are ways to improve our overall health (rather than focusing on weight or appearance).

In terms of diet, there are lots of schools of thought about what the healthiest diet for menopausal women is. Some advocate for a protein-heavy diet, while others argue that the Mediterranean Diet is the best bet. Personally, I would lean towards the Mediterranean Diet more because it includes more fruits and vegetables, is higher in fiber, and is less restrictive (something I personally chafe against), but the important thing is to find an approach that is going to leave you feeling nourished, satisfied, and not deprived. If weight loss is a top priority, I would encourage you to either talk to a doctor or nutritionist who is knowledgeable about perimenopause/menopause, as there are specific needs for women at this age. One final note on diet: even if you have worked with a nutritionist or found an approach to eating that worked well for you for many years, as our bodies go through this massive shift, taking another look can be really powerful as certain things that “always worked” for us may have shifted.

For exercise, we come from a generation that tended to focus heavily on cardio exercise (I know I wasn’t the only one obsessed with aerobics, step classes, Tae Bo, and even running), but new research is pointing to the importance, especially later in life, of strength training. And, if we go back to the loss of muscle mass that I talked about earlier, working to build muscle makes a lot of sense. So, while walks, running, or whatever cardio you have been doing is great, I would encourage you to consider incorporating some sort of strength training into your weekly routine at least twice a week. Strength training can include lifting weights, but can also mean resistance or body-weight training! So, if pumping iron isn’t your thing, perhaps consider pilates, high-intensity interval training, or even just planks and push-ups.

Finally, because of who I am and what I believe, I want to end this on a positive note. I know that our bodies aging and changing isn’t the most fun. There are times when it can even feel pretty demoralizing. But, as I have started on this journey myself, I have tried to keep two things in mind: 1) these changes are part of the natural course of life and are not due to any sort of weakness or failure on my part, 2) this body has done a lot of for me – it has birthed two children, hiked mountains, allowed me to travel, enabled me to dance my butt off on numerous occasions, and so much more. So, I can either be angry at my body or I can accept that there will be change and focus on making sure I am as healthy and vibrant as I can be. I choose the acceptance route. 

WHAT WILL WE TALK ABOUT?

HEY JESSICA: I love my spouse, and we make a good team, but we have very different interests and passions in the world. I worry that when kids are out of the house we will drift apart. I have a recurring bad dream about us sitting at dinner, with nothing to say. Where should I look for inspiration for this next chapter in life, to help me stay close with my spouse? ~Devoted But Nervous

DEAR DEVOTED BUT NERVOUS : Thank you for asking this super important question! When I first started thinking about working to support women in midlife, I went on a fact-finding mission that included interviews with a handful of women and then a survey of a much larger group. In both cases, one of the concerns I heard most was exactly what you are describing: concern that once the kids have left the nest, there won’t be much to hold the partnership together anymore. Given this is such a common worry, I have been thinking a lot about why it might be and what can be done about it.

First, I think we have to ask ourselves why so many women in midlife are concerned that they don’t share many common interests with their spouses/partners. And I have come to believe that it is actually an offshoot of what, I think, is one of the best parts of the midlife stage for women: we start to prioritize our own desires more. We’ve all heard the stereotype that the best thing about getting to your 40s/50s is that you start caring a lot less what other people think. And that is true. But the other way to look at this phenomenon is that you are paying closer attention to your own desires and needs. You are, perhaps for the first time in your life, prioritizing yourself (at least to a certain extent). And, as we get more in tune with what our priorities and interests are for this next stage of life, it can become clear that those interests differ from those of our partner. This can be uncomfortable and even scary, but it doesn’t have to be, especially if you can (1) be honest with yourself about what it is you want and (2) communicate honestly and openly with your partner.

Before you share your concerns with your partner, though, I think it’s important to get really clear about what it is you want, both in terms of activities you want to engage in and in terms of how you want your relationship to look. To do this, I would start by taking some time to imagine what you want your life to look like once you are an empty nester. Will you be working more or less than you are now? Are there activities, passions, or hobbies that you are excited to pursue? Are there any activities that you really hope you and your partner can do together? Do you want a partnership where you two do everything together or are you interested in sharing some activities but also having passions that you engage in separately? Really try to imagine the ideal for yourself in detail. You can do this as a writing/journaling exercise, as a thought to ponder on a walk, or as something to think about, off and on, for a few weeks.

Once you have reached some clarity for yourself, then it’s time to actually talk with your partner about the fear you have, but also your vision for what you want life to look like. There is, of course, a chance that none of this has even occurred to them and they will be stunned by it, but there is also a chance that it is worrying them, too. Either way, getting it out in the open so it can be faced head on is important. If you’re worried that their feelings will be hurt by this confession, then I would recommend starting out with (and reiterating as necessary) that you are bringing this up because you love them and want to have many wonderful decades together, but that you also want to make sure that both of you are fulfilled and happy as individuals as well. In your question, Devoted but Nervous, you asked where to “look for inspiration” and the truth is that I think inspiration will come from the two of you. And if doing this on your own is too scary, then I would highly recommend finding a couples therapist who can help the two of you work through this issue together.

If you two really share no common interests (outside of kids and daily life), then it’s time for you two to do some brainstorming. Try to think of some things that you might be able to do together that could be really fun. This is an opportunity to dream, so really go for it! Think big! One place to start on this is at the very beginning… when you first got together, were there things you loved doing together that you could bring back into your lives? Or, is there a skill you’d both be interested in learning, places you’d love to travel to, volunteering you could both enjoy, an organization or issue you’d both love to be involved with? And, finally, another approach would be to ask, is there a passion of yours that you’d love to share with your partner or vice versa? When I left for college, for example, my dad decided to start riding horses because that was a passion of my mom’s. Whatever you come up with doesn’t have to be set in stone or the permanent answer, but it will at least get you both to start thinking about what you can share together.

Finally, I want to make a plug for a balance between independence and togetherness. While those little old married couples who do everything together are adorable and admirable, that is the exception rather than the rule. I personally think there is a lot to be said for finding a shared activity or passion, while also maintaining our own, separate interests, too. If there are passions that you really want to pursue that your partner just isn’t interested in, that’s OK and you should still follow those passions, either on your own or with a friend! So, take that pottery class, sign up for that volunteer job, book that trip with a friend instead or your partner (or be a true badass and go solo)! Not only will it bring you joy, but it will also give you two more to share with one another at that dinner table.

HOW DO WE PAY FOR COLLEGE?!

HEY JESSICA: My spouse and I each have steady jobs and think of ourselves as upper-middle class. We save for emergencies (few months expenses), medium term (new roof in 10 years) and long term (retirement). We also put away a few hundred dollars a month for college, but it feels silly. There’s NO WAY we will be able to afford the astronomical college tuition. But we also don’t want our kid to finish school with exorbitant debt that will follow him for decades. We’re not alone, right? Why aren’t more people talking about this? ~Comfortable But Worried

DEAR COMFORTABLE BUT WORRIED: Now, I may know a lot about cooking, life balance, relationships, and mental health, but money is not a topic I consider myself an expert in. It’s actually something that causes me to feel anxiety, just like you, Comfortable But Worried. And, since I want this advice column to include really good, sound advice, from time to time I will call on experts to help me in answering your questions. For this doozy of a question that I know so many of us are thinking about (even if we aren’t talking about it openly), I reached out to one of my entrepreneurial besties: Certified Financial Planner and Founder of Fearless Finance (an hourly, fiduciary, on-demand financial planning provider), Lori Atwood. Not only have I known Lori for over a decade, but I have also used her amazing services myself. And if anyone gets it, it’s Lori. Below you will find Lori’s advice on the finance side and then my thoughts on how to navigate the worries that accompany all of this. So, without further ado, here is what Lori had to say:

Saving for college is hard for anyone and for some people it feels like a mountain that is impossible to climb. The numbers are eye-watering, but the key is starting early and being consistent. What I recommend to young parents is that they put away $500-600/month for a baby/toddler and while I know that is a lot of money, especially when paying for daycare, it matters a lot down the road. That $500/month is actually $6K per year and if you invest that $6k/year into a 529 where the gains grow tax free, you should have about $150k at college graduation (5.5% gains over 16 years). 

As a planner and parent, I am looking for parents to have HALF of a private college tuition by high school graduation. I don’t recommend trying to save $300K by high school graduation because:

1) it feels too overwhelming and feeling overwhelmed makes people want to give up;

2) your child could go to state school and typically in that case $125-150K will cover the entirety of it; and

3) it’s always best to pay as much as possible from current income to avoid inflation, market, and fee risk.

That few hundred dollars you save each month should be growing (how to invest it is another conversation) and the goal is about HALF of what your child will spend over his/her college career. The remainder should be paid with parental current income, child income (summer jobs should generate $2-4K/year), and the child’s subsidized student loans if he/she qualifies.

Please continue saving. Don’t give up. Your funds are growing and EVERY LITTLE BIT helps.

OK. So, Lori gave the good, sound financial advice and for those of you who can afford to save what she suggested (or even a fraction of it), please follow what she suggests! But, if her recommended scenario is either not what you did and your kid is now older than preschool (like mine, who are in 8th and 10th grades) or the amount she recommended saving is outside your realm of reality, PLEASE do not freak out! I can promise you that my family, for instance, was not able to do what Lori suggests and are still feeling (relatively) OK about paying for college.

As my eldest gets closer and closer to applying for college, there are a couple of things that I have been trying to keep in mind:

  • Times have changed and, while where you go to college is important, the reality is that graduate school of some sort might also be in your kids’ future, so undergrad isn’t necessarily the end-game it once was.
  • More than prestige, the most important thing is that you are able to find a college that is the right fit for your kid. Will they be happy there? Will they feel welcomed, comfortable, challenged, and able to grow and mature in the environment of the school? That should be the goal way more than the school’s name or reputation. (BTW, if you’ve got driven kids who have high expectations of where they will end up for college, or if a prestigious school is important to you, I encourage you to keep this perspective in mind, especially as the college application process gets more and more competitive and crazy with each passing year!)
  • While coming out of undergrad with no debt would be lovely, for many people a more realistic goal is to simply try to decrease the amount of debt they will have. Saving as much as you can is great, but it’s also important to minimize the stress of making yourself miserable in order to reach a specific goal.
  • Retirement is important, too! While paying for college for your kids is wonderful, making sure you have enough to retire on is, in many ways, more important. After all, you deserve a comfortable retirement and burdening your kids with supporting you could be harder on them than paying off school loans.

So, in short, don’t go for perfect here, go for good enough. And if this all feels really scary, talk to someone! Reach out to Lori and her team at Fearless Finance for hourly, on-demand financial planning or talk to another financial planner who can help you to make sense of your specific financial situation. You’ve got this! 

IS IT HOT IN HERE?!

HEY JESSICA: Hot flashes. I still can’t tell if I’m having them, or having some pre-HF version? The person I share a bed with is a damn furnace, so it’s often hard to tell if I’m just reacting to him or if it’s coming from me. So, will it be abundantly clear once I really have one or, like the weight gain, is this a slow creep kinda thing and they just build up until I’m my own private hot spring? ~I’m Melting

DEAR I’M MELTING: It sounds like you have discovered the joys of the insane sweating that can occur, seemingly at random, for many women in midlife. Congratulations, you’ve managed to snag one of the hottest tickets in town! (Sorry, dad joke.) All kidding aside, these periods of intense heat are no fun and can really impact your life. It sounds as if you are experiencing your super-hot episodes at night, which leads us to two questions: (1) is this due to hormonal changes that are happening in your body (i.e., perimenopause/menopause) or is it due to some other physical reason? And (2) if they are due to hormones, are they hot flashes or night sweats? Yup, there’s a difference. Once that is figured out, then what can be done becomes clearer.

First, let’s rule out reasons outside of menopause. If this is a new thing (which I assume it is from what you have described), I don’t think we can blame your furnace of a partner (unless he’s new to your bed, of course). But there are some other potential reasons for temperature surges outside of hormones. If you have started a new medication (especially antidepressants, cortisone, or diabetes medications); struggle with sleep apnea; are experiencing other symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, mood changes, or an unexplained fever; or have a more serious health condition such as hyperthyroidism, neurological disorders, or cancer, then it may be wise to check in with your doctor. If none of these seem to apply to you, then it is likely due to hormonal shifts.

So, now let’s talk about hot flashes v. night sweats. A hot flash is a brief surge of heat that focuses itself in the upper body, usually lasting anywhere from 2-4 to at most 10 minutes. When a woman is experiencing a hot flash, she will often get flushed and sweaty, and then, once the surge is over, chilled and even shivering. Hot flashes can occur both during the day and at night.

Night sweats, on the other hand, only happen at night and are a more prolonged experience of heat where your entire body gets drenched in sweat. Once the sweating has ceased, you can also get cold and shivery, but it is the full body and longer length of time that distinguishes them from hot flashes.

Then, the next question becomes: what to do about it. And this is where it really is a personal decision and, perhaps, an evolving one as many women will experiences ebbs and flows in the frequency and intensity of their hot flashes/night sweats, depending on their hormone levels and other external factors such as stress and diet. If this is only happening occasionally, then you may decide it is just an infrequent annoyance and that you can live with it. If, on the other hand, they are frequent or just really uncomfortable, then you may want to take some action.

The first thing I recommend, and this is something that I think is helpful for all kinds of issues that we face both during perimenopause and throughout life, is to fill out a food journal for about a week to see what patterns might arise. Now, to be clear, this is not a food log like you might have done when you were on a diet. You are not tracking calories or even macronutrients and this is not meant to make you feel guilty about what you have had to eat or drink. Instead, this is a food journal to track what you eat and drink and how it makes you feel. So, for about a week, you just jot down everything you eat and drink and then note how you feel immediately afterwards, about 2 hours later, and then again how you felt that night. To do this you can use just a plain notebook (or, if you want, just hit reply and I will send you a PDF of a food journal that you can print out and use for this purpose). After a week, review your journal and see what patterns you notice. Are there certain foods that trigger these temperature surges? In particular, pay close attention to alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, and meat as those tend to be triggers for many women. (For me, I discovered that I got night sweats when I had more than two glasses of wine, so I now usually stick to one glass and then make exceptions when the loss of sleep feels worthwhile to me.) Once you have that information, then you can decide what you want to do, which could range from nothing to reducing your intake to cutting the triggering items out completely.

Another thing you can do is make your bedroom more conducive to sleep. You can do this by making the room cooler, changing your sheets and pajamas to more breathable fabrics (cotton and bamboo are both great), or investing in cooling sheets, pillows, and/or mattress toppers. (Personally, I switched our sheets to organic cotton and now wear shorts and a tank top to sleep all year long – no more flannel PJ pants for me in winter!)

Finally, if these interventions don’t provide the relief you desire or if you decide that you are not willing to give up that spicy curry you love so much or that glass of wine at the end of the day (which would be understandable since the point is to be happy, not to feel deprived all the time), then you can also consider talking with your OB/GYN about whether you are a good candidate for a medical intervention.

One last thought: I think it is important to note that it is, of course, always your choice how proactive you want to be about these sweating episodes. If they become more frequent and/or severe, though, I do encourage you to try to find a solution for yourself as research has shown that women who experience frequent night sweats struggle more with stress and depression, which will only make this time of change more difficult. 

GROWING PAINS

HEY JESSICA: My son and I have always been quite close but recently, as he’s entered the second half of high school, I have noticed that he seems to be more easily irritated and sometimes really nasty, less talkative (he used to tell me pretty much everything), and less interested in spending time with the family. I am trying not to take it personally, but it really hurts my heart, especially as I am super aware that he will be off to college sooner than I would like. How can I repair the relationship and return things to how they used to be before he leaves the nest? ~A Heartsick Mom

DEAR HEARTSICK MOM: Oh, man. I feel you on this one big time! It is absolutely heart-wrenching when our teenagers start to pull away from us. It can feel like a major rejection, especially if you have been super close up until now. Given that you mentioned that you are trying not to take it personally, I think you know what I am about to say, but I think it is worthwhile to say anyway: what is happening is not only normal, it is probably a good thing.

In many ways, the teen years are very similar to the toddler years: it’s a time of discovery and experimentation with independence. In the toddler years, the tantrums and insistence that they do things on their own is their way of moving from being a baby who is dependent upon you for everything to a distinct individual. In the teen years, that same sort of separation needs to happen, but in this case it is going from being a child to an independent young adult. They need to separate from us in order to be able to manage the new-found independence and freedom they will experience—whether they go to college or jump right into the working world. And this time around, instead of tantrums (although, if we’re being honest, there are still some tantrums) we get snarky-ness, sullen moods, less information shared, and breaking of rules/pushing boundaries. It can be an exhausting and challenging time.

So, how do you handle this stressful time? You set clear expectations, you make yourself available without hovering, and you let them pull away. Let’s go through each of those pieces one by one.

As I said, teens are seeking autonomy. They want to be able to make their own decisions, but that doesn’t mean that they are entirely capable of doing so. So, one of your jobs as the parent of the teen is to set expectations so that your teen is aware of what behaviors are acceptable and which are not (this will be different for each family) and then trust them to explore, but not cross, the limitations you have set. And let’s be clear, they will very likely push those boundaries and defy your expectations at some point (or multiple times). That is also normal. Your job in those moments will be to be calm, clear, and consistent – because just as toddlers need to test the limits and then find a safe path back to that parental “home base,” teenagers need you to lovingly but firmly hold them accountable, which leads us to the second task: making yourself available without hovering.

Teenagers may act like they don’t care what we think or whether or not we are available, but they really, really do. They need to know that they have that secure and safe place to come back to. They need to know we are there for them. So how do we express that without being helicopter parents? We make space for low pressure one-on-one time, such as car rides, watching TV or reels together (my teen son LOVES to show me his favorite funny reels, which I sometimes find mind-numbingly boring, but sit through because he is sharing a part of his life with me), or participating in an activity you both enjoy together (video games, hiking, bike rides, etc.). We note when they seem down or sad and let them know that if they ever want to talk, we are here (and if they show up at our bedroom door at 11pm we force our eyes to stay open so we can be present for them). We make sure they know that we’ve got their backs, should they need us, but we allow them to be their own self-advocates and problem-solvers. And we listen way more than we talk.

And then there is the hardest one: we let them pull away. This is where you have to trust. You have to trust that you have set the expectations and made yourself available in such a way that they have the safety net they need and are now ready to venture out on their own. Why do we have to do this? Because if we don’t, if we instead hold on tight, they will have to pull away harder and we risk harming the relationship in the long run. So, we breathe deep, trust that we have done what we had to do, and step back.

The good news, though, is that if all goes well, they will come back. It won’t be the same, of course, after all they will have done some major growing up as they explored their autonomy. But if we have been able to maintain that trust, they’ll be able to return to us for support, guidance, and so much more throughout the many stages yet to come in their lives.

So in conclusion, Heartsick Mom, I know it is super hard to let go of what once was and I completely understand the desire to return to those earlier times, but the truth is that now is the time when we have to let them spread their wings and start experimenting with leaving the nest, especially if eventually we want to see them soar. 

CAREER CROSSROADS

HEY JESSICA: I have spent years building a solid career that in many ways I am proud of, but now that things are at a pretty stable place, I am looking out at the horizon and thinking, “am I really going to do THIS for another 20 years?!?!” I know I should be grateful for all that I have and proud of all that I have accomplished, but the future just feels so stagnant and uninspiring. Is this a midlife crisis? How do I know if I can keep this going or if I am going to need a career change to be truly happy?  ~Is That All There Is?

DEAR IS THAT ALL THERE IS: What you are describing is a super common experience for so many of us in midlife! We started out our careers with great ambitions and plans and over the past 15-20 years we have worked diligently to make our dreams a reality. The good news is, it sounds like in many ways you have done that! Congratulations! The less comfortable news (notice, I didn’t say “bad news”) is that it sounds as if you are questioning whether or not that will be enough for you.

As someone who has gone through this process herself, I can tell you that figuring out the answer to that question can be scary and hard, but it can also be incredibly exciting and empowering.

What I have come to believe is that in order to answer the question about whether or not our career path is the one we want to remain on, we first need to take a step back and think more broadly about what we want our life to look like now and into the future. And only after doing that can we determine whether our career fits into that broader vision or whether there is a shift that needs to be made. This can feel like a pretty overwhelming undertaking, so I thought that I would share an exercise that I put together for a workshop I ran last fall that can walk you through the process a bit. Feel free to follow it step by step, or take the pieces that most resonate with you… 

I see doing this work as a multi-step process (that probably takes 30-60 minutes, start to finish). First, we need to ensure that the things that we believe in and value most (what I like to call our core tenets) are in alignment with how we live our lives—which means we need to identify what those core tenets actually are. Second, we need to think about what we want our future to look like, according to those core tenets. Third, we then assess whether our current career path can align with this vision. And finally, we examine what needs to happen to bring all of this together so that we have a future that we are actually looking forward to. Here’s how I like to do this…

For step one, sit down in a quiet place, or at least somewhere where you won’t be interrupted, and do the following:

  • First, take 5 minutes to answer the following prompt: At this stage of your life, what are the things you would never give up?
  • Then, take another 5 minutes to look at that list and see what themes arise and then group those themes into five or so core tenets (values) that you want your life to embody.

For the second step, you are working to visualize what you truly want your future to look like. So, take another 5-10 minutes, again uninterrupted, to write out what you want your life to look like 5 years from now (you can also do this for 10 or even 20 years, but personally I find 5 years to be the most effective for visualizing my own life). Go into as much detail as possible. This can be a really stream-of-consciousness kind of exercise – it doesn’t need to be organized or articulate, it is just a way to let all of those ideas flow out. Some questions you might want to consider are: 

  • Who is living with you (partner, kids, parents, etc.)? 
  • Do you live where you are currently or elsewhere? 
  • Are you still working? If so, how much and are you working for yourself or someone else? 
  • What do your finances look like? 
  • What are your passions? Hobbies? Joys? 
  • Are there challenges you are facing?

Next, it’s time to look at your career within the context of your values (step one) and vision for the future (step two). So, ask yourself the following: In order to fulfill this 5-year visualization, what are priorities for your work? Money? Time? Notoriety? Having a job simply as a way to make a living or furthering a career? Then, look at these priorities in the context of the job you have now. Will your current job be able to fulfill this 5-year visualization and does it help you live up to those core tenets you identified?

Finally, it’s time to assess what needs to happen to bring all of this together so that you have a future that you are actually looking forward to.

If you determined that your current career can in fact line up with your vision for your future, then think in detail about what you need to do with your job, as well as with other parts of your life, to bring this 5-year visualization to fruition. What are the milestones you will need to reach over the course of those 5 years? If, on the other hand, you found that your current career path doesn’t align with your vision, then starting to brainstorm what you might want to be different and what options might very well be in your near future (if you find this is challenging, hit reply and I can give you some prompts to think about).

One final, important note. I know it can feel scary to look this closely at whether or not your life aligns with your core tenets, especially if you find that it doesn’t. But as you look at all of this, I hope that you will also take pride in all you have accomplished. Remember that you couldn’t have gotten to who and where you are without the experiences you have had, and that you still have so much time and adventure ahead of you, no matter whether you stick with the same career or move on to something new.

BATHING SUIT SEASON MISERY

HEY JESSICA: Now that summer is here, I’m realizing that means that I have to face going to the pool and beach, which means bathing suits. I have never loved putting on a bathing suit, but now as my body softens (to put it delicately) and dimples (read: cellulite f-ing everywhere), I dread it even more. I know the politically correct thing to do is to embrace my aging body, be grateful for all it’s done for me, demonstrate body positivity for my kids, just enjoy the moment, etc., etc. but I just can’t. Is there anything that I can do that will actually make this experience less painful? ~I Just Wanna Hide

DEAR I JUST WANNA HIDE: Thank you so, so much for asking this question! Even though I write about and strive to live my life in a place of body acceptance, the reality is that I still have moments of dissatisfaction with my body, and pulling out the bathing suit at the start of each summer is definitely a trigger point for me, too. And somehow, I don’t think we are the only two women who have had to face this struggle. 

For years, I thought that the only way to deal with these crashes in confidence was to just get over myself, suck in my stomach, and deal. But let’s be honest, embracing our bodies is always a challenge—thanks to years and years of overwhelmingly powerful body-shaming messages, especially during the most formative years of our lives. And when you throw in the realities of our changing bodies in midlife, it can be pretty much impossible to keep those nasty, nagging internal demons quiet. And as for the “just deal” part of my plan, well, we all know that simply suffering through it is never the healthy answer. I mean, is that what you would tell a friend or your own child to do? Most likely, not.

So the question becomes: what DO you do to ensure these negative feelings don’t become overwhelming? As I have written before, I think a great starting point is always to note the negative thoughts and then challenge them. We can do this by focusing on the aspects of our appearance that we do like and also celebrating all that our bodies have done for us. But, in the harsher moments, changing our mindsets can feel unrealistic, incredibly difficult, or just plain ridiculous. So, while I do think it is absolutely worthwhile to try to change our mindsets and practice quieting the cruel voices in our heads, I also believe that practical changes are sometimes called for.

Last year, after going round and round with myself, I decided that in addition to working on my mental game in this department, I also wanted to take some more concrete action that would make putting on a bathing suit and going to the pool/beach more enjoyable. First, I invested in a bathing suit that I actually felt OK in. Up until then, I had always told myself that spending money on a bathing suit was a waste because I was never going to feel great in it and would only wear it a few times a year. But it became clear that limping along with the same, old suits that I never actually felt good in was just making me feel worse. So, I did a bunch of research on bathing suit styles, ordered some online (so I could try them on at home rather than in an awful changing room), and found one that I felt pretty good in. For me, that meant a brightly-colored and patterned high waisted tankini. The bottoms give me a lot of coverage and the top comes down low enough that I don’t feel self-conscious about my stomach.

Second, I found a coverup that I really, really loved. One that was super light and comfortable and made me feel good about myself. That way, I could wear it the vast majority of the time I was at the pool/beach, while feeling both good about how I looked and physically comfortable.

Third, I embraced the water more because, guess what, once you are in the water, no one sees your bathing suit. Not only did this help me to feel less self-conscious, but it also allowed me to enjoy what I was there to enjoy in the first place: the cool of the water.

I’m not going to lie and tell you that this solved everything. I definitely still had/have my moments of UGH, but it did take the edge off enough, which meant that I could then have the mental energy to challenge those negative thoughts and also remind myself that I am so much more than my body and that people love and value me because of those things, and not what I look like in my bathing suit. 

HARD TALKS WITH OLDER PARENTS

HEY JESSICA: My parents have lived in the same house for over 40 years and while they aren’t hoarders or anything, the amount of stuff that is in that house fills me with dread, especially as I have seen a number of friends struggle with cleaning out their parents’ houses after their parents passed or when things got tricky enough that a nursing home was necessary. I want to bring my fears up to my parents, but I am worried that I will seem heartless or as if I am pointing out their mortality. Is there any tactful way that I could breach this topic with my parents without them taking offense? ~Don’t Wanna Seem Heartless

DEAR DON’T WANNA SEEM HEARTLESS: As someone who, like you, has seen how stressful it can be when adult children (and grandchildren) are left with a house full of stuff to clean out after the passing of their parents, I first want to say that thinking ahead about this is a really good first step and you are not at all heartless in wanting to address this issue.

In my experience, when managing potentially tricky situations like this, it’s best to be compassionate but direct. In fact, I believe almost all of the material that you need for opening this discussion with your parents is right in your question! Ideally, you’ll want to have this kind of conversation in person (if possible), as much can be lost or misunderstood over the phone and you also want to do it at a time when they are open and ready to talk. So, instead of springing this sort of question on them, I would mention that you have some logistical issues about the future that you’d like to talk with them about and let them suggest when that could happen.

Then, once you’re sitting down together, I’d recommend first saying that you very much hope that you are thinking about this issue way ahead of time, but that recently a friend had to face the sad reality of cleaning out their parents’ house when their parents had not prepared for it at all. I would tell your parents how overwhelming the process was for your friend, and then convey to them that you would like to avoid this kind of situation as much as possible by working with them to think through what steps could be taken ahead of time. Then, based on their response, you can build a plan. Perhaps they have already been thinking about this and have even been taking steps you didn’t know about. Or maybe they, too, feel overwhelmed by the prospect of starting to clear out stuff and need your support. And then there’s always the possibility that they won’t want to face the issue at all.

If they have already been thinking about this or have even started working on it, you get to breathe a sigh of relief and then can offer your help. If they have thought about it but are overwhelmed, you can help them strategize and put a plan into action. In both of these cases, one possible key step would be to identify small, manageable tasks that you tackle together each time you visit. Or, if there are funds available, you could consider hiring a professional organizer to help you (there are some who even specialize in this sort of clean-out job).

If, on the other hand, they reject your initial attempt at discussing the issue, then you’ve got a trickier situation on your hands. Again, you could offer to help in increments or hire someone to help. But, if that is not the right move, then I would either leave it for now—knowing you opened the door to this conversation—or gently encourage them to raise this issue with friends of theirs to see how they are handling it as hearing from peers can be helpful.

I also want to make a plug for you not taking all of this on by yourself. If you’ve got siblings, I encourage you to bring them in to help. Ideally you can talk with them about your fears even before you talk to your parents, trying to get on the same page, and then include them in the conversation. And as for the clean-out, I hope they’ll help with that as well. If there aren’t siblings in the picture, then perhaps your partner (if you’re partnered), your children (assuming you have them and they’re old enough), or even a really good friend can pitch in from time to time. Sorting through decades of your parents’ things not only will be a lot of physical work, but will also have a huge emotional component, so remember to take it slowly and make space for processing and self-care.

THE RAGE IS REAL

HEY JESSICA: Why am I so angry all the time? I feel like things that I used to be able to handle send me over the edge these days. Sometimes it feels justified, sometimes I know I’m not being rational, but the anger is real and feels like it takes over my body. Is this a midlife crisis? Perimenopause? Or have I just become a really angry person? I’d really love to get back to my normal self. Help!  ~I’m Not An “Angry Woman”

Dear NOT AN “ANGRY WOMAN”: You are SO not alone on the anger you are feeling. Almost weekly, I hear from women who are struggling to manage their anger. The rage is real and it can be incredibly uncomfortable, especially since, as women, we were taught to suppress such feelings and definitely not act on them. 

There are a number of reasons why you could be experiencing this anger. The reality is that there is a lot of tension and stress in our world these days and this could be your reaction to it. Similarly, many people, both men and women, experience an increase in anger as they enter midlife and begin to sort through the many emotions related to this transitional time in our lives. And then there are the hormonal shifts that happen in perimenopause, which can lead to lots of emotional reactions, including rage.

I want to dig into the perimenopause piece a tiny bit because I think understanding what is happening can help you to navigate the huge feelings you are experiencing. Do you remember the mood swings during puberty? In essence, that is exactly what is happening to our bodies now, just kind of in reverse. During puberty, our hormone levels soared as our bodies developed. During perimenopause, on the other hand, our estrogen levels drop (one could even say plummet). Unfortunately, estrogen plays an important role in the production of serotonin, which is essential for both mood stabilization and happiness. So, when we experience a drop in estrogen, we also experience a drop in serotonin, which means that we can feel sad or angry. Over time, our bodies will adjust to the new estrogen levels and our moods should even out, but throughout perimenopause our bodies can struggle to make sense of what is going on—this can feel like a consistent change in mood throughout the perimenopausal journey or it can come in waves as our brains acclimate to a drop in estrogen, restabilize, and then a month or two later respond to yet another drop. So, if you are also experiencing other perimenopausal symptoms such as irregular periods, drop in libido, trouble sleeping, unexplainable weight gain, or vaginal dryness, these hormonal shifts may very well be influencing these strong emotional reactions you are having.

Whether it’s your hormones or other external forces, there are things you can do so that you don’t feel as if you have lost yourself. First, acknowledge and accept that the anger is real. Suppressing your feelings is not going to resolve the issue and may, in fact, deepen it. Then, you can start to look at what might be setting your anger off—i.e., what your triggers are. It could be that you are more apt to get angry when you are tired, hungry, or even dehydrated. But it could also be that there are certain things that you used to put up with but aren’t prepared to stand for anymore. If this is the case, then acknowledging them and then finding a way to release the anger and deal with the issues constructively may be in order.

There are many ways that you can shift your responses. The first is to just acknowledge the feelings and ask whether your response is proportional to the irritation. If not, then finding ways to calm yourself before you handle the issue may be helpful. There are the classic ways to do this such as taking deep breaths, taking a break, going for a walk, journaling, etc. But if those aren’t helping, then it may be time to look at some broader options to help you stay a bit more balanced. These could include meditation (which has been shown to reduce anxiety and anger over time), finding a creative or physical outlet (e.g., music or an exercise routine that boosts your mood), therapy (if you have big feelings that you need help processing), or medication (this could look like either some support with your hormone fluctuations or using an anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication to help you make it through this stage). If it feels like it is too much to handle or you just can’t shake these feelings, then I encourage you to seek help from your doctor because it doesn’t need to be this hard.

Finally, I want to be clear that you should not feel guilty about your anger. There are many legitimate reasons, both internal and external, that can lead to such feelings, But I hope that some of these suggestions will help you to discover what the source might be for you and then to manage these powerful emotions so that you can feel more at peace with yourself. You deserve it!

*This advice column is solely for entertainment and educational purposes. I am not a
licensed therapist, and this column is not intended to be a substitute for advice from
your doctor, psychotherapist, professional coach, or other qualified individual. See my full privacy and disclosure policies here.

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