Nightmare of Middle Age

I woke up last night in a panic. I’d had a nightmare in which I knew I had exactly two days to move. The current house had to be empty and we had to be somewhere else in 48 hours. But I had no plan, had packed nothing, and knew not where we could go.

I don’t remember many details, but I remember Spouse trying to get me to answer some questions. We had either reconciled or finished all the divorce paperwork—I don’t know which, but something was capital-F Final about our relationship—and he wanted to know what my plans were.

“I don’t even know what state to move to,” I recall keening. In the dream, I couldn’t even process all the possibilities: there were no choices except homelessness and utter hopelessness.

And a cheerful new year to you, too.


The longest I have lived in a house is five years. It was the home Spouse and I bought just before we got married. We painted and decorated and improved. We devoted every moment for 40% of that time to an adorable little Peanut whose presence made love more important than location. And we lost all our equity selling it in 2008.

The second longest I lived in one place was during high school. My mom moved us just before I started freshman year, so I could go to the best public school in the area. When I left for college I’d been in that house exactly four years.

In a few months, I will have been in this current rental for four years. We moved on Butterbean’s first birthday. It’s been a rollercoaster, and I’ve been trying to find a different, less expensive place to live for almost two years. But this is the house both boys have considered home for most of their lives.

I don’t know what the dream is trying to tell me. I don’t believe in dream analysis. I believe the unconscious mind combines the days’ and weeks’ images into a new story which is sometimes enjoyable and sometime terrifying. Either way, it’s fiction. The stress is real, but the story is fiction. And I tried to remember that when I awoke. “Just get a job,” I told my waking self as the homeless/hopeless panic swelled. I assessed the level of light outside and the lack of small children’s voices, and I went back to sleep.

I’ve always somehow thought that moving would solve problems. At last count, I’ve moved 26 times in my life. Feeling uncomfortable? Pack up everything and move. Not sure what you want to be when you grow up? It’s probably the apartment; change it. Scared about money and the future? Get a new address to distract you.

I’m managed this urge, somewhat, as an adult, by rearranging furniture. But the furniture is heavy and I’m less reasonable in my dreams. So it’s time to move.

I thought about this on a long run, the hours when I ditch music and podcasts and children and distractions to just let my thoughts wander. I tried to gauge how my life is going: my parenting and career and status as an engaged citizen and human. And I found a big problem.

The few metrics we have for being successful adults are not useful measures of successful human-ing.

I like data on how I’m doing. Good or bad, I prefer being measured. I’ve always loved tests and grades and competition with metrics, because with numbers I know who I am. Without them, I’m lost. I need to know how badly I suck (or, rarely, how awesome I am) based entirely on extrinsic factors. I’m not kidding and I’m not being hyperbolic. I went through a long spell after college of measuring my worth by the numbers on the scale and my paycheck. I don’t enjoy admitting it, but I feel lost without rankings to give me a sense of success or failure.

The idea that I want to be measured…by grades, by the pound, by test score, by winner’s medal color…is problematic in adulthood, because there are very few quantifiable situations in which I’m compared to others. And I find that I’m failing at those which remain into middle age.

Happiness has no numbers attached to it. Nor does successful parenting, career prowess, or intelligent uses of time. I refuse to be measured by whether my kids eat the food I cook. I won’t look at the scale anymore, nor do I care what size I wear.

So what’s left to measure?
Run pace. (Awful, and getting worse the less sleep I get.)
Bank account. (Sob.)
Number of books finished this year. (No idea. One, maybe?)
Retirement account. (Fetal position.)
Number of friends. (Decent. They’re probably pretending, though.)
Salary. (I’m a consultant and this varies obscenely.)
Current client projects. (It’s December. Everything dries up.)
Books published. (…)

So how do I do I decide what to do if I don’t have a metric on which to base a decision? And if I use money and pages read to determine my worth, I’m a miserable human. But that can’t be true.

I need a calculation. I am ___% a success. I’m pretty sure the number is low. But if it’s not as bad as I assume, maybe I’ll feel better. And I could chart a path for improvement. To get better I should…what? Move? Begin a new career? Get a new job in current career? Find a new roommate? Move to a new geographic location? Cultivate a new hobby? Get back on stage?

I want some way to know if I’m doing okay. Fair to middling? Exceedingly well?

Relative to what? Younger me? Last year’s me? This year’s you? That guy down the street? Across town? Across the country? On the other side of the world? This is a stupid game and I shouldn’t be playing.

My experience of joy and of paralyzing fear, motivation, and sorrow have nothing to do with comparison or scores or rankings. But I feel someone should be showing me numbers. Evaluating. Measuring.

I need a grade. A score. A ranking.

42. It’s the answer to life, the Universe, and everything, right?

Doesn’t feel as though 42 is the answer. So I guess it’s time to fake it until I make it. Or ask what the question is, rather than what the answer is.

13 thoughts on “Nightmare of Middle Age

  1. I feel you. I really feel you. That said, this is a brilliant piece of writing.

    Does that help?

    Here are a few comforting metrics: 87% of all divorced/divorcing mothers experience extreme disorientation if caught contemplating any future beyond 48 hours; 64% of divorced/divorcing mothers have nightmares, of those, 22% have nightmares they are homeless; the #1 fear of middle aged women (50+ so you don’t qualify yet) is financial/poverty.

    Okay. Confession. I made all those metrics up except the one about financial fear.

    They all sound plausible, don’t they? To me, they sound like low-ball figures. The point is, what you’re feeling is ‘normal.’ Terrifying at moments, but you’d be crazy NOT to feel this way.

    Keep writing.

    Like I said, brilliant.

    • I love you so much. I laughed so hard reading this, because the numbers are all I need. I covered my eyes for the “falsifying information” thing and plan to say that I saw it on the internet from a prominent writer. Because that’s true.

      High five, Wolfie. Thanks for the stats.

  2. Well, you have TWO (count them, 2!) awesome kiddos, who most of the time (say 60% give or take) are not evil demon spawns.

    And you have me (all 1 of me) who thinks you (also n=1) are awesome. And I’m not pretending (so 100% true).

    And I agree 100% with the stats from Wolf (who also counts for 1 whole number awesome).

    So, 5 for 5 in awesome.

    I’m a scientist. My maths are 100% good.

    • Your maths are notable for their precision and their statistical significance. Plusl, a series of n=1 calculations means you’re 1000% awesome. Because America.

  3. I don’t do math. I used to do moving, but it was forced on me as a military child, so now I sort of fear it.

    I do, however, understand the strong desire to be favorably rated on some sort of scale that would measure my awesomeness. Or lack thereof. Certainly can’t ask the children to do it, though, as they’re biased graders and would fail me out of spite if I happened to insist on their eating their dinner that night. Or something equally heinous.

    For what it’s worth, based on what I read here, I give you an A for effort. And an A plus for self-awareness.

  4. According to study that I just made up, you are 100 percent successful in knowing yourself which is better than 100 percent of the population.
    You object of the game of life is to know thyself, therefore, YOU WIN!

    (seriously, I love you, friend, and please put this up on medium. you are SO GOOD)

    • Any time Alexandra says “100%” and “truth”, I listen. One hundred percent of the time. So my win is documented and cited. Done.

      You’re the most magnanimous Empress ever.

  5. Oh, my god, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this piece. I just got totally swept away with your essay.
    So that “books published” number? Surely it has got to change.
    Loved it.

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