Men and the myths of mid-life accomplishment
This is an edited version of an early form of an essay I'm currently working on tackling men about to or entering their forties, and the social expectations and myths about male achievement. Part of this project involves a photo essay, but more on that later. I'd appreciate any feedback you have to share.
As I start the quickening slide toward 40, I can't help but look at the images and expectations of men in their forties all around me and wonder how my own life looks nothing like this picturebook story. This has sparked a lot of reflection and even doubt on my part in figuring out what it is I should have accomplished, if anything, by the time I reach my mid-life.
If your thirties are meant to be the age of tribulation in your life, then your forties, the received social wisdom suggests, are meant to be the moment you ‘arrive’ – where you reap the hard work of your sowing, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. For men, this is supposed to mean the well-paid job and career advancement, a lovely wife, a house and mortgage, a great car (maybe two), private school kids, annual holidays, great clothes and a whole lot of grown-up’s toys that your job affords you.
Of course that assumes that you’ve been able to survive the tumult of a busy life – if your marriage has braved any threat of separation or divorce, you didn’t stuff things up by having an affair with your colleague over those late nights you were ‘finishing’ that all-important, promotion-guranteeing project, your kids haven’t forgotten who you are because you’ve spent all your time at work or at golf, and you haven’t stuffed your knees, or back, at the gym fighting off the specter of your father’s heart disease and those greasy steak sandwiches you rammed down your gullet over those hurried lunch breaks.
And there you have it, the two great clichés of mid-life masculinity. On the one hand, you so reek of accomplishment and success that you’re the new pin-up for a Johnny Walker advertisement – no, not Red Label, that’s for Mr 30-something-no kids, but Black label, the sign of good taste, maturity, success, refinement and the credit card bill to match. On the other hand, you are sifting through the wreckage wondering how your life ended up like that other great cliché of mid-life masculinity – the Raymond Carver story, with a nameless man and woman yelling at each other one night over a half-packed suitcase, you can cut the dread and resentment with a knife, and the man has no idea how he got there.
But it is no secret that life rarely, if ever, follows the path that social expectations and stereotypes dictate. Most men closely approaching forty or chipping tentative toeholds into that new age of middle-life, are in fact wedging ourselves somewhere in between the myths and expectations of our society.
Looking around me at the men who are my age or in their early forties, I know that the story of accomplishment for men in their forties is a highly embellished one, and that, if anything, the paths of our lives are far more torturous, twisted and unpredictable than we are asked to believe.
For some of us, the road into our forties is a lot less smooth than we are led to believe, or achieve, with various unexpected changes in career, often with resulting loss in income or sacrifices in financial security, where we make job and careers choices out of personal satisfaction or necessity.
Sometimes, the reasons behind some of our choices are clear, deliberate, albeit unconventional. Other times, they are partially thought out combinations of gut instinct, sheer desperation and that certainty that if you'd kept going the way you were, you'd lose your health, or your marriage, and never see your kids growing up. And no amount of career accomplishment is worth that.