When Did Everybody Else Get So Old?: Indignities, Compromises, and the Unexpected Grace of Midlife by Jennifer Grant
From writer and veteran columnist Jennifer Grant comes an unflinching and spirited look at the transitions of midlife. When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? plumbs the physical, spiritual, and emotional changes unique to the middle years: from the emptying nest to the sagging effects of aging. Grant acknowledges the complexities and loss inherent in midlife and tells stories of sustaining disappointment, taking hard blows to the ego, undergoing a crisis of faith, and grieving the deaths not only of illusions but of loved ones. Yet she illuminates the confidence and grace that this season of life can also bring. Magnetic, good-humored, and full of hope in the sustaining power of the Spirit, this is a must-read for anyone facing the flux and flow of middle age.
Jennifer Grant is a writer, editor, and speaker. A former health and family columnist for the Chicago Tribune, she is the author of four previous books, including the adoption memoir Love You More. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, four children, and two rescue dogs. Find her online at jennifergrant.com or on Twitter @jennifercgrant.
Read an Excerpt
When Did Everybody Else Get So Old?
Indignities, Compromises, and the Unexpected Grace of Midlife
The city of Detroit holds a strange charm for me. It was home to my mother's parents, and although they died decades before I was born, they have captured my imagination ever since I was a child. I don't know much about them. She was a flapper and quite beautiful; he a poet and bootlegger on the wrong side of the law. They fled across the bridge to Canada, where, later, my mother was born.
Their lives must have been very hard; my grandmother died of tuberculosis when she was just past thirty. But my romantic imagination about them — and of Detroit in the 1920s — persists. It's the rascally grins, captured in black-and-white photos, of gangsters leaning up against Ford Model Ts. It's the glitzy interiors of speakeasies, Josephine Baker belting out "Blue Skies," and Fats Waller insisting that he "Ain't Misbehavin'." I picture my grandmother in a dropped-waist dress with a fringe, beads double strung and hanging low, and a scarf tied tightly around her head. My grandfather wears a double-breasted suit and a fedora, and he's smoking a cigar. In my imagination, she's like Zelda Fitzgerald, and he, Al Capone.
Several years ago, a writers' conference brought me to Detroit for the first time. Every evening, my fellow attendees and I were ushered into buses and delivered to cultural sites in the city. Our local hosts seemed to be showing off — or, perhaps, trying to convince us of — Detroit's potential to rise from the rubble and become a world-class city again.
I loved the city and the people I met while I was there. A cab driver gushing about recent improvements to the infrastructure. A hipster bookstore owner bragging about Elmore Leonard and Charles Bukowski and Detroit's rich literary history. A gritty bar owner telling stories about The White Stripes and Garage Rock. The spectacular Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Art. And so much more.
It is a city full of incongruity. Superbly renovated buildings line one city block, then, a moment later, there are structures that look as if a giant has ripped away entire façades to root clumsily around inside. Collapsed staircases linger in the remnants of brick tenement houses. Filthy mattresses hang off fire escapes. Steel rail tracks, on which horse-drawn streetcars once glided, are buried in the street, long out of use. There are countless vacant lots, some strewn with debris and garbage, and others transformed into neatly cultivated gardens where tomatoes and eggplants and peppers grow to nourish the neighborhood.
It all seemed so broken, so chin-up hopeful to me. So ready for a win.
One evening, we were dropped off at the edge of the Heidelberg Project, an open-air, community art installation composed of abandoned houses, found objects, and many works created from unwanted things. The project's website states, "As a whole, the [Heidelberg Project] is symbolic of how many communities in Detroit have become discarded. It asks questions and causes the viewer to think. When you observe the [Heidelberg Project], what do you really see? Is it art? Is it junk? Is it telling a story?" Old, dilapidated homes are painted with enormous polka dots or decorated with huge, worn stuffed animals. There are strange iterations of the American flag painted on walls and fences and rough scraps of wood. Signs nailed to tree trunks lead our gazes up to objects placed high in the branches — toys, sometimes, or painted signs with impenetrable messages about war or God or the USA. Broken, naked Barbie dolls are nailed to the siding of one house. Dozens of vacuum cleaners stand together in a field like a military unit, rubber gloves pulled over their handles.
Our hosts distributed mint juleps in small plastic cups as we walked from exhibit to exhibit. The drinks were far too sweet and strong for me; I left mine on what I hoped was a trash bin. Walking around the Heidelberg Project was like peeking into a storage closet of my unconscious — chaotic, playful, and unnerving, ready to set the stage for bizarre and mystical dreams. I fought back uneasy giggles.
But then I saw a piece of work that stopped me short. Sitting on its own, on a patch of grass, was a sculpture constructed from a television set and other old appliance parts. On it were painted the words "Yahweh Meet Me Half Way." My awkward smile faded, and I found myself in tears standing before it. Somehow those words tore right into me and articulated a longing I hadn't yet found the words to express. I stood still as my group moved on.
Yahweh Meet Me Half Way.
I was in my early forties (was I halfway through life?) and craving a sign — some divine reassurance — that I was on the right track. I'd built an entire adult life — was growing a marriage, raising four children, creating a network of friendships, and my career as a writer and editor had begun to mature. But what did it all mean? I wondered whether my life would come together into a meaningful body of work, or whether it all was mishmash, just a bunch of discarded junk at a garage sale. A messy pile of clothing. A dirty white extension cord. A few paperback books. Some water-damaged magazines. All as chaotic and hodgepodge as these unlikely art installations in the middle of this city. Would the many jumbled pieces and false starts and carefully tended relationships of my life come together to compose a story worth telling? Was I, like the broken-down, chin-up hopeful city of Detroit, teetering on the edge of rebirth — or was I just headed for further decline?
Time seemed to be passing so quickly all of a sudden. When I turned forty, my first child was beginning middle school, and all four of my kids seemed as if they were passengers on a high-speed train through adolescence. I struggled to make the transition into parenting my tween and teenaged children. They were no longer bright-faced and hopeful, home every Friday night and delighted by "Make Your Own Pizza Night!" or trips to the library or family bike rides. Worse, the number of opportunities they had to upend their lives terrified me.
Tweens and teens don't understand how much parents long for their kids to be safely on the other side of this white-water raft adventure we call adolescence. Every story of a good kid falling in with the wrong friends or giving up on school or otherwise finding his or her way into trouble or danger makes a parent's heart clench. It's not that we think our kids are reckless or weak or unreliable, but we know that their brains are still developing and they won't be truly mature for a few more years. We know something they can't seem to grasp in earlier adolescence: life can change course very quickly. And we know how fragile it can be. Over and over, we hear stories of teenagers experimenting with drugs or being pressured into other risky behaviors, and sometimes a bad decision costs them their lives ... or at least derails their dreams — and the dreams their parents had for them.
There seems to be a sea change when sixth grade begins — for children as well as for their parents. A recent study of American mothers found that mothers of children in middle school report the highest levels of "stress, loneliness and emptiness, and also the lowest levels of life satisfaction and fulfillment." Mothers of infants and adults were the most satisfied, but mothers of children in middle school "fare most poorly." These findings fit my experience.
When each of my kids was in middle school and transitioning into puberty, with its attendant sullen moods and horniness and throbbing acne and grand intellectual leaps and growing separate identities, my own body was changing too. The baggers at the grocery store had, seemingly overnight, traded "miss" for "ma'am" when they addressed me. "Ma'am" made me feel invisible. A fortysomething suburban woman with scraggly gray hair at my temples, haunting the background of everyone else's lives. (Why do all men just get called "sir," while "miss" is used for cute young "thangs" and "ma'am" for us more matronly types?) Now a "ma'am," I was reminded of the line from one of my favorite movies, High Society, when Celeste Holm's Elizabeth Imbrie, on being given the decidedly ambivalent compliment that she is "quite a girl," says to Frank Sinatra's character, "I guess I must be getting either booky, hippy, or toothy." I was now all three.
I wondered if I could grow stronger and braver in this new part of life or if I would simply keep losing steam and muscle mass. I was in what a researcher has called that "tapering-off time, the perimenopausal decade" between my reproductive years and menopause, though I'd only just begun to realize it. I felt tired. My skin was getting dry, and my heels cracked. I had odd bruises on my ankles that looked like someone had smeared colored chalk dust there. I had hot flashes and erratic moods and newly severe and unpredictable menstrual cycles. I bought a magnifying mirror and stared at my face with disbelief. What was with those enormous pores, and that Picassoesque scribble of broken blood vessels near my nose?
My early forties held other losses, too. My sister died. Fractures in my extended family cracked wide open, dividing us. The culture wars that continue to slash my country in half — our conflicting opinions about marriage equality, immigration, the environment, and other issues — seeped into a few of my friendships, straining them. I found myself in tricky social situations that, despite my best efforts, I could not make better.
And I second-guessed myself professionally. My dream job of writing a column for a major newspaper was gone in a flash when the paper fired all its freelance columnists. I moved on and began to write books, but was anyone even reading them? My first book came out at the same time as the novel Fifty Shades of Grey; and that book — unlike mine — was everywhere. Its success mocked my efforts as a writer; lascivious quotes in print ads and great stacks of Fifty Shades smacked their wet lips at me every time I turned around. Was writing trashy erotica the only way to win in an industry that itself seemed destined for obscurity? When my royalty statements arrived, I fed them, unopened, to the shredder.
In college, I'd studied cultural anthropology and very nearly went on to grad school in the field. Before my husband and I had kids, I tapped into that background by working for a global health organization. Ever besieged by wanderlust, I loved traveling abroad to visit public health clinics and to work in foreign cities, but mostly I cherished the sense of purpose I had in my work. I saw firsthand how medical interventions and microloans and vaccines saved the lives of people in some of the world's lowest income countries. But it had been decades since I'd had the chance to dig deeply into this kind of work. Would I ever be able to return to it, or was I destined to remain in the pleasant custody of the suburbs, standing in the grocery store aisle weighing the relative merits of different brands of dryer sheets and juice boxes?
One of my kids' favorite movies when they were little was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and it was not only the spine-chilling character of the Child Catcher that unsettled me. In the movie, Dick Van Dyke plays the middle-aged, graying, and somewhat loopy Caractacus Potts, an unsuccessful inventor. After years of creating oddball devices, he is granted twenty seconds with someone who could bring one of his inventions to market. Potts botches the meeting, and the annoyed business owner dismisses him, saying, "Too late. Had your chance. Muffed it."
Was I as pathetic and half-baked a figure as Potts?
Had I "muffed" all the opportunities life had handed me?
What unsettled me the most, however, was that I was straining to keep my faith. Why didn't God feel closer to me at this point in life? Shouldn't I feel more certain, and not less, about the presence of a loving God? I longed for purpose, for vision, for some small nod that would let me know that I was on the right track. I prayed anxious, grabby prayers in the middle of the night. Am I missing something? Am I doing anything right? Are you there, God? It's me, Jenni.
The answer to my frantic prayers seemed to be silence. Not a companionable silence, but one as lonely and foreboding as a car door slamming, the sound echoing against the concrete walls of a deserted parking garage. I longed for a sure, clear sense that I wasn't wasting my life, frittering away my gifts, unplugged from what really mattered. Standing before that art installation at the Heidelberg Project, I felt stuck. I wondered for what felt like the hundredth time: Couldn't God or the universe or someone give me a sign?
Couldn't you just meet me halfway?
Jenny's (Better) Bio
The day my friend Jenny posted a new bio on her website, I was plunged into a pit of despair. A slough of despond. A crushing, if also temporary, identity crisis. Whether a slight hormonal upsurge (or downswing) had anything to do with it is anyone's guess. But on an otherwise ordinary Saturday afternoon, I started coming apart at the seams.
Jenny and I have been friends for more than twenty years. She's the kind of friend I can travel with and not interrupt our conversation by closing the bathroom door or slipping away to change my clothes. So yes, she's seen me in my granny underwear (as opposed to her much slinkier underthings). A professional yogi, she's strong and lithe — and, with her, I'll even put my most clumsy self on display, sweating profusely as I try to salute the sun or hold that plank just a few seconds longer.
Both of us married our college boyfriends and understand what it means to commit to another person for the long haul. We've fessed up about the particulars of our sex lives — including the way growing older has affected desire and pleasure ... and no, not for the worse. We talk about the tedious aspects of parenting, as well as the conversations, epiphanies, and incidents of true connection with our children that make all the mind-numbingly dull or exasperating moments worthwhile. Both of us are writers, and we seek each other out for encouragement when it feels as if we are just banging our fists on the keyboards, pounding out nothing of value. And when we show up for weekends away together, we arrive with the same provisions: brie, rice crackers, baby carrots, dark chocolate, fig jam, a bottle of prosecco.
As I stared at my computer screen, reading and rereading Jenny's new bio, my ego awoke, yawned, and stretched its arms wide, readying itself to thrash me with self-recrimination. Unlike my bio, Jenny's was so very right on. She had struck just the right balance of professional and funny. Mine was a bore. The funniest thing in it was a reference to my stint as the writer of the local police blotter, reporting on minor infractions including garden gnome thefts. (Seriously.) I was suddenly quite certain that I was a vapid, dull, wholly skippable person. I felt a wave of shame. Who am I, anyway? Just a middle-aged mother of four teenagers who, many days, didn't seem to appreciate me very much.
Timothy Keller says the ego is always ready to prepare its "self-esteem resume." Its natural condition is "empty, painful, busy, and fragile." Yes, yes, yes, and yes. After reading Jenny's new bio, my ego was on a rampage. What was I doing with my life? Had I ever written anything that mattered? Why was I so soft in the middle when the rest of my life was so hard? That I knew better than to do this to myself only made things worse. I scolded myself: Was a well-written bio really a litmus test for whether my life had value? Was I not finally above this sort of thing, for crying out loud?
A few years ago, I went to a close friend's birthday dinner in New York City. I'd never before met the three other people who came that night. One was in the traveling cast of a Broadway musical. Another was an actor who had just returned from California after doing a guest spot on a TV show. My friend and the other guest, a college professor, were just beginning to date. They eyed each other sweetly, occasionally reaching across the table to touch the other's forearms. (It was adorable.)
After we chatted for about half an hour, the conversation turned to me. When asked about my life, I fumbled over my words. Freelance writer. Parenting books. Adoption. Chicago suburbs. Four children. At-home mom. I sounded like a one-dimensional 1950s housewife — June Cleaver talking about housework or fretting over the Beav's shenanigans, primly patting her hands dry at the kitchen sink.
As I stammered, my friend jumped in. "She's mom to my favorite kids in the world," she said. "And I love her work."
The others looked on, their smiles wan. They regarded me cautiously now, as though they knew something I didn't ... as though I was about to receive a diagnosis for some incurable disease.
"Four children. Wow," one woman said, her voice flat, finally breaking the silence. "That's a lot."
When Did Everybody Else Get So Old?: Indignities, Compromises, and the Unexpected Grace of Midlife 4.5 out of 5based on
8 months ago
I received this book from Handlebar for the purpose of writing an honest review.
Jennifer Grant's subtitle says it well: indignities, compromises and the unexpected grace of midlife.
If at 46 I am at midlife, will I live to 92?
My husband defines midlife as 10 years older than I am. So, midlife is 80?
Jennifer defines midlife as, "the beginning of life's compelling third act-not just as a time of chin hairs and disappointment." Our roots deeper and trunks stronger than when we were young, we can stand tall, poised to help the rest of the first thrive.
With humor she chronicles the journey and I found the book enjoyable from the standpoint of honesty and transparency.
However, I do not agree with her picture of Christianity, the Bible and what the Bible says about death and heaven. It has all the potential of being a very relatable book for especially ladies as they approach the middle age stage and how they relate to teens, parents, life and friends. But the confusion of the last chapter: The Bridesmaids and the Oil left me sad. I feel she has misunderstood the account in scripture and thereby missed the value of a personal relationship with the Bridegroom, the precious Son of God, Jesus.
9 months ago
I received a copy of WHEN DID EVERYBODY ELSE GET SO OLD?: INDIGNITIES, COMPROMISES, AND THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF MIDLIFE by Jennifer Grant from Herald Press in exchange for an honest review.
I am a few years away from middle age, but I am an eclectic reader and enjoy religious novels. I sat down with this book thinking to spend a half-hour on a few chapters…and I breezed right through it. Jennifer Grant’s writing is catchy and heart-felt. She isn’t afraid to show her fault and she revels in life’s joys. That reveling is contagious!
I recommend this book and will be sharing it with my middle-aged friends and family members. This would make a great gift for the upcoming holidays.
More than 1 year ago
Jennifer Grant did it again. She made me cry and laugh at the same time. Her writing style (somewhere between Anne Lamott and Elizabeth Lesser but somehow completely her own) is touching and effective, and made me sad to finish the book. Write more Jennifer Grant! Transitioning from parenting to empty nest is an emotionally volatile phase—it is nice to know I am not the only one to have such complex, wildly volatile, and paradoxical views on this stage of life. Buy it. Read it. Give it as a gift. Every middle aged woman in America needs this.
More than 1 year ago
A beautifully woven tale of growth, loss, fear, release, and love. I took it on a walk with me as I neared the last chapters. I read it on foot, so sad was I to end this walk with a friend.
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