My husband, Steven, sits 30,000 feet over the great American middle, flying to the aid of his 93-year-old mother. As he helps his sister move the still-strong but terribly befuddled matriarch into a safer living situation, I ferry young adults to and fro. I do laundry and listen to millennial soundtracks as he helps his mother brush her teeth. I watch the young wrestle with their burgeoning responsibilities as he takes on the burdens of the old. I fall weary into bed after arguments about what must be done, as he tires of watching what will be done — hope on my end, inevitability on his.
Pew research reports, “With an aging population and a generation of young adults struggling to achieve financial independence, the burdens and responsibilities of middle-aged Americans are increasing.”
I know many people in various versions of this middle sandwich. Kids in college and elderly parents aging out of their ability to tend themselves. Challenging teens and octogenarians acting like teens. Mom living in the guest bedroom and young adults moving home.
When you are young, life expands before you. When you are old, it contracts behind. In the middle, you are pushed by the expansion and pulled by the contraction. You are pressed betwixt and between, drawn to both, eligible for neither. Not this, not that, but somehow responsible for both.
Being an adult is hard.
It’s hard in the early days to build a sane life in a mad world, often with limited resources and broken tools. Self-knowledge is hard won and never a straight line. You are becoming. It’s work.
It’s hard in the late days, with the body waning and regret waxing. Why and if only become mantras. My mother says “I can’t believe…” about the age of people, the time gone by. There is so much now that she cannot believe.
I am learning, however, that the challenge lies in the middle. Here in the middle, when the body begins to weaken and complain and the mind begins to intuit the trick of life, everyone needs you. You are the answer, for the young and for the old. For everyone you love, you are the best answer. In middle age, we find ourselves pulled to pieces by the generations flanking us.
Early adulthood is a crash course on everything. Work and society, transportation and transaction. Forms and fees and bureaucracy waiting to feast on the fresh blood of the young. There are dollars and doctors, groceries and god (or not). One must manage one’s hair and hygiene, organize outfits and exercise, all in the hope of constructing an identity that will fit and function in this insane modern world.
Then, if we sort of figure out those parts (and even if we don’t), we tend to complicate things. Pets. Partners. Politics. Promises. If we’re lucky, we have a team behind us, waiting to contribute or assist in the case of stumbles and full-on face-plants. Waiting to pick us up, clean up our messes, and send us back out there.
Young adults failing to launch or returning to the nest is a common modern theme, with experts suggesting economic and cultural reasons for the trend. NPR reports, “For the first time in more than 130 years, Americans ages 18–34 are more likely to live with their parents than in any other living situation, according to a new analysis by the Pew Research Center.”
It doesn’t seem like a new thing to me, though. Three decades ago, when I was in my twenties, I moved back home with my first husband and new baby to live with my single mother for close to a year. I’m sure it was a burden for her, but I was more focused on my own struggles — an infant, an iffy marriage, and little direction.
Steven also moved back home in his late twenties, navigating a fallow period and enduring the thinly veiled disappointment of his retired parents. Having the nest to fall back on can be a lifesaver, the ultimate safety net. But none of it is easy, for anyone.
Three of my four young adults are still knocking around my house, making it tough for me to graduate to the next level of my own adulting. One is a boomerang, having lived independently for years; one has a life on hold, due to a slow-moving and seemingly intractable workplace injury; and one is home for the summer from university. We bump into one another awkwardly, each of us struggling to identify the boundaries of our own adulthoods and to manage our ambitions and our failings.
“Is my laundry ready?”
“Can you give me a ride?”
“What’s for dinner?”
Déjà vu, all over again.
Meanwhile, the elders are flailing in far-flung corners of the country. We find they need help with technology, finances, memory, medicine. Someone must manage the difficult real estate questions, but “not while I’m alive!” Their voices sometimes tremble through the phone lines, sounding like the children we were not so long ago.
When I was a young parent, with little kids vying for my attention and my time, my father would call and ask, “Is everything okay?” My father, in his own middle, after watching his father die and tending to his aging mother, counseling me on my early chapters.
Now I call him and ask, “Is everything okay?”
Everything is often not okay. That is to say, all things are not always okay. Things are passing fair, things come and they go, things are things. What’s to be done?
My father, in his mid-seventies, is married to a shrew in her nineties — my stepmother, who wields treacherous manipulative power over my gentle, aging father. My forever capable father, suddenly unsure if he’s up to the task.
My mother-in-law abuses her caregivers and is baffled by the world. She refuses hearing aids, glasses, showers, and bras. I’m with her on the last one.
I lay awake at night, making mental life-coach lists for everyone. Is this just the nature of a worried mind? The wages of a large family?
When the phone rings, anxiety rises. A wayward child? A parental emergency? Who needs what now? Can I provide it?
I field the call about Dad’s visit to the emergency room as Steven drives to a faraway city to pick up the college student and her mountains of stuff. He hears tales of woe about finals and boys as I absorb the story of blood and sirens.
The boomerang son needs a ride to court because of the lapsed insurance, while my dad has two “procedures” (as he calls them) and a broken air conditioner in a hot swamp city.
The daughter needs help shopping for a new apartment, and my mother-in-law can’t remember why she’s in the bathroom.
I hold my mother’s hand through an Amazon purchase and research solutions for my son’s injury.
We write letters to misguided young adults, end-of-life directives for the aged, and living wills for ourselves. I’d like to write an ode to custard or some wicked political satire. Alas.
The definition of roles, here in the middle, is blurred.
Does Mom know best when you’re 25 years old?
Is it my place to chastise the adult child?
What is my place when Mom’s pants are on backwards?
When Dad falls?
I seek the perfect metaphor: It’s a seesaw, a teeter-totter; we are the fulcrum, the keystone, the linchpin. The tugged rope, fraying in the center. Steven suggests a suspension bridge, but I’m not sure I understand that and I’m sure I don’t have the energy for the explanation. None of them are perfect, but together they hint at the challenge.
The hopeful fantasies of a midlife walk along El Camino de Santiago or Hadrian’s Wall Path are quickly disintegrating in a haze of bad knees and family need. The beach retirement plans are being slowly consumed by the daily drudgery of Other People’s Problems.
I think the only way to avoid this, though, is to avoid people. To avoid connection. To avoid loving. It’s much too late for that.
Steven and I sit in the backyard, a pause in the caring. We are, in our fifties, venturing nervous into the land of diagnostics. Colonoscopies and mammograms, stress tests and Pap smears, we are encouraged to gather all data relevant to our bodies and our aging. We talk about wills and funerals, last wishes and boxes of ash. Then we turn to the young — lapsed insurance and financial aid. Workers’ comp and physical therapy. Party boy or addict? Dementia or willful noncompliance? Finally, we discuss our own concerns. Knees and vision, wisdom teeth and creeping madness. This hurts and that isn’t working right. He has asthma; I have thyroid disease. He has an actual pain in the neck; I’m a little dizzy. We throw our heads back and laugh uproariously at the morbid coincidence that we’re both secretly afraid that our bodies are riddled with cancer.
This is what we’ve become — dark, fearful bodies, holding everyone up. Hopefully, we hold up.
Ruth Tarantine, DNP, RN, writes, “The ‘sandwich generation’…tends to target both genders and the predominant age is 40–65 years old.” She goes on to muse about the lack of self-care within this demographic. It reminds me of that thing about putting your own oxygen mask on first. Taking care of me so I can take care of you. Picking myself up before picking you up.
I need a massage.
So far, it’s not so much the physical or the financial toll. Aside from the money-hungry kids, there’s been little heavy lifting. The toll is emotional and psychic. The worry undoes me. Will the youngsters grow up, figure it out? Can they make it in this fast, intimidating world? Are the oldsters lonely or in pain? Will they find peace near the end, awash in memory and regret?
And what about us, here in the middle? Will we get a nap, a respite, some good news? Is this it—the slide to our own aging needs? The crawl to the grave? Are we doing it all wrong?
When does the messy beginning become the overburdened middle? When does the middle become the end?
Steven says, “Too many questions.”
Ultimately, of course, this is all just life. The grown have been aiding the growing and assisting the fading forever. If you’re lucky enough to have people, it’s messy. It’s hard. It’s ugly beautiful, and the only way out is through.
My father’s father’s last words were: “I’m sorry.”
My father said, when my children were young, “All you can do is love them.”
I love them. All of them.
But I just want to lie down. I’m tired.
Write it down.
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