When our children are young, they depend on us for almost everything. Once they’ve grown and begun raising families of their own, they still need us, but in ways quite different from before. As both a parent of adult children and a grandparent, I sometimes think of the role that I play in my family now, in terms of how it might sound as a job posting. I imagine, and ask myself, what would the job title and description be? Perhaps it might go something like this:
“Wanted: “Family Helper-Crisis Interventionist” Must be prepared to “jump in” when needed and provide an extra set of hands to help ease, or resolve, a variety of situations. Duties will include occasional, loving care for the grandkids. Must have own car and valid driver’s license as unexpected, emergency errands will come up from time to time. The person in this critical role will sometimes be called upon to lend an understanding ear, provide a reassuring hug or be prepared to offer words of wisdom when needed, or asked. Ability to help solve complex problems is a plus; mature candidates only please apply.”
Oh yes, what a role we fill! And whether we are actively participating in the goings on of our family or just observing from the sidelines, it is certain that at times the waters will get rough. The list of possibilities is endless: late-night phone calls that tug at our hearts, problems which seem to have no solution, incoming texts which at once may surprise us, make us gulp, and change the direction of our day.
But of course, the positive side of our role exists as well. I’m willing to bet that more often than not, the help that we are giving is exactly what we need to feed our own souls, stirring memories of how we used to feel when we could bandage booboos, dry away tears or make our child’s face light up with just a simple surprise.
Recently I had what felt like a profound realization about the role I find myself in now.
To understand the context, I must step back and share something that happened several years ago when I was taking a college class on the topic of adulthood and aging. I had figured at the time I signed up for the class, that I would probably relate its content mostly to my mom, who was solidly in her 90s. Meanwhile, I was in my early 50s; I had recently become an empty-nester and had also just remarried. While a new and happy chapter was being created by many positive things going on in my life, I still could not let go of a nagging feeling that something, although I didn’t know quite what, was missing. As the class progressed, we studied mid-life and the “mid-life passage,” as described by Gail Sheehy in her fantastic book, Passages. The mid-life passage is a period in our lives when we may feel that our life is being upended, but according to Sheehy, it engages us in a process which ultimately helps us find our own truth, along with a renewed sense of purpose and vigor.
While my feelings remained for a time a mystery to me, it was, strangely enough while in the drive-thru line during a late-night taco run, that the light dawned for me. Thinking not just about tacos but about deep things, I suddenly made the connection between the feelings I’d been having and the fact that I was going thru my own mid-life passage. Wow! This aha moment was quickly followed by an additional nugget of truth – what was missing from my life was the role I no longer had, the indispensable “mom” that existed when my kids still lived at home. I sentimentally recalled then and there how it had been a time that was crazy, terrifying and wonderful all at once. You see, I felt a sense of great purpose. And while mentally I knew that my life still had great purpose, I had to recognize that on an emotional level, an element of that purpose was no longer there.
The memory from that night recently resurfaced, but this time rather than bearing tinges of sadness, it came on the wings of a happy realization. I had just come off of a very busy few weeks with my family, during which I had worn the hat of family helper-crisis interventionist, several times. During this flurry of activity I was able to see that concrete, positive outcomes had resulted from my time, energy and own special brand of wizardry. You could even say that I had been “indispensable,” and knowing this brought a great sense of fulfillment to me. It was then that the memory of that night came back. I saw that young mid-lifer in her car in the dark, thinking about the things that had been lost from her life. But a new realization seemed to bring me full circle: I am still indispensable, just in a different way than before.
Mid-life is a time when old things may leave us, new things may come along, things in our life once seen as staples may have altered to the point that we barely recognize them. At times we will have a pity-party, and we will grieve, and that’s ok because it’s all part of the process. But hopefully we’ll eventually get on to the business of adapting. It’s true we never want to let go of things we cherish, but sometimes maybe we won’t have to, at least not entirely. Perhaps the answer will sometimes lie not in letting go, but in learning to “hold on loosely.” If we can think outside the box and see old things in a new way, perhaps we will find that the things we cherish have been there all along.
Cindy works as an employment development counselor and is a mother and grandmother. She has lived in Sonoma County for 28 years.