Barbie, Midge, Robin and Me

The father of my best friend Robin owned a tool business franchise which provided two young girls with opportunities to fill bins in his wonderful red truck, to bake cookies he could share with customers, and access to dozens of interesting empty boxes.

Robin attended 95thStreet School and I went to parochial school, but we had matching pencil boxes in our desks. Most kids found a source for cigar boxes, but we had decorated paper boxes not needed in his truck into unique containers with compartments for pencils, color pencils, scissors and such. We didn’t know each other’s school friends, but we shared something deeper: hours of playing with Barbie, Midge, Skipper and Ken in wonderful houses, stores, airplanes and schools constructed out of even more empty boxes.

When the weather was cold, Robin’s basement became a town for an afternoon of play. Her Barbie had a flight attendant outfit, mine had a tailored suit. We shared a plastic pseudo-Barbie car that took one to the airport and the other to an imaginary office. Neither of us knew anyone who worked in an office or flew on planes so eventually the story turned back to all the dolls sitting at little box desks with one Barbie, attired in a skirt and sweater, called teacher.

Robin had an older sister and we both had moms so we knew real women weren’t built like our Barbie crew, but we didn’t know flight attendants, nurses, doctors, brides, or girls who wore wonderful ballgowns. Our parents didn’t buy us Barbie’s plastic house or bedroom furniture, but Robin’s dad shared tape and scissors and boxes to build furniture and a variety of workshop towels to make blankets. We stood next to him in his wood working shop as he made small frames and blocks that could extend our Barbie furniture building. We learned how to sand.

Our Barbie phase lasted less than a year, a simple time when we creatively explored, built and did what kids are supposed to do. Parents helped feed our play then stepped back. And we did okay. And I wish I could say thanks to Robin’s father and all the other parents who stepped out over the years with camping trips or garden planting or an evening at the opera to expand the world beyond the girl toys of Barbie and her crew. And those who do that today as  they parent another generation of kids.

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The Care Giver Relay

Baby Boomers ran the first relay race known as working and maintaining families without help or comprehensive policies from our government.  Day care, sick child care, after school care, elder care. Home or facility based? Who takes the call when the plan falls apart? Who helps the cared one feel comfortable?

I’ve run all legs of that relay using strategies that worked in the moment for our kids, ourselves, our parents. We had wonderful experiences, and days I hope no one remembers. The cry of a toddler dealing with separation anxiety, a sick child asking a parent to stay with them, the whine of a school kid not wanting a babysitter, all disappear as a family matures.

The set of sounds that haunt me is a fragile parent demanding you stay, forgetting anything else exists in your world because they are anxious, the suggestions of hired caregivers that maybe dad would feel better if you walked out of a work meeting to come spend an hour. When you are carrying the heaviest responsibilities of a job that provides for the family you created, those calls tilt the world. Different, but equally difficult if you live miles away or states away.

Our local newspaper is running a series of stories about family elder care providers, also known as adult children. Just like searching for quality child care decades ago, individuals quickly discover there is no safety net or logical system to access when an elder family member needs help. It isn’t there so don’t do an online search. Network, know the finances of the person depending on you as well as their needs, then do the best you can. And do it right now. The hospital plans to discharge the individual tomorrow afternoon.

It isn’t an employer’s responsibility to expect less of you because an ill spouse or parent has doctor appointments, physical restrictions, emotional insecurity or a string of emergencies. Increased longevity does not equal decades of quality living. Without a safety net, it will be you standing on one foot balancing too many glass balls.

Elder care was the most difficult leg of the relay. Unlike an expected due date, elder + care can become part of your life any day or in a few months or years. That relay leg is run on a special course with more rocks than cushion. The vulnerable one can have physical needs but be capable intellectually and aware that they have become a burden. The vulnerable one may be physically capable but wandering in dementia. There is no known end. Your loved one will not enter kindergarten in twenty months. This part of life has no schedule for the refrigerator. You will have days that vaguely resemble television commercials where adult children chat with a professional provider and mother is wearing pearls. There will be more days that you lift a fragile loved one off the toilet in a bathroom that could use a better cleaning. You do the best you can.

No need to continue. Many of us have run the race and placed somewhere in the standings. Some finish their caregiving with shaky finances, some with high blood pressure and anxiety of their own, some with a scrapbook of treasured memories. As a Baby Boomer, I fear the end of life years for many reasons. Not the least that there is no national forethought about caring for the coming gray tsunami. Maybe like the baby boomlet of the 1980s, we’ll just let the Gen Xers and Millennials stumble through working long hours, raising their own children, dealing with deep debt, and caring for a couple of vulnerable elderly parents.

It isn’t going to be pretty.

 

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