(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
As a bride of 21 in 1962, Joan* expected to live a happy, “normal” life in Michigan. She was a nurse. Her husband, Tom*, was an engineer. They bought a small farm. They had four kids, all girls. As was the tradition then, Joan quit working when she had kids.
Originally, Joan held modest expectations: a successful marriage, happiness and children and grandchildren. But then daughter Heidi*, at the tender age of 10, became a world-class athlete. The family made huge changes to accommodate her training and travel schedule. Joan and Heidi moved from the farm to a larger town with better athletic facilities. Tom and the girls followed. This became a pattern. Bigger towns, better coaches, more moves.
Heidi’s sisters did fine with all the moves and were excited by her success. Tom, however, felt neglected, and resented not being the center of attention. The marriage foundered, and the couple separated when Joan was 67. (There are no plans at this point to divorce.)
The life of a traditional, cupcake-baking, occasionally babysitting grandmother didn’t work as Joan had expected, either. Heidi, now married and living in Florida, needs help with her young children, one of whom has severe autism. Joan ended up buying a condo near Heidi and left Michigan and her extended network of children, grandchildren and friends, for good.
Tom followed suit, buying his own house in Florida. But at 75, his health is deteriorating, and Joan, who thought her nursing career was over 50 years ago, is now his primary caregiver.
Instead of a life of fun and peace, Joan is living what she calls an “on-call life.” No matter what she plans, she could be tasked at any time to run errands or shuttle the kids around. If someone is sick, Joan is the nurse. When friends and family from Michigan flock to visit, she ends up running a B&B, only without the revenue. “It’s a three-ring circus, and I’m the Ring Mistress,” she says.
Joan knows that she’s overextended. She accepts that she has surrendered the sense of personal life she thought she would have in exchange for feeling she is contributing meaningfully to all those she loves. Still, it’s a grind, and she worries about how she’ll be able to find a life of her own after all these years.
So how does she cope? Here’s what works for her, eightrules that may help other overextended grandparents:
1. Only invite people you really like into your home
Meet others elsewhere, so you won’t feel like you’re constantly entertaining.
2. Live in the moment
Even if the future seems daunting and unmanageable, you can handle the challenges of a single day.
3. Promote friendships with people who are positive and supportive
Hard as it may be, cut your ties with anyone who is draining.
(MORE: 7 Friends You’d Be Better Off Without)
4. Make plans
But always stress that you may have to cancel at the last minute.
5. Retain an ongoing sense of purpose
As Joan puts it, she’s “doing what God would want me to do — creating mutual and enjoyable goodness.”
6. Take regular breaks
A permanently exhausted grandparent is an ineffective grandparent, so set reasonable limits for yourself and communicate them well.
7. Keep an optimistic attitude
One day, Joan is convinced, she’ll find love again.
8. Pay attention to what you receive from your efforts, not just what you give
It’s easy to fall into the martyr or victim trap. Don’t.
*All names have been changed to protect privacy.
George H. Schofield, Ph.D. is a futurist, a speaker and a professor, specializing in developmental psychology and creating meaningful lives for the 50+ demographic. Author of After 50 It’s Up to Us: Developing the Skills and Agility We’ll Need, Schofield has served as president of the Advisory Council to the Commission on Aging and Adult Services for the City and County of San Francisco. He lives and works in Lakewood Ranch, a suburb of Sarasota, Fla., and loves planning special activities with his grandchildren.
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