Back in the good old days, when a man had a midlife crisis, the remedy was simple—buy a sports car, do some situps, and run off to Rio with the receptionist. Discovering your mortality wasn't a tailspin of angst; it was a chance to act like James Bond.
Jump cut to the present day and you find the male menopause has gone into its own tailspin. Jon Gosselin, the tabloid casualty star of Jon and Kate Plus 8, is the most public example, and it's not pretty, even with a state-of-the-art hair transplant.
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Following his bruising marital split, Jon has chosen to restore his masculine pride with a strangely sullen rampage of drinking, smoking, Ed Hardy leisurewear, and riding ATVs. "It's not a midlife crisis," insisted Gosselin on his TV show this August, while sprawled on a sofa, sporting brand-new diamond earrings. ("Actually, they're CZs—cubic zirconium.")
Well, it's not the traditional midlife crisis, that's for sure, but it is the modern version, a low-grade regressive style of acting-out that's now so widespread among midlife males it deserves its own label—Dad-olescence.
Phil Wenneck, the lead character in The Hangover, is a classic dad-olescent. A father of two, and a schoolteacher to boot, he is nonetheless enslaved by his inner juvenile. "Ma'am, in the leopard dress," he announces over a stolen police car PA system, "you have an incredible rack."
My own spiral into dad-olescence started when I turned 40. I went though the predicted period of soul-searching as described by Carl Jung. I discovered that the term "midlife crisis" was invented in 1965, the same year I was born (by a Canadian psychoanalyst, Elliot Jacques). But there was no Bondian panache to my "struggle to find new meaning and purpose," no hand-to-hand combat with Halle Berry.
Instead, I was plunged into a teenagery abyss of histrionic despair with symptoms including defensiveness, dressing scruffily, hiding out in a den, growing "ironic" facial hair, taking fantasy football more seriously than real football, and knuckling down to the really important business of mastering the second guitar solo on "Sultans of Swing." And it all happened right after my lovely wife Caroline and I had our first child.
There was no Bondian panache to my “struggle to find new meaning and purpose,” no hand-to-hand combat with Halle Berry.
At the time, I thought (with authentically teenage self-absorption) that I was alone. I have since learned with much tribal relief that I was part of a growing phenomenon. After talking with many fellow sufferers, I've traced the epidemic back to the historically unique intersection of two factors: delayed parenthood and crippling recession.
Since 1970, the number of first-time fathers over the age 35 has doubled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means a third of American men—the highest percentage in history—now have their first child at precisely the same time as they grapple with the existential abyss. Belated fathers have been further destabilized by the biting credit crunch, which nixes any chance of the classic ego-boosting spending spree.
"All though my 20s, I would buy a Hermès tie every week," said a former broker turned house-husband. "I had a kid and got downsized in the same month. Suddenly, I'm the help, buying the Huggies and wipes. I remember thinking, the cost of the C-section was the same as a Miata."
Infidelity, the other traditional midlife escape route, is no longer a viable option either. The average dad-olescent is essentially a decent guy, raised on post-feminist values. "I fantasized about it," a father of four admitted. "But I've got what I call a guilt airbag. If I veer off the straight and narrow, I'm going to explode with remorse."
And so begins what psychologists call the avoidant coping behavior. Like his teenage counterpart, the dad-olescent is dealing with dramatic physical change, but for the worse. He is trying to create a new identity while simultaneously discovering he has no independence at all. The result is the unintentional comedy of strictly local rebellion—heavy sighs, defiantly bad clothing, stomping around. I knew my case was terminal when I began composing impenetrable letters to micro-beer magazines correcting their "laughable" mistakes. A fellow sufferer admitted he hit bottom when online pornography became too daunting "administratively."
Being forced to devise no-cost coping behaviors only increases the severity of the tailspin, not to mention the depth of denial. When the Vespa scooter, for example, was relaunched four years ago, a friend bragged it was his "midlife crisis on a budget." A less-effective cure for wounded male pride is harder to imagine than angrily driving a one-cylinder 50cc hair dryer that comes in “Daring Plum.”
In their 2003 book, How to Survive Your Husband's Midlife Crisis, Pat Gaudette and Gay Courter remind the reader that a crisis is also an opportunity for growth—even, presumably, when it consists of wearing T-shirts with tigers on them and CZs. "If we are able to relinquish our self-centered attitude," they write, "and develop a deeper concern for others, we may find the true meaning of life."
In other words, the best hope for a dad-olescent hoping to regain his manhood is to do exactly what his wife tells him.
Sean Macaulay was the L.A. movie critic for The London Times from 1999 to 2007. He has also written for Punch, British GQ, and The Mail on Sunday. He was most recently creative consultant on the award-winning documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil .