By Tom Andre
The "sandwich" stage of life - caring both for aging parents and young children - can be exhausting, like having a second or even a third job. Everyone who has been through this appreciates how challenging it can be, but few people choose to discuss it in public. It is one of the terrible secrets of our culture that we too often diminish the value and importance of taking care of others.
Indeed, we "feminize" the art of caregiving, both personally and professionally, beginning by paying professional caregivers far too little money given the demands and importance of their job. Men are frowned upon when they take their full paternity leave - if they have it available - or leave work to take their children to doctor's appointments.
May I propose we think of caregiving in a completely different way?
What if instead of a burden, we think of caregiving as "productive" time, as essential as any human activity? What if we consider caring for others just as important as caring for ourselves? Is there any reason not to think of it this way?
Some people (by which I mean, "men," mostly) tend to think that the way to build relationships is to create major memories and moments. Trips, concerts, parties, extravagant gestures. These extraordinary events may be more memorable - because they are extraordinary - but they are not more meaningful. Sometimes the smaller interactions are the most meaningful, even if they take time to register: putting the coffee in a more reachable place; taking the time to tell a child a story; or walking slowly down the stairs with someone to make sure they don't fall; holding a sick friend's hand; driving someone to the doctor's office; helping them carry their heavy groceries inside. All of this is not only worth it. It's essential.
Taking care of someone towards the end of their life is just as important as taking care of someone at the beginning. It's frustrating that in caring for an aging parent, we may never get to see the fruits of our labors. But that's not the point: how about taking a moment to reflect that we are the fruits of their labors.
We don't always have to be producing something, or learning something, or maximizing efficiency, or totally caught up on the news. There aren't many blockbuster movies or popular songs about caring for loved ones, and so this most essential and beautiful of human activities continues to live beneath the surface of our dominant culture. Hey, Hollywood producers out there: could you do something about that, please? I promise, there is a big, interested audience.
By Tom Andre
I am a licensed marriage and family therapist working in El Segundo and Century City (Los Angeles), California. I have experience working with a broad range of problems, and I have a special interest in the lifelong questions about identity, meaning and purpose. Additional areas of interest and experience include grief and loss, parenthood and fertility, and trauma.