My friends and I are at the age when we begin to talk less about child care and more about parental care.
The subject of our lunchtime conversations has shifted. Once they leaned heavily toward pediatrics; now they include geriatrics. Our long-distance telephone checkups on each other's lives also run down a longer list. Once they accounted for sons and daughters. Now they include mothers and fathers.
In middle age, most of us are flanked by adolescent children and aging parents. We are the fulcrum of this family seesaw and expected to keep the balance.
As one set of burdens is lifted gradually by independence, another is descending, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly, pulled by the gravity of old age or illness.
In the past year, a neighbor of mine has helped her son choose a college and her mother choose a retirement home. A friend who has just stopped accompanying her children to doctors' appointments has begun driving her father to his. A colleague who filled her thirties with guilt about being a working mother is entering her fifties with guilt about being a working daughter: it's her parents who need her now.
It was to be expected, I suppose. After all, it is nothing more than the reality of the life cycle. But in fact it wasn't expected. Not really.
Like most Americans, my friends were raised to believe that independence was the norm. We learned to value it, nurture it, respect it and demand it of ourselves and others. Today we "stand on our own two feet."
It was hard for some of us to have that independence challenged by the helplessness of our children. It is much harder to see our parents become needful.
Some of this difficulty is familiar and Freudian. The child in us always wants our parents to be stronger, to be caretakers rather than caretaken. When we mother and father our mothers and fathers, we feel a bit like orphans.
But this stage of life, of mid-life, is also hard because many of our parents lied to us just as we in turn lie to our children. Perhaps "lie" is too harsh a word, but let me explain.
In America today it is considered neurotic, or at least unhealthy, to teach children that they owe us for their orthodontia, their college tuition, their very life. We do not have children "to take care of us" in our old age anymore; at least we don't say that. The model of a sacrificial parent waiting for a return on her investment has become a satire. Raising them is supposed to be an act of free love.
So we tell the young that we need nothing in return. We free up their emotional inheritance so they can spend it on the next generation. At the same time we prepare for our own old age -- buffer our lives against "needing" -- with IRAs and Social Security, with medical insurance and Medicare.
But Social Security doesn't make telephone calls, and Medicare doesn't visit the hospital, and while independence extends longer and wider into the late decades now, few people leave this life without becoming somewhat dependent on others, especially their children.
The lie -- that parents will remain independent -- is not a malicious one. It's not even deliberate. It is believed when told by 30-year-old fathers to 8-year-old sons. By 40-year-old mothers to 12-year-old daughters. It is handed down in good faith by generations of parents when we are in our prime.
We believe our own lie because we cannot imagine -- even those taking care of our own mothers and fathers -- that it will happen to us. It is impossible for a 45-year-old to know what he will be like at 75, what he will want, what he will need, what he will resent. Yet by 45, he has seeded the ground for his own child's middle- aged shock.
Our terror of losing this prized American possession -- independence -- is what makes us define a good death as a sudden death. We choose to believe that we can avoid becoming a burden on our children. Our shame about aging prevents us from knowing and telling our children the dirty little secret of our human existence: when we too are old, we may need them -- need to lean on them.
Here, in the middle of life, we are just learning the truth from one generation, still hiding it from the next.