Twenty years ago, as a graduate student in Marriage and Family Therapy, I co-presented my first family seminar. My target audience was what was referred to in the literature as “The Sandwich Generation.” This four week class targeted people in their 40’s and 50’s who’s lives were being squeezed like a sandwich with the demands of raising children on one side, with the often competing needs of aging parents on the other.
Of course, these were only two of the stressors and time consumers in their lives. On top of the family roles, they were often at the height of their careers, in the midst of accumulating cars, homes, and educational opportunities for their children, and were also devoted to church or civic roles. This didn’t even broach the subject of carving out time for leisure and hobbies.
I had studied the research and literature on this group extensively and I believed I understood their challenges fairly well. I naively thought it couldn’t be much more difficult than what I was experiencing as a 27-year-old full-time student, who was recently married, holding down a part-time job and serving in our church with a fairly heavy responsibility. Fast-forward 20 years.
Okay…I was dumb and naïve. This mid-life stage is much harder! I grasp the plate-spinning metaphor now and sometimes want to cry “Uncle!”
Ambition and a drive for growth and mastery are all good things if managed correctly. They propel us forward towards our goals and these yearnings bring about great human accomplishments. But at some point, all of us will have to ask ourselves if our drive and the accumulation of things in our life, is actually subtracting or fulfilling our lives. Is our ability to love, serve and find joy in life being diminished by the frantic pace set by demands and ambition?
As a man, smack-dab in the middle of the sandwich generation, I will tell you, I have crossed over to a place where it’s time to take a few plates down before they crash. It started when I sold our herd of Black Angus cows. As much as this was a dream, the time it took worrying about how to feed them, where to find summer pasture, and who would take care of them while I was about my “real job” was too much.
That experience felt so right, that I then took down a second much bigger plate; Paisley Farms, our all-natural, pure-bred Berkshire hog farm. This ambition was not about making money or it would have been easy for me to liquidate years ago. In four years, we went from not knowing a thing about pigs, to building the largest, highest ranked farm in the Mountain West with Whole Foods Markets. However, what started out with good intentions to provide an opportunity to work and learn together as a family, turned into one crisis after another, robbing us of the joy it was intended to create: piglets being crushed by their mothers if no one was attending them at birth, missing pigs either from death or theft, feed prices at an all-time high, pork price negotiations, transporting hogs to market in blizzard conditions, farm audits, employees that wouldn’t show up, equipment breaking down or being mistreated, registration records, vet bills, and so on. And this was supposed to be a hobby? Thankfully, I found the perfect buyers, a young guy with great ambition, who also has the time to devote to it. I think the farm “plate” will be a success in his hands.
This year choose to simplify and prioritize the connections in your family. Being squeezed or stretched leaves you with little time or energy to play with or even quietly behold your loved ones. Preoccupation will rob you of the satisfaction of healthy and current relationships. When you are in survival mode, it’s all about the crisis, and unless your family becomes a crisis, you won’t get around to them.
Simplification doesn’t just feel good, it’s preventative . When you develop attachment, rapport, trust and love in the family, it ends up being the biggest buffer against family troubles. I challenge you to identify the plates in your life that are distracting from your family, and find a way to set them aside. Start small if need be. There are usually good reasons you haven’t taken it down before. This will most likely take courage and faith. Remember, no plate is worth the loss of deep, loving family relationships.
To Family Happiness!