The Sandwich Generation
Reaching middle age doesn't have to mean getting squished from our growing children on one side and our aging parents on the other.
The phone rang around 3 p.m. last week. I heard my friend Chava's frantic voice. "My mother's a wreck because the caregiver didn't show up for my father. I can't go help because I have parent-teacher conferences tonight. And to top it all off, I just can't seem to lose those extra five pounds and fit back into my dress for Shaindy's wedding."
She began to cry. Welcome to middle age.
As our life expectancy increases, we keep upping the standard for "middle-age." Although we wish everyone "until 120," I think that by 50, we have to acknowledge that we have hit a new reality. We are officially middle-aged, even though the aging baby boomers like to suggest that "50 is the new 40."
It's always wiser to accept reality than to rail against it. Being middle aged can be wonderful -- it all depends on our attitudes and the positive (or, God forbid, negative) connotations we bring to it. Perhaps the labels are misleading. An age of wisdom and renewed energy and vigor might be more uplifting (although less catchy).
Another damaging label that hits around the same time names us full-fledged, card-carrying members of "the sandwich generation." This is meant to convey the unappealing picture of being squished from both sides: our growing children on the one hand and our aging parents on the other.
There are certainly many challenges to this role. But the first is attitude. If we perceive ourselves as embattled (and embittered) parents and children, just barely weathering the storms from each side and keeping our heads above water, then the prognosis is indeed bleak and the label apt.
But what if we focus on the opportunity instead of the burden? On the pleasure instead of the pain? Aren't we lucky that our parents are still alive, that they can get to know their grandchildren?
Aren't we blessed to have children? And ones who can still make a relationship with their grandparents?
The mitzvah of honoring our parents is not a prescription for martyrdom.
That's just for starters. Yes, it can be a delicate balance sometimes. That's where we need sound, practical judgment and rabbinic guidance. The mitzvah of honoring our parents is not a prescription for martyrdom. We need to do what we can within the confines of our halachic mandate and our emotional and physical energy, but not beyond -- not at the cost of destruction to our own psyches and families.
There are many strategies to avoid reaching this point.
Involving our children makes time with grandparents, even ailing ones, an extension of family time, as opposed to an infringement upon it.
Approaching the task with joy encourages our children to participate in the same manner, and prevents their seeing it as a burden. (It also helps our own perspective.)
I was recently at the funeral of a 95-year-old man. He had been married 71 years and left behind, besides his wife and children, 14 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren. At the funeral, his 8-year-old granddaughter spoke through her tears about how much she'd miss her zaidy. There wasn't a dry eye in the house because her emotion was so real and unvarnished. Was her time spent with her grandfather, even as he became ill, a burden or a gift?
For the very creative, family projects can be constructed -- family trees, recorded or written histories of a grandparent's life, home movies...there is much to do and to learn.
We are treading that fine line between compassion and the practical reality. We need to evaluate what we can do for our parents, what our children can do and what friends and social services can do. We need to explore what we are mandated to do by Jewish law and honestly assess what we are capable of doing. And we need to ask others for advice.
We want to embrace the opportunity to interact with our parents, to give back. And we want to evaluate our limitations so we don't feel like that proverbial sandwich.
I frequently refer to a story I once heard of a poor woman with numerous children (a story told many times with countless variations). One day, her husband brings home a treasure: one fresh egg. The woman is thrown into agony. Who should get this egg? Her oldest child? Her youngest child? Her daughter who is engaged? Should she divide it amongst them? She locks herself in her room, and eats the egg.
Yes, we have many responsibilities. We can cope with them, and even do more than cope by 1) taking care of ourselves, 2) recognizing our strengths and weaknesses, what we can do and what we can't (within the parameters of halacha) and ultimately 3) embracing our responsibilities.
If we feel imposed upon, if we expect more free time and undemanding, uncomplaining parents and children, we will be stuck in that sandwich generation. But, if we are grateful for our children and our parents, for the opportunities to give, for the strength and pleasure, then it will be a joy.
As with every phase of life, middle age should be welcomed and lived to the fullest. We worked hard to get here. We should use the wisdom of our experience and the patience (hopefully) developed to forge new, deeper and happier selves during this time.
We don't want to rush through any of our years (try telling that to small children). With a proper and optimistic perspective, we'll be able to tell younger friends -- with a smile on our faces and a twinkle in our eyes -- that they don't know what they're missing.