The holidays typically bring gatherings of extended family and multiple generations. Last year, when catching up with our family members over the winter break as we all gathered at my parents’ Midwestern home from the East and West, I found myself squarely in the middle in a way that seemed more stressful than usual.
It was clear that my parents needed more help with the usual Christmas preparations. They manage living independently, but they do not have the energy for many extra tasks. We drove them to buy gifts, helped them decide what to buy, assisted with decorating, helped plan and execute meals, and created their Christmas letter. Meanwhile, our young adult children relied on us to arrange and pay for their flights, provide the rental car, and buy them necessities from movie tickets to winter outerwear.
To add to all this, the older and younger generations do not see one another frequently and have grown very different in terms of activity levels, schedules, and tastes, so it can fall to the middle generation to intercede and translate the needs and wishes of either side.
Developmentally, many of us in mid-life define the “sandwich generation,” smack in the middle and feeling responsible for all things family. At the holidays last year, I was absolutely rolling in the metaphorical mayonnaise and mustard of the sandwich generation…trying to make a nice holiday experience for everyone as I worked to choreograph the family celebrations and all the down time in between. I found myself emotionally exhausted after several days and ended up cranky and frayed when I’d hoped to be a loving mother and daughter. I had to look at my own behavior and attitudes. Maybe I was trying too hard.
The holidays and other big intergenerational events place extra stress on the middle generation…often, it is that generation making the plans or holding the purse strings. Things may change as adult children establish their own homes and families, but for a few years, we mid-lifers tend to be in charge of many of the special events in the lives of our families.
At the holidays, many of us already struggle with perfectionism and expectations that may be too high. We want everything to be “nice” and “special”—and we may be trying to fit in many extra duties while carrying on our usual work and other tasks.
In retrospect, I realize that I needed to let go of a few things last year. I could have asked others to pitch in more and take charge of specific aspects of holiday shopping or meals. Teens and younger adults are usually happy to have something to do and will help when asked. Older people, too, want to participate and be respected for their contributions and opinions.
It’s also important to let others negotiate their own relationships when the generations get together. Let family members get reacquainted with one another at their own pace. Don’t rush in to program all of the interactions. Difficult family members or difficult relationships pose special challenges. The best thing to do may be to shorten the times everyone is together, keep things simple and expectations realistic.
And when your teen, or your mother (or you!) wants some down time to rest or regroup, that’s okay. Not everyone has the interest or stamina to interact with family members all day or all evening.
What has been your experience as the middle generation at holiday family gatherings? What suggestions do you have?