The Short Change
If you are a sandwich generation member, someone has probably asked you some variation of the question: “how do you do it?” I recently spoke to someone about this at length (more on this later) and dutifully laid out the many demands. I write it about a lot (sometimes it even gets read) so as you might guess, I’ve developed a lot of theories about this.
Most of these theories are narcissistic — that is, they center on things that I have given up. Hobbies. Free time. My exercise routine. Career tradeoffs. Like I said, mostly self-centered. Last Sunday afternoon after picking up my kids, I left some neighborhood friends who had decided to share an impromptu bottle of wine. Because I was running over to my father’s place, I couldn’t join them. It put me a dark mood for the rest of the day.
But then, this particular list meant to answer the “how do you do it?” question is incomplete, for one main reason: it neglects to mention that for everyone in whom I invest only a piece of my time, they get less than they need or deserve.
My manager noticed me checking my watch during a meeting earlier this week. This is a rude habit that I know I should fix, but I can’t. I am on the clock. I have only a certain number of minutes with him and then I have to run. The same goes for the members of my team that I am supposed to be mentoring if not for the time limit and the anxiety of having to balance everything with competing personal demands. I would like to say that I handle this juggling act with grace every time, which I suppose I could do — except it would be untrue.
During the aforementioned Sunday afternoon with my father, I had only 90 minutes because I had to leave by 6pm to pick the kids up from swim practice. The new hearing aid that had just arrived that might have improved the quality of his life this past week? Maybe next week. He has so many stories to tell, old movies he wants to watch, misconceptions about himself he is belatedly realizing that he wants to clear while there’s still there. No time.
The same goes for my kids. I’ve missed a lot of dinners with them over the past year. I justify this to myself, probably correctly, by telling myself that (a) they probably don’t mind, and (b) they are learning an important lesson about making a commitment to one’s parents that, not coincidentally, might serve me someday. But a part of them does mind.
My wife is not immune from this either, although certainly not because I am around a lot less – quite the opposite, actually. Once when I had a lot more time than usual between trips some years ago, she commented that the “boy creature” energy in the house had gotten too high (probably the shoes left on the living room floor). Maybe I was just interrupting her watching the TV shows that she loves and I find unwatchable (example: Parenthood. Blecch). Usually our equilibrium is that just that and we work hard to keep it this way. In part I have made career choices that trade certain types of opportunities for the chance to be home more, be present. I think the shortchanging here happens because even when present, I am not as present as I was before, and probably not as present as I would to be.
Part of my answer the question was that I regard my glass as half full because I even have this problem. It is a high class problem compared to loneliness, and I get it. And most often I like feeling needed, which like aging, beats the alternative. But being present in more places means that I am less present in each, and this is something with no fix. Someone is going to be shortchanged. The flaw is often in thinking that sandwich generation struggles are one’s own. The reality is that balancing is also hard for the people being balanced.