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Navigating the Messy Middle
Q&A with Canadian author Ann Douglas
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Longtime blogging gave me an international network of colleagues. But to call them “colleagues” doesn’t get at the heart-to-heart relationships we forged over the years.
I’ll call these folks “my people.” It doesn’t matter if you live nearby or talk often, you just know when you encounter one of your people.
Ann Douglas is one of my people.
Ann’s the author of 26 (!) books, including Canada's bestselling book series on pregnancy and parenting. She also wrote Parenting Through the Storm, a compassionate and insightful guide for parents of kids with developmental- and/or emotional struggles.
Her four kids are now adults, and she’s still writing, speaking and advocating for change. Her newest book, Navigating the Messy Middle: A Fiercely Honest and Wildly Encouraging Guide for Midlife Women, is out this week in the US.
Ann articulates the complexity and promise in this stage of life and respects her readers enough to handle that fullness. As I read this book I thought finally, no one’s bullshitting me.
Ann’s a member of the Parent of Adults community (lucky me), and generously agreed to answer my questions about her new book.
Asha: Navigating the Messy Middle is a lively, fast read that’s layered with nuance, meaning, and practical takeaways. It's like the Tardis: bigger on the inside!
Why was this book important for you to write right now?
Ann: The past few years have been a really challenging time to be a caring, thinking person, let alone a caring, thinking person at midlife. Not only have we been living through a series of interconnected crises (climate change, political and social upheaval, and, of course, a global pandemic): those of us at midlife have been dealing with all the garden-variety midlife challenges at the same time.
I wrote this book to offer encouragement to other midlife women: to let them know that they aren’t the only ones who have been feeling crushed or overwhelmed.
As I write in the opening pages of the book:
I wrote this book for every caring, thinking woman who has ever been brave enough to ask herself the tough questions, who refuses to settle for things as they are, choosing instead to dare to imagine how things could be. Who knows? Maybe I wrote this book for you.
Your research grew out of conversations with over 100 women and queer folks of different races, genders, classes, abilities, and family statuses.
Did this diverse array of stories change how you thought and wrote about midlife?
It absolutely did. I knew, when I set out to write this book, that I didn’t want to write a midlife book that only tapped into the lives and experiences of women just like me (a white, married, middle-class woman with children). There are already so many books like that. Too many, in fact.
I made a conscious effort to seek out women whose life experiences have been very different from my own. Because here’s the thing: I wasn’t just interested in writing about these women. I was interested in learning from those women.
Hearing their stories made it impossible for me to settle for, let alone offer, any sort of reductive midlife narrative that pretends that there’s anything even remotely resembling a “typical” midlife experience. Because there’s not.
“I wrote this book for every caring, thinking woman who has ever been brave enough to ask herself the tough questions, who refuses to settle for things as they are, choosing instead to dare to imagine how things could be.”
Your message is bracing and encouraging for those of us in midlife. At the same time, there’s no sugar-coating and no pat answers.
What stereotypes do you hope to push against?
I want to offer an alternative to the cultural messages that tell us that midlife is either completely magical or completely miserable when, in fact, the truth falls somewhere in the middle. The messy middle.
Midlife is full of nuance and contradiction, which makes it a fascinating life stage to live through and to write about. And that’s why I describe this book as both a midlife love letter and a midlife lament. There are all those different layers to this messy middle chapter in our lives.
As I read this book I thought finally, no one’s bullshitting me.
You offer more than just stories and suggestions; you issue a call for social change.
How does one begin the journey toward community and activism?
The goal is to zero in on opportunities that feel less like something you have to do and more like something you want to do.
Look for an opportunity that feels exciting and life-enhancing (as opposed to one more obligation to be added to an already impossibly long to do list).
Think about issues that matter deeply to you and consider how you might be able to contribute to the work that’s already being done by other people (as opposed to feeling like you need to create something new from scratch).
Consider what skills you could bring to the table and who you want to be in community with.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give someone a few years behind you?
Look for opportunities to forge friendships with other women — and to do so across generations.
In the words of narrative psychologist Molly Andrews, we can journey through our lives “with one arm stretched out to those who are older than ourselves, and the other reaching back to those who will follow in our footsteps.”
We don’t have to journey through midlife on our own. We can journey together. We can continue to share our lives and our stories.
THANK YOU, ANN. Isn’t she great??
Paid subscribers get a special bonus: an essay Ann wrote just for us called “What I’ve Figured Out So Far About Being the Parent of Young Adults.”
Parenting Through the Storm covers all the way through the teen- and young adult years. I can’t recommend this book enough — it gave me steadying wisdom during some particularly turbulent years.