The Truth About Midlife

Navigating the Messy Middle

By Ann Douglas, author of “Navigating The Messy Middle

This post was originally published by in February 2023

I interviewed over 100 midlife women about their hopes and dreams, worries and regrets. What they told me was enough to fill a book. Here’s what I learned from them—and what I want other women to know about midlife.

Midlife can be messy—especially for women. It’s a time in our lives when our roles and responsibilities are changing and we’re trying to connect the dots between past, present, and future—to figure out who we’ve been, who we are, and who we hope to become.

And, at the same time, we’re being faced with all kinds of confusing messages about what it means to be at midlife. “Midlife is magical!” “Midlife is miserable!” What we eventually figure out is that it’s actually a little of both—that the truth is somewhere in the middle. The messy middle.

How do I know this? Because I recently had the opportunity to interview more than 100 midlife women about their own journeys through midlife.

We talked about our hopes and dreams and our worries and regrets, plus our ongoing struggles, big and small, to make sense of this middle chapter of our lives—a time when our bodies, lives, and relationships tend to be in flux.

We acknowledged our feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm—the fact that midlife is a time of life when we tend to be carrying an exceptionally heavy load and when we’re relied upon by an awful lot of people.

Related: Book Review of “Women of Interest: The Book of Ultimate Trivia,” by Alicia Alvrez

We celebrated the brilliance of our midlife brains: their ability to spot patterns and solve problems in a way that simply wasn’t possible when we were younger.

And we talked about what we want most for ourselves, the people we care about, and our planet moving forward—and the role we see ourselves playing in that moving forward.

My key takeaway from these conversations? That there’s nothing even remotely resembling a one-size-fits all midlife experience with a predictable beginning, middle, and end.

How could there be? We’re all one-of-a-kind individuals making our own unique journeys through life.

We don’t even arrive at or exit midlife at any predictable time. Sure, midlife researchers will tell you that midlife tends to run from age 40 to 60, plus or minus ten years, but they also make the point that more important than chronological age are “the unique role constellations that people take on combined with the timing of life events and experiences,” in the words of developmental psychologist Margie E. Lachman.

That’s what makes midlife fascinating: my favorite life stage so far, both to live through and to write about. As I note in my book “Navigating The Messy Middle: A Fiercely Honest and Wildly Encouraging Guide for Midlife Women:”

“Midlife requires a radical imagination: a willingness to tell ourselves new and better stories about our lives.

“We need stories that reject all the life-limiting narratives that only serve to make life harder and that actively conspire to rob us of joy.

“We need stories that embrace—rather than erase—the nuance and contradiction that are woven into the very fabric of this life stage. We need stories that allow us to find meaning in all that messiness. And, above all, we need stories that remind us that we don’t have to journey through this life stage—or any stage of life—on our own.”

That’s why I’m so excited to be writing this column: because it will give us an opportunity to reimagine midlife together. Thanks for being here.

Ann Douglas is the author of 26 non-fiction books, including “Navigating the Messy Middle: A Fiercely Honest and Wildly Encouraging Guide for Midlife Women.” You can learn more about her books and find out about her upcoming events by visiting her website at


Infurna, F. J., Gerstorf, D., & Lachman, M. E. (2020). Midlife in the 2020s: Opportunities and challenges. American Psychologist, 75(4), 470–485.


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