Almost three months ago I wrote about the challenges inherent in being a member of the Sandwich Generation, Expat Style.
You know what I mean: being squeezed between children (of whatever age) and parents and elderly family members. Both groups may need you, albeit in very different ways.
It happens to
many most of us, and we can find ourselves stretched in terms of time, attention, oversight, money, vacation, emotions and psychic energy.
As is the case with many people, my siblings and I are dealing with both ends of the proverbial generational sandwich.
At the best of times we feel like the ever popular roast beef and cheese with juicy tomato and trendy condiment in between, able to juggle various needs and demands with aplomb.
In the worst of times, we start to question whether we’re serving either piece of bread (let alone both) well.
Are we striking the correct balance?
Making the right choices?
We tend to feel much more like the limp slice of bologna with a day-old wedge of wilted lettuce on top.
It doesn’t matter that one sibling’s kids are pre-to-early teens; the other sibling’s children are in their mid twenties, one with a baby of their own and the other with another on the way, and mine are mid-to-late teens.
The truth is, your children never stop needing you, they merely need you in different ways.
The same can be said of your parents and older family members. It has really hit home recently that we’re kidding ourselves if we think that they don’t need us until they start to deal with mobility, agility or mental acuity issues.
They need us to recognize the value of staying connected, especially when our focus and attention can be turned toward the raising of our children as we navigate our own careers and life paths.
Similarly we need to see that nothing, no matter how cherished or exceptional or important, can take the place of people who know from where you come and still manage to love you. Unconditionally.
When your children are little, they need a large amount of your time and attention. Rather than lament the choices tossed your way, you’ve got to address their needs while embracing your own dreams.
Sometimes that can mean eking out the hours here and there to follow your passion, chase that promotion, enjoy a rejuvenating hobby; sometimes it means merely making it through the days, weeks, years of your life.
As they get older, children need you less for security and fulfillment of basic human needs, but all the more for guidance and helping them fulfill their sense of self-esteem. Choices at three and eight can pale in comparison to the repercussions of choices made at thirteen and eighteen.
I want to make clear that none of this is unique to expat life; it’s part of life, period.
But I will say that living overseas complicates the matter in myriad ways. Flights to relatives can cost considerably more, your support system may be scattered to the winds in their own pilgrimages home or heading off to new assignments, and you’re left scrambling to pull the pieces together to keep daily life flowing along in some semblance of sanity.
I’ve always embraced the concept of never wasting a moment of life on ‘would’ves, should’ves, could’ves.’ That rings as true for the manner in which we choose to spend our resources (e.g., time, energy, money) as it does for how we choose to recognize what’s important.
This summer was always destined to be rather challenging, with Husband and I being pulled various ways as we deal with our own generational sandwich. For us it has meant him staying back in the Netherlands for much of the summer; Son is home from university and experiencing the ins and outs of his first ‘real world’ internship (read employment other than in a summer camp setting).
Daughter and I were planning a fairly complex trip back to the US that would include visiting family and friends along with some initial university visits and a pre-college prep course for her.
Then real life started to intrude, poking its pesky nose into plans that morphed into a longer timeframe, fewer visits, more time with my parents. My book project, already slipped from intended completion in late spring, shifted to June. Then July.
Real life didn’t stop there, it just kept barreling through, full speed ahead.
The cascading news about my father’s growing health issues has raised more concerns, prompting late-night texts, Skype discussions, email conferences and phone call strategy sessions.
Thank you social media venues: damn you, the topics we are forced to cover.
We have experienced the wonderful highs of spending time together, and the crushing news that my father’s cancers are too advanced for surgical remedy. It has been a graphic kick in the gut as we all scramble to adjust plans.
We are all making changes based on desired time in the remaining months: my sister from several states away has found her vacation from a challenging job in a wobbly economy suddenly spent solo with my parents; her husband and daughter will gladly make their own exhausting trek; and my brother and his family are trying to squeeze in a couple trips in the months ahead.
As we help our mother navigate the care choices ahead, and tend to her and my father’s emotional and physical needs, lives are willingly uprooted and rearranged to make the most of remaining time.
Vacation plans are tossed aside as Husband and Son will come back to the US in what is an unexpected trip for the former and an accelerated one for the latter. That I only had a paltry number of weeks with Son this summer weighs heavily on me, but what is the alternative?
Daughter and I are extending our visit and making the necessary calculations: how late can we return and not overly do disservice to the start of her school year?
What of the months ahead?
What of that time?
We are not the only ones dealing with this sort of familial turbulence; absolutely far from it. Cyber friends Jack and Liam, a talented writer/composer expat duo, recently repatriated for the sake of family. Other friends have shared similar tales.
Still others will face such choices in the future.
These scenes play out in hastily arranged airplane flights, train reservations and automobile treks across the world.
‘At least we have time in which to say goodbye,’ my brother said.
And he is right. Better this than the alternative, despite the overwhelming weight that feels thrust upon us.
A high school friend who has made oncological nursing her life’s work (including a PhD) reached out recently. In our discussions she said something that remains with me.
‘This can be a time of abundant love.’
We don’t know how to do this. No one does, not really. Yet you figure it out fairly quickly.
You do what you can.
You do what you must.
You do your best, even if it doesn’t feel enough.
You are the filler between the two slices of bread, and you pray you do right by them.
[Image credit: Ambro, portfolio 1499, freedigitalphotos.net]