How The Wizard of Oz made me realize I’m having a midlife crisis

“When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of oth­er lives you might have led. All your hous­es are haunt­ed by the per­son you might have been.”

Hilary Mantel

A few weeks ago, I watched The Wizard of Oz for the mil­lionth time. I was sick in bed with a win­ter cold and Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow is reli­able comfort.

But my take­away was star­tling­ly new. In the clos­ing scene, Dorothy wakes up in mono­chro­mat­ic Kansas, grate­ful and relieved to be home. 

Photo by Andreea Popa on Unsplash
Photo by Andreea Popa on Unsplash.

I’m not buy­ing it. I agree that there is no place like home, but how many days can she slide her feet into those dull black loafers before she starts long­ing for Oz? We’re sup­posed to believe that feed­ing the cows day after day is bet­ter than a Technicolor Life of Adventure, where those around her break out into song and dance? Kansas is safe and known, but mag­ic and won­der are sparse on the plains.

I’m feel­ing it the oth­er way around. I wake day after day in a tedious, col­or­less world of nev­er-end­ing chores and respon­si­bil­i­ties. This vague sense of hope­less dread I’ve been liv­ing with the last year or so is cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance because I sus­pect I am liv­ing the wrong life. I’m stuck in Kansas but my soul longs for Oz.

All of my peers are in the same boat, slow­ly acknowl­edg­ing that life is finite and time is run­ning out. I’ll be 49 in August. In America, 49 is the aver­age “sand­wich” age for women, where we’re still rais­ing kids but also doing more for our aging par­ents. The demands on our time are relent­less, the wor­ries never-ending. 

The pan­dem­ic has cre­at­ed new stres­sors in our work and hor­mones have cre­at­ed new ter­ror in our bod­ies and minds. There are dai­ly, new, unex­plained aches and pains. Night sweats and weight gain and insomnia. 

We some­times resent our kids and hus­bands and sus­pect we’d be hap­pi­er with­out them around. We roman­ti­cize the days when we were unen­cum­bered, and had ample col­la­gen. We see pho­tos of our care­free selves at 20 and want to be again that beau­ti­ful girl who prob­a­bly thought she looked fat in that dress. We wake sweaty in the night to crunch the num­bers, won­der­ing how we have worked so hard and still have so lit­tle to show for it. But we fig­ure that burnout in 2022 is de rigueur, so we just keep plug­ging along on caf­feine and a lit­tle too much wine. 

Yesterday I caught my hag­gard reflec­tion in the mir­ror, dark eye cir­cles and stained Led Zeppelin shirt that hasn’t real­ly fit since my menopausal boobs came in. I was instan­ta­neous­ly enraged, would shat­ter the damn mir­ror if only I had a ruby slip­per to throw.

For me, it’s the rage that’s the canary in the coal mine. Most of my life, dis­ap­point­ment and wor­ry were met with sad­ness, not anger. I’m a crier, not a shouter. 

So I took an online screen­ing to see where I fell on the exis­ten­tial cri­sis rating.

Are you feel­ing unful­filled or bored?

Do you sus­pect that life is meaningless?

Are you get­ting a sense that you’re liv­ing the wrong life?

Check, check, and check. I didn’t agree to dra­mat­ic changes in appear­ance, though that’s only because my hair­dress­er flat­ly – and wise­ly – refused to give me bangs. The oth­er item I didn’t check was mar­i­tal infi­deli­ty or con­stant thoughts about infi­deli­ty because that just sounds exhaust­ing. The logis­tics of an affair seem like so much work.

I know I’m not alone. Gen Xers, those of us born rough­ly between 1965 and 1980, are primed for a midlife cri­sis. We were raised in an age of Title IX and Free To Be, You And Me, but also the AIDS epi­dem­ic and sev­er­al recessions. 

We were told we could be any­thing. What we heard is that we should be every­thing.

Our gen­er­a­tion of women is arguably the best edu­cat­ed in his­to­ry, and yet we have more debt than any oth­er age demo­graph­ic. We’re grate­ful for our lives, but also over­whelmed and ter­ri­fied. We’re scared of can­cer, of covid, of cli­mate change, of los­ing our rights, of the bleak future we might be leav­ing our chil­dren, of turn­ing into our moth­ers, old and out of touch. On top of that, we feel guilty for feel­ing this way, at once aware these are most­ly first-world prob­lems and still equal­ly enraged that we’re trapped in the bleak­ness of sepia-toned Kansas. 

There’s no per­fect solu­tion. It’s an angst no amount of Botox or Xanax will cure. So we do the things we know work for us, those things that help us find tiny glimpses of Technicolor in an oth­er­wise fad­ed exis­tence. And we remem­ber that – fin­gers crossed – a dif­fer­ent life lives on the oth­er side of 50. 

I also remind myself that, in Frank L Baum’s books, Dorothy not only goes back to Oz sev­er­al times, she ulti­mate­ly decides to live there. A fine retire­ment indeed.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.