A few years ago, my dentist tried to convince me to get Invisalign, along with a little bit of hardware as part of the full treatment. Braces? At 38? This was the final straw.
At this point, I had recently come out from a straight marriage and was dating women for the first time. In many ways, it was like being a teenager all over again: first (same-sex) kiss, first sexual experience, a desire to belong, feeling out of control at times, and a lot of angst and journaling. The thought of essentially getting braces suddenly made my experience of midlife adolescence far too literal. I recoiled at the thought of coming any closer to an actual teenaged-reality; I was having enough trouble as it was.
Although norms around sexuality and orientation have opened up dramatically in recent years, many women questioning or exploring their sexuality later in life find themselves in this awkward liminal space: an emotional coming-of-age without the support and understanding that comes with real adolescence.
I’m not sure that anyone would willingly revisit their awkward teenage years, but I’d like to make a case for adolescence at any age.
For me, it was like living a secret life: university professor and mother by day, baby queer on Tinder at night, having to curate my dating profile with the underlying fear of my own students seeing me on it. On my nights without my five-year-old daughter, I’d be out with my queer friends at the bar, drinking more and staying up later than most of my straight peers who were already in their deep sleep stage, and would not be hungover in the morning. On my nights with my daughter, I would physically be singing her to sleep while mentally daydreaming about my current crush.
My friends were confused by my sudden heartbreak and dating ups and downs — I’m a highly educated and intelligent woman, yet I was being thrown around by intense new experiences and drama I’d never navigated before. At times, I’d feel kind of small telling my “older” straight friends about it, as if my problems were petty compared to their “adult” concerns of mortgages and motherhood; yet, to me they felt so urgent and immediate.
And so did sex — this time around. In school, I remember my best friend hooking up repeatedly with her toxic ex. At the time, I never understood why she just couldn’t just stop having sex with him. It was so easy for me, much to the disappointment of my then-boyfriend. Not only had I not really cared about sex the first time around with men, but at times I tried to avoid it entirely.
Now, I get it.
As a baby queer, I’ve checked off a solid shortlist of bad dating decisions that love coaches warn you about, including a dramatic off-and-on rollercoaster relationship, and a long-distance relationship with a woman I’d only known for a few months. I’ve allowed myself to be love bombed and subsequently played, and tried to win the hearts of more emotionally unavailable women than I’d like to admit on paper. Sexual attraction sometimes completely suspended my logic. It also left me feeling shamefully inexperienced at times, regardless of how much natural instinct had finally kicked in.
All the firsts felt so huge and all the endings equally dramatic.
Having all my inner wounds exposed through a series of less-than-ideal, yet somehow more authentic, queer relationships was hard. But the experience also helped me heal. Adolescence is a time when we take all of the “shoulds” and “should nots” that our family, school, and society have taught us, and test them.
As a blossoming people-pleaser, I mostly abided by them, internalising all the rules I was given. I wasn’t aware or courageous enough to discover and be my own self — the obstacles felt too great at the time. Maybe my midlife adolescence has been an attempt to capture this lost, queer version of my past, the closest I’ll ever get to a “do-over” and to getting a glimpse of an alternate version of my life.
Today, I’ve got a solid network of queers around me. I can share my dating stories and identity journey with them, but I’m still sort of the floater I was in high school — the one who seemingly gets along with the different cliques but is only truly close to a few people. Being older and a mother make me too odd-shaped to fit perfectly into queer groups that are largely younger and child-free. Still, I can now celebrate my ability to be comfortably alone after spending the majority of my life never really knowing myself; it’s nice to finally feel like home.
I can now celebrate my ability to be comfortably alone after spending the majority of my life never really knowing myself; it’s nice to finally feel like home.
I’m not sure that anyone would willingly revisit their awkward teenage years, but I’d like to make a case for adolescence at any age. Transitionary times like this naturally lend themselves to change and metamorphosis. They are opportunities to no longer hold yourself to the past and to let your former self suddenly be unrecognisable, to others and maybe most importantly, to yourself.
As British philosopher and writer Alan Watts famously said, “You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.” Looking back now, at age 41, it’s hard to believe that I was any of the previous versions of myself, and I feel ready to let go of this past full of strangers.
I see the humour in the messiness and awkwardness of my midlife adolescence, but I also see its power, because it’s when I too became someone new — just with the same old imperfect teeth.
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