Discover Your Seasons of Midlife Transition (and journaling prompts)

Tree, words_ discover your season of midlife transition, blog post by Patty Bechtold therapy for women, wiselifetherapy.com

If you’re a woman in the midst of midlife transition  you’re in the right place. In this post I’m exploring the many possible seasons of midlife, inspired by my my work with midlife women in my coaching and therapy practice, as well as my own journey and a poem by poet David Whyte. There are journaling prompts here too, so scroll to the end if you feel the urge to start writing.

Did you know that a midlife transition is not the same as a midlife crisis?

I want to get that out of the way immediately because if you search for information on midlife transition it might seem like they’re the same. Often, midlife crisis and midlife transition are described as a package deal.

However, midlife doesn’t necessarily equate to crisis. In fact, many midlife women experience the varied transitions of their middle years without the extremes of crisis.

Midlife transition is often seen through the lens of external developmental stages.

Basically that means the focus is on external events happening in your life.

For instance, the traditional marker events of midlife tend to include:

  • children leaving home (and possibly returning home)
  • adjusting to an “empty nest”
  • becoming a grandparent
  • adjusting to aging parents and possibly caregiving
  • the loss of aging parents
  • adjusting to your own aging

Although a developmental approach can be helpful, it misses a lot.

While much may happen externally in midlife, even more happens internally.

Furthermore, not all developmental stages apply to all women, especially those who don’t have children. Statistics vary, but it’s pretty clear that more women than ever are reaching midlife without children.

Finally, midlife transition is more than a handful of events that you move through and get beyond somewhere between the ages of 35 and 65.

What if midlife transition is a series of seasons experienced over a long range of years?

And what if midlife continues well beyond the age of 65?

The first time I considered this, about a decade ago, I was starting with two new therapy clients on the same day: back-to-back appointments, both women around 50 years old.

They didn’t know each other but they said almost exactly the same thing: “I’m 50 years old and I still have half my life to live.”

Their words stayed with me and I tried to add them up. I admit I was skeptical: Would they really live until 100?

Now I can see that my skepticism was coming from the parts of me that can be too linear and rational.

Nevertheless the possibility stayed with me, and when I was introduced to this quote by Isabel Allende a few years ago I finally got it…

In the past, adulthood arrived at twenty, middle age at forty, and old age at fifty. Today adolescence lasts until past thirty or forty, maturity comes around sixty, and old age starts at eighty.

I believe Allende is saying that no matter how long we live, the energy and seasons of our midlife transition years can last well beyond what the developmental stages tell us.

When I think about seasons of midlife transition, I remember my mother. And a particular song.

I was a pretty young kid at the time when the song played on the radio. And my mother was on the precipice of her own midlife transition. She’d pause when the song started, with a wistful look on her face as she listened…

Oh it’s a long, long time
From May to December
And the days grow short
When you reach September
When the autumn weather
Turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time
For the waiting game…
September Song, by Kurt Weill

I asked my mom what the song meant and she explained to me (as much as I could take understand) about May/December romances and getting older. But mostly I thought it was pretty cool that the passing of our days could be understood through seasonal metaphors.

Of course I don’t know what my mom was thinking as she listened to this somewhat haunting melody. She was in her late 30’s, and perhaps the song brought with it an inkling that her next season of life would be very different from the one she was in.

photo, woman in midlife transition leaning against a tree

I’ve since discovered that embracing seasonal metaphors can actually be a balm during our midlife transition years.

With so much happening, particularly for women, we need other ways to process and make sense of the changes we’re experiencing.

And sometimes, even when the outward circumstances of your life remain relatively calm during midlife, there’s still a feeling of internal unrest that keeps scratching at the door. It’s a deep internal hum that grows louder and more persistent, like bees buzzing on summer lavender.

It’s a time when you may feel like life is passing you by, and a frightening but compelling question might begin to get under your skin and take root:

If this is all it’s going to be for the rest of my life, is it enough for me?

I was in the midst of my own midlife journey when a question (posed by poet David Whyte) got under my skin.

It’s part of his essay, 10 Questions That Have No Right to Go Away.

Here’s the question that kept pulling me back to it, like a knot that I couldn’t untie all the way.

Are you Harvesting from this Year’s Season of Life?

As Whyte explains it, humans tend to prefer comfort over change, and as a result “get behind in the curve of their own transformation.” Then, we keep pushing away the discomfort of transition until we’re forced to face it when some kind of loss or trauma wakes us up.

But, “having spent so much time away from what is real, [we] hit present reality with such impact that [we] break apart on contact with the true circumstance.”

I’d say that’s a pretty wise perspective on human nature and the nature of transition. And a few years ago I realized it applied to me in some ways, when I discovered Whyte’s question.

words, wisdom is harvesting from this year's season of life, blog post by Patty Bechtold therapy for women, wiselifetherapy.com

It turns out I had more to discover about the many midlife transition seasons of life.

I got a bit lost in Whyte’s question and began to fear that I was living behind the curve of my own transformation. In spite of the somewhat radical (and fairly successful) midlife transitions I’d recently made, I felt confused. 

Had my inner self really kept pace with it all?

I definitely dropped into the discomfort of the season of life I was in, largely because challenging things had happened that I hadn’t foreseen and couldn’t control. (Losing my dearest friend to brain cancer; political upheaval; multiple years of devastating and frightening wildfires and evacuations; my husband’s somewhat difficult retirement; a global pandemic; ongoing world chaos.)

So a part of me longed for more comfort, for the day when things would feel normal again. My journal was my constant companion. I returned to it often, digging down below the surface questions.

One day I unearthed a buried insight about midlife transition and life stages.

I finally remembered that no matter how hard you try, you can’t always quantify these things.

Of course, I knew this! I had explored it with many clients, but couldn’t see it in my own life.

I realized that while David Whyte genuinely wishes that we humans could be more in sync with the curves of our transitions and seasons of our lives so that we don’t lose track of where we are, it isn’t always within our control.

This is the nature of grief, change, transition, or what Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls the Life-Death-Life Cycle. There is hope and a way through, yet it’s often true that the hard part is going to be what it is going to be.

Still, Whyte goes on to propose that we can sync up with our seasons by frequently asking: Where am I now?

That proved to be a helpful journaling question that led to one I liked even more: What inner parts of me need more of my time and attention in this season of life?

Yet, in spite of all the journaling, something was still missing.

It bothered me. So much so that I kept honing in on one particular part of Whyte’s essay:

If you were a farmer, and you tried to harvest what belonged to the previous season, you’d exhaust yourself trying to bring it in when it’s no longer there. Or attempting to gather fruit too early, too hard or too late and too ripe…A person must understand the conversation happening around them as early in the process as possible and then stay with it until it bears fruit.

Not only did these words pique my curiosity but they puzzled me as well.

I wondered:

  • Did I truly understand what I was harvesting in this season of life?
  • Had I missed something?
  • Is that why everything felt so hard?

So one day, kind of as a last resort, I turned to my husband and asked him the question:

Dave, what does it mean to you to harvest from this year’s season of life?

That day I finally saw how simple it can be to know what season of life you’re in.

His answer was so clear and uncomplicated. It almost instantly opened me up to what I knew but didn’t know I knew yet.

Here’s what my husband said:

Harvesting from this year’s season of life means enjoying all the delicious fruits, nuts and berries that are available right now.

(He was speaking metaphorically, of course.)

His answer stopped me in my tracks. It was a turning point, the realization that there is always something delicious to harvest, even during difficult seasons of life and difficult seasons of midlife transition.

Right now.

Even when you’re out of sync with your personal transformations.

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Now I know: You begin naming your season of life by naming what’s here for you now.

I’d forgotten that in midlife we often go a little unconscious to what’s available right now. This definitely happened to me.

It’s a little like putting the cart before the horse. I know, that’s a pretty outdated metaphor. But in the quest to get out of the muck and confusion of transition, you often want to escape the present and run ahead to what you think will be better. Or even return to where you were previously comfortable.

But by anchoring yourself to even the simplest things that are here right now, you begin to calm your brain and body, making space for the wisdom that will not only help you understand the season of life you’re in, but also reveal the path to your next season of life.

You can start by naming simple and pleasurable experiences, behaviors, feelings.

That’s the point when my journaling took a decided turn.

Praises for sunlight and wild turkeys, warm fires and winter sunsets began filling the pages. One day, quite unexpectedly, I wrote five pages on the pleasures of morning coffee:

It’s the ritual, the separating the drip cone from the cup, the pouring in of milk, the warmth of the cup in your hand. No matter the season you somehow need that warm cup to wrap your fingers around. It’s the transition from the warm bed to the warm cup.

Not long after that I discovered I could name my season of life: A season for savoring the things I used to take for granted.

And if you were to press me to name an actual season, I’d say it feels like late summer moving toward autumn. Warm days and cooler nights. A certain scent in the air that’s familiar and unnameable. The abundance of a garden on the edge of things.

Journaling Invitations to Unearth Your Season of Life

(1) Make a list: What (metaphorical) fruits, nuts and berries are available for me to harvest right now that I may or may not be noticing? (These might be very simple things.)

(2) Write short vignettes/snapshots about the things on your list. Slow down, savor, fully appreciate them. Write from sense memory and capture sensory details.

(3) Do a sprint through these writing prompts, spending about two minutes on each one:

  • I really appreciate…
  • The best part of my day is…
  • I always love it when this happens…
  • If my season were a color it would be…
  • If my season were a place it would be…
  • What I know about my season is…

A few years ago I hosted a journaling workshop based on the seasons of midlife transition.

About 25 amazing women gathered. I shared this story and together we journaled through the process I’ve described here.

At the end of the workshop I asked each woman to put a few words from their journaling that day into the Zoom chat.

Below you’ll find the group poem that I created from those 90 minutes huddled with our journals and each other. Putting these group poems together after a women’s circle or workshop is truly a transformational experience.

And this one’s for my mother. I’m pretty sure she’s listening.

Harvesting From the Seasons of My Midlife Transitions

My ripening is about awakening

(no more languishing).

I want to learn from the clouds

and chickadees, the sound of chimes

that foster this lightness of being.

I want to get lost in colors, textures, paint

reliving the joy of a simple moment,

awakening to a year of transitions.

* * * * *

Time to give out parting gifts of forgiveness

moving fully into the next phase of my life

taking my power back from anyone or

anything I have given it away to.

I want to access my magic, access my gifts

grounding with the earth

feeling the sunrise warm the air

sharing gratitude.

* * * * *

It’s my season of gratitude

for the many parts of me,

ripe for the taking

known or unknown in any lifetime

showing up fully with all of me.

Remembering to slow down, listen,

reflect: I have all the resources

I need to honor all the parts of me.

* * * * *

Relationships make a garden of life

a garden with all the parts of me.

Morning journaling in my hammock,

alchemy of boiling water, ground coffee

the best part of my day.

Singing spontaneously for no reason:

soft, hard edges smoothed out

in this season of life…with me.

* * * * *

Want support with your own life transition journey?

If you’d like help knowing yourself better and feeling freer to be who you truly are, my free course — Finding Yourself Again — is a good place to start.

My course can help you gain insight on the critical voices and beliefs within you and begin to transform them with creative and imaginative approaches. It’s based on the same practices that have helped my clients reclaim what’s missing and move toward what matters.

You can learn more about this free course here. And if you have any questions, get in touch.

Patty Bechtold

Patty Bechtold

I help women find their way back to their deepest wisdom when they feel like something’s missing in their lives or themselves. On my blog I write about the stories, insights, ideas, and wise words I’ve picked up along the way. Thank you for being here.