In September 2014, we published “Midlife Crisis” by Angie Pelekidis. The story follows Anne and Dan, a middle-aged couple, and what happens when Dan begins wearing diapers and behaving, literally, like a baby. Let’s take a trip into the archives.
When I first read “Midlife Crisis” by Angie Pelekidis, I was drawn in by the story’s ability to embrace the absurd with such directness; in the very first line, we learn that Anne’s husband has started wearing diapers. The tone of this line is so casual—the diapers aren’t the result of medical need, but rather a decision Dan happens to make one day. Of course, as the story unfolds, we learn that this decision is far more complicated than that first line would suggest.
This is a story about two different looks at the midlife crisis: a period of transition spurred by a person’s recognition of their age, mortality, and changing sense of self. On a craft level, “Midlife Crisis” is a story I keep coming back to read—not only for its lessons in embracing the absurd, but also for its ability to craft such well-formed, complex, and deeply grieving characters.
Take some time to read “Midlife Crisis,” and then meet me back here to dig into some of the pieces that make this story work so well.
Building a world from the first paragraph
I’ve mentioned that first line; let’s pick it apart.
One day, Anne’s husband, Dan, decides to start wearing diapers.
Talk about a hook, right? As a reader, I’m immediately wondering why Dan is wearing diapers, whether or not he has faced a serious medical issue, and if this is going to be a story about aging. The next few lines answer those questions, but also invite new layers of confusion.
He is forty-nine years old and has never had any incontinence issues, or signs of incipient senility. His father, however, died five months earlier, not long after suffering a super-nova stroke that obliterated a large section of his brain.
Okay, so, in answer to my questions: Dan doesn’t have any serious medical issues, and this story is going to interact with aging in some capacity because we spend so much time unraveling Dan’s father’s health after his stroke. His father’s death becomes the inciting incident, even though Dan’s unusual reaction to it happens five months later. The language is particularly strong here because it carries that off-handed tone of that opening line; it wasn’t just a major stroke, it was super-nova. The stroke didn’t destroy a large section of his brain, it obliterated it.
The language is so casual about the effects of aging and the ways our bodies can so easily fall apart, which makes the final sentences of this paragraph hit so hard: “Dan’s mother was also nearly speechless those weeks. She spent hours at the hospital, holding her husband’s hand and staring at what he had become.”
Suddenly, the camera pans out and we see a fuller picture of Dan’s father’s death. Dan’s mother stares at what he had become, language that skews toward dehumanization; Dan’s father’s life is divided into the person he was before the stroke, and the husk he became afterward. We don’t learn anything about who Dan’s father was as a man, husband, or father, likely because those traits don’t matter; his body has failed, and his life is over. Although this is a story about Anne and Dan, the themes presented in this first paragraph thread throughout the entire piece—and that’s great storytelling because it’s setting the reader up for what’s ahead.
Body as a symbol of need and needing
For instance, later in the story—after Dan brings home a diaper genie—Anne reads a copy of Self magazine and reads an article about an actress who bounced back to her pre-pregnancy figure. Anne “remembers what it was like to have a body that she controlled,” introducing a new wrinkle to the story’s perspective on aging, failing bodies. Anne remembers her hysterectomy and wonders what happened to her discarded parts. We get this section:
Were they incinerated? There are power plants that burn garbage to create energy. Could they also use human parts that were otherwise going to waste? No, most people are too squeamish for that. But Anne wouldn’t mind. At least then what was taken from her could be put to further use. She imagines turning on a light in her house and this being made possible by her uterus.
First of all, oof—what a steady escalation of images. We start with a hysterectomy, and we end with a uterus powering a lamp. Secondly, we learn so much about Anne’s character here: She feels like she lacks control in her life, and, by extension, lacks a sense of purpose.
Note the wording of this line: “At least then what was taken from her could be put to further use.” The words “taken” and “use” do a lot of work here; Anne feels like she has lost control of her body and herself, and the one thing that gave her purpose—being a mother and being needed—was taken from her because of her aging body.
It’s true that Anne and Dan adhere to traditional gender norms here; by the story’s end, Anne embraces the familiarity of motherhood (cleaning Dan’s bottle, washing him in the tub). But the story presents these choices as manifestations of their respective midlife crises. In this delayed reaction to his grief, Dan reverts to the familiar dependency of childhood. Anne doesn’t start wearing a diaper, but she’s in a similar state of mind as Dan; both people are confronted with the reality of their mortality and the fact that time is short, and they revert to what they know.
Here’s what I mean: Rather than taking a chance and listening to her hairdresser suggest that she switch up her hairstyle, she considers switching salons and finding a place where her stories will seem fresh. Anne isn’t the type of woman to change, embracing this new phase of her life as an opportunity for growth and evolution; when presented with the absurdity of her husband acting like a baby, she largely accepts this behavior and reverts to mothering.
In my reading, Anne is a tragic character; she feels so bereft of meaning in her life, and so uncertain about her identity, that she’s willing to go along with her husband’s actions because motherhood makes her feel needed again.
Interacting with absurdity
One of the things I appreciate most about this story is that Pelekidis directly interacts with the absurdity; several times, Anne asks her husband what he’s doing, from the second paragraph of the story (“What are you doing?”) to this moment about midway through:
What she says is, “You don’t seriously mean to use that?” Exactly what is he trying to do? she wonders. Make the point that in the end, we’re all infantilized by our failing bodies?
These are all the same questions on the reader’s mind, and Anne even offers an explanation that feels true to the story. There’s a temptation for writers to let their readers infer what a key moment in a story is meant to say; while we don’t need to spell everything out for the reader, we do need to point them in the right direction. I love that Pelekidis prods the plot device she’s using, questioning it while also maintaining some distance; Anne is equally exasperated and bemused by her husband’s actions, which places less emphasis on his infantilization and more emphasis on Anne’s reactions to it.
That emphasis really sends the ending home. During Dan’s bath, we see Anne feel “an instant if distant arousal” as she feels her husband suckling on her nipple. It’s the first hint of arousal since her surgery, “as though nerve fibers that were once severed have forged new connections.” She pulls Dan out of the tub and into her lap, “feels the change in him,” and smells him—he doesn’t smell like a baby, he smells like Dan.
“Hurry,” she says. “We don’t have much time.” Don’t have much time for what? To seize this moment of intimacy; to express their desires to need and be needed; to live while their bodies still allow them to live. It’s an open-ended statement, but even if it can be read many different ways, we know how to feel it.
by Rebecca Paredes