As a Sandwich Generation caregiver, I frequently play the part of responsible one, handling items from substantive to trivial. For my father: medication, financials, negotiating, most shopping, nail clipping (my special favorite), technical support, housekeeping, being a sounding board, and occasionally, son. For my daughters: provider, travel coordinator, technical support (again), chauffeur, male role model, homework aide, designated top shelf reacher, chef, housekeeper (again), swim coach and cheerleader. To my great surprise, I’ve become the responsible adult at work, and where I volunteer, and among colleagues who come to me for advice.
If you live in this mode long enough, you start to believe your own reputation for knowing best. Your constant decision making, and occasional need to appear decisive even though you often have no idea what you’re doing, lulls you into false sense that you do. You also get used to setting the agenda, so when someone tries to influence it, you resist. After all, you not only know have the answers, you are used to having a monopoly on the questions.
I was reminded about how untrue this can be the other night with some friends in front of our fire pit.
We had people over on a Friday night, something I always looked forward to ever since we added a gas-powered fire-pit in our yard. We opted for direct plumbed gas partially on the recommendation of a fellow father of daughters who pointed out to me the very limited control we therefore have over our lives. So true – and this was before my father also arrived on the scene. The least I could do for myself, he recommended, was acquiring the power of fire. How right he was. It makes me happy every time I flick the direct gas line to my grill and think of the propane tanks I am not dealing with.
So last Friday we had a group of friends over to unwind over a few drinks. It was very civilized. Then quite suddenly I started an argument, for no known reason, with a friend of ours. It was like I was watching myself do it and I couldn’t stop. I don’t think I meant a single thing I said, and just kept escalating. Another friend saw this happening and tried to stop me by interrupting and trying to steer me in another direction. I didn’t appreciate her changing the subject, so I started on her too.
I wish I could say that the sudden dark mood was isolated to this one evening, or something physiological like too much stout or too much sugar, or something else I could explain away. Reflecting on it, I know this was not the case.
The previous night, I had shlepped the kids to a meeting that had added incorrectly on the calendar. I was angry, mostly at the situation. Then I ended up taking it out on one of our kids by going passive aggressive, and then basically bullying her into working on something for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. It was obvious that she was too tired to do it, but the more she retreated, the angrier I got, so the more she retreated. Finally Nova got home and intervened.
Then the night after the fire pit incident, I started in on Nova about the kids’ upcoming B’Not Mitzvah. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me: they were stupid. Any why would I pick a fight about this anyway? We’re hosting an event where almost 200 people want to come from 3 continents, and where my kids’ friends are almost as excited as they are. This is success. I would have traded anything for that when I was a shy, awkward 13 year old. And my father is going to make it. He’ll be almost 92 and he’s going to make it. When he was sick 3 years ago, I was hoping he’d get through the week, let alone to this event.
Over the years, I’ve learned to forgive myself falling down sometimes. This was not always the case. About this week though, I still feel a little ashamed. Maybe I was feeling a little overwhelmed, insecure, and if I am honest with myself, a little intimidated by my friends, my spouse, my father, even my children. They have their whole futures ahead of them and mine slips away a little every day.
And since I am used to being responsible Sandwich Generation father guy, I think I was more susceptible to letting these feelings spiral into something else. Acting the authority figure is a bad habit you can develop in caregiver mode. You are so used to talking that it gets more difficult to listen to other people. I didn’t heed the warning signs and instead railroaded my daughter, my friends, my spouse, and myself.
As caregivers we have selves separate from that part of our identities, and sometimes, those selves are not our best selves. You only hope that you realize what you are doing and get back to being that better self before it’s too late.