Stuck in the Middle
Stuck in the Middle
Middle children aren’t the only ones who have to deal with a “middle” status. Middle children have been studied, evaluated, tested, cried over, pampered, punished, surveyed – but hey, I’m in the middle too, even if I am the oldest of four.
Sixty-two years old and stuck in the middle. Meaning the (relative) middle of my life. The good news? If I’m in the middle, I still have a long way to go. The real news? I feel like a flower being pressed between two pieces of glass. I’d say I felt like bologna in a sandwich – well, I’d prefer prosciutto and provolone, or cream cheese and lox – especially since people like me have been named the Sandwich Generation. But that wouldn’t work because sandwich filling is compressed between two pieces of bread (preferably on a Panini press). And bread is not transparent, whereas glass is. Something compressed between glass can look up, down or even sideways.
Flowers pressed between glass shrink and dry up. They are PRESERVED! That is a word with big implications when you are 60-ish and not holding. I wouldn’t mind shrinking (not in height), but I certainly have no intention of drying up. Yet to make sense of life right now, this middle must be examined and understood. That’s a tall order because it means understanding the past, assessing the present, and knowing how and where to proceed.
In short, as someone in the middle, I can look at children and grandchildren to help me remember where I have been, as well as look at parents to see where I am going. And the view is poignant, exciting and scary all at once.
The past is the easiest to examine. After all, it has already happened. Remembering good times with lots of laughter is the most productive way to look back. Anything bad or marginal needs to be understood and forgiven. I could continue to repeat the old stories, like the time my dad made me sit in front of a soft-boiled egg that I didn’t want to eat for what seemed like forever, telling me I couldn’t go to the beach with my friend Susan Rowe if I didn’t finish! That soft-boiled egg, which I normally would have relished (Remember egg cups? Carefully cracking the rim of the egg?) became less and less appealing as my dad and I fought a battle of wills. I never did eat that egg because Mom intervened, finally. Thank goodness for moms. But really, I would be a pretty pathetic human being if I still held a soft-boiled egg against my dad. I understand who my dad is and I forgive him. For the egg and all the other things I didn’t find particularly pleasant.
The less pleasant times are always the most interesting to discuss. I mean, if I were to write short stories about my childhood, they could be titled “Who Ate the Last Cookie?” and “Don’t Put Your Hands on the Glass!” Maybe “Put Your Napkin on Your Lap,” or “Who Used the Scotch Tape?” each simple title expressing what seemed like extreme trauma. But what’s the point? It’s yesterday’s news. More than that, it’s the news of 50+ years of yesterdays!
I’ve long ago concluded that we all do the best we can under the circumstances we are in. In fact, Teddy Roosevelt said it best: Do the best you can, with what you have, where you are. Looking back on parenting, I can see it from the perspective of having been parented, parenting my own kids, and watching my kids parent their kids. In my opinion, my kids are the best parents by far. Maybe because we all learn from where we have been. I’m not saying that my parents were not good parents, or that my husband and I weren’t because we were – at least we did the best we could with who and where we were. Maybe parenting is cumulatively better, so by the time my great-grandkids are parents, they should be perfect.
Where this looking past gets murkiest is with the teenagers, aka grandkids, students, and friends who happen to be young adults. Props for me – I remember the pitfalls. Most of the time. Who didn’t hear this in their youth: “That music is going to ruin this generation. I don’t understand a word they are saying.” “They look so stupid – look at that hair!” or “Kids are too wild these days.” Yada yada.
I remember my own sense of invulnerability. In fact, I remember standing on the edge of Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles, perfectly steady on my own feet, with my mother saying, “Be careful. Don’t fall in!” I remember thinking, How stupid. I can balance; I’m not going to fall in! Of course, I could have fallen into the lake or any of the other pitfalls awaiting me. The important thing would have been to get out.
So as I watch my grandkids, my former students, and even my young friends, I have to relax and give them credit for owning their own lives. I have to dig back a long way, deep down, and not pass judgment. I have to understand that kids engage in dangerous behavior where the stakes are high, and that I might have done the same given the opportunity. That doesn’t mean I have to like everything, however.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, after all.
I can put the past in perspective and I can put the past in the past, drawing upon it only as a lesson, a memory, part of a life.
What about the present? Squished between those pieces of glass, I can look sideways as well as up and down. The present seems to be the murkiest of all. Our parents are old and need more care and attention (if we are lucky enough to still have our parents). Our kids are grown and have their own families, but they need lots of help with the grandkids, especially in today’s world where we work, manage households, and try to find our own self-fulfillment (if we are lucky enough to have kids with grandkids that live nearby).
That’s the sandwich part – kids and parents, both needing help, with us baby boomers in the middle.
This is where I find what I guess is called cognitive dissonance. Here’s a very long explanation.
Our parents lived during the depression and World War II. Their biggest desire (which I expect is true of all eras) was to ensure that their children had a better life than they did. But they had known want, hard work, loss, and it was hard to lose the remnants of those experiences. Money was watched over carefully and we knew it. We heard the stories of the depression first-hand. We understood hard work and we had jobs when we were in high school and college. We often paid our own way. The biggest desire of so many parents was that their children go to college. Their educations had been interrupted by depression and war, but we were to have the opportunity of a college education, i.e., self-fulfillment.
As an aside I have to point out that there was a sea change between me, the first year of baby boomers, and my sister, just four years after me. My experience adhered to the wisdom of the day – I of course would be a housewife and mother, while my college education would ensure that I could work should something happen to my husband. Best to be a nurse or a teacher or even a secretary. Skills to fall back on. But still.
So where’s the dissonance? We in turn had our children and they were to be even more self-fulfilled. Follow their dreams, nothing was impossible! That’s all well and good but only when injected with a dose of realism. Luckily, I recognized the futility of my first ambition, which was to be the first female umpire in major league baseball. To date, that hasn’t happened. With me or any other female.
But hey, these kids didn’t have anyone to tell them about the depression or World War II unless they talked to their grandparents. And how many kids do that? So what they heard, if anything, came second-hand.
Now the dissonance arcs because the next generation – who would be my grandkids and the kids I had as students – know absolutely no want whatsoever. (Yes, I recognize poverty and deprivation all over the world.) They have no firsthand experience of hardship. The depression, World War II, the Dust Bowl – remnants of history with nothing to compare them to. This generation often finds work a burden, takes forever to get out of college, feels they are owed good times, and the entire goal of their existence is self-fulfillment. Now, this is a broad generalization, but by and large, it is accurate.
The heart of the dissonance: I grew up being told about fulfillment of dreams; in turn, I did the best I could to help my children find fulfillment; and now I am in the middle. I’m retired, having worked hard my whole life, thus it seems I should finally get to fulfill myself. I am so ready to fulfill myself! But whenever I take time for myself I feel selfish. I can’t completely buy in.
I am doing art. Becoming an artist. A very inwardly-focused pursuit. But I can’t really focus because I have my parents, my kids, and my grandkids. When I fight for blocks of time for myself, I feel guilty.
So the past is in its place and the present is conflicted. I suppose the only way to handle it is to forgo guilt. But guilt is a Jewish specialty! I’m doing everything I can to give the grandkids great experiences, help the kids, do my best with my parents, all according to what I can handle. And I am getting better at it. I suppose writing it all down is a way to come to terms. But then again, maybe I have already come to terms so just want to sketch out the process, reaffirm where I have landed.
And where might that be? I suppose I have landed in Compromise Land. Do my best for everyone but know my limits. And pursue art. I am loving this – I’d like to be loving it even more, yet…yet…that would mean that something would change, someone would depart from my life. That I do not want.
The future. Oh my, the future. Where is my crystal ball? Where is Sybill Trelawney from Harry Potter? This is so much more difficult. I think cancer, awful as it is, has been replaced by fear of Alzheimer’s. That is my greatest fear. I watch my parents, who are 90 and 85, and I see how they struggle every day in different ways. What is worse – dealing with being 90 and knowing you cannot do any of the activities that were meaningful to you, sleeping most of the day, and giving life as you now know it to the television controller (which you can barely operate)? Or being 85 and mostly content as you wander through the house, walking the old accustomed pathways by habit, and not remembering anything but the distant past. Day to day passes in a timeless fashion because if you can’t remember what you did ten minutes ago or what made you happy five minutes ago, you can do it again and remember it again! And again and again.
So I am looking through the glass to the future and wondering, is that me? Will I become a shell of myself without even knowing it while my children tsk tsk and laugh as they despair? Is there a way I can control my future and guard against this? Questions without real answers.
There is an answer of course, and I knew it before I even started writing. What, one might ask, compels me to think it every which way, inside out and upside down, already knowing the answer, until I can move on? Is it a curse to analyze everything instead of just doing? I’ll leave that for another day. Meanwhile…
The big answer of course is just to move on. Make the most of each day. Live as if I were a Hallmark card slogan. An entire string of Hallmark slogans. Take it one day at a time. Live in the present. Blah blah blah. What else is there? The alternatives are not palatable. I don’t want to be a whiner, a complainer, a burden, or dead. So I make the most of each day. But, no, that’s not the whole answer because I have to plan ahead.
I’m keeping a journal everyday – a Happiness Journal, in which I recall two happy or good things that took place that day. Supposedly, this will keep me optimistic and mindful of my surroundings. I write a daily journal to recount what I’ve been doing or thinking about or am mad at. I’m doing crossword puzzles like crazy – aren’t they supposed to keep the brain young and ward off memory problems? I was playing the wii a lot also – to keep up balance and coordination, but then my hand got too sore from Guitar Hero and I got a condition called Rough Kneecap which stopped me from Dance Dance Revolution. And that is another glimpse of the future.
Physical breakdown. So I’m trying to eat correctly, with varying degrees of success. Trying to keep my weight stable, even though it is way..weigh…too high.
I’m making photo albums of our trips and of each year so that when I can’t do anything else, I can live in the past. Or at least remember the past. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be able to go back to 2007, but that’s ok because I probably won’t remember that I intended to go all the way back to – no, I can’t say it, back to the future. And I have my journals from high school on up, plus my calendars, so I’ll know what I did and when I did it even if I can’t remember it was really me doing it. Of course the drawback to that is that it’s far easier to write in a journal when things are bad, so will they draw me back into depression or frustration or…
Again, the more things change the more they stay the same.
I plan to make notes of things I want to remember to make the future easier for my children when they have to start dealing with me the way I have to deal with my parents. I want to figure out how to make sure I know I was the one who wrote the note and that whatever it says is what I want, and not think that someone is trying to put something over on me.
Most of all, I just want to keep finding out what happens next. So from that standpoint, the middle may not be such a bad place after all. Maybe being stuck in the middle is more positive than I thought. Maybe the key is honest-to-goodness Hallmark – just keep those platitudes coming and know there is a card for whatever I may be feeling. Or maybe the key leans more toward Zen.
Whatever it is, here I am, smack dab in the middle, without a darn thing I can do about it. I guess I’ll keep doing pretty much what I’ve been doing. Learning from the past, looking toward the future, and doing my best where I am.
And – here I am, wondering why I wrote this in the first place. Perhaps the very act of writing was to release some of the pressure of being stuck in the middle.