Over the last few months, I have had many long conversations with various friends and acquaintances over coffee and lunch and basically our conversation revolves around our kids, our work and our lives in general.
Perhaps I am projecting my own feelings, but I have sensed in many of my friends a mild resignation. Like me, they are baby-boomers in their late 50s to late 60s. Most of us are empty nesters whose kids no longer live at home. Some of my friends don’t even have kids.
Some of us are still working, full or part-time. Others are retired – some by choice, others by circumstance – some moan and “crechsts” as they get out of a chair, while others just spring up and are raring to go.
Most of us are grandparents; some have never married; a few are divorced or widowed; others have remarried. Some roll their eyes when talking about the spouse they have been married to for 40 years, while others wish they had been blessed with the burden of an aging spouse.
I think there is an underlying current swishing around in our psyches that believes that at our age what is, is. We aren’t necessarily complaining or overwrought at how our lived played out – it’s just that as you get older you realize that the dreams, goals and accomplishments you envisioned and strived for are unlikely to happen if they haven’t yet.
The most productive, energetic years are behind you, and you can’t help feeling that “what you see, is what you get.” You might have become a doctor, but you didn’t find a cure for cancer like you hoped. You may have become a lawyer, but your name isn’t splashed on the front pages as you defend/prosecute in the trial of the century.
You may have dreamt you would raise a huge family and shep great nachas – and in the end had fewer children than you hoped for, or none at all. Perhaps, as you were growing up, you thought you would do major tikun olam as a social worker, teacher or artist, and while you have many accomplishments under your belt, you did not change the world.
It is very sobering to look in the mirror, see the winkles and the frown lines, and know that while your life was “okay,” it wasn’t yotzeh mi haklal – it wasn’t extraordinary. You did not become the “big deal” you envisioned – or your parents expected.
For many children of Holocaust survivors, this is especially difficult to swallow. Many of us were under great pressure to “rise above” the rest. Success wasn’t enough, only super success was good enough. Getting a 98 on a major exam was minimized because it wasn’t 100. We were never thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough, popular enough. Intellectually, many of us understand why our parents needed us to be perfect – it assuaged their guilt at surviving.
As I have repeatedly said, I am not a mental health professional so my opinion is just that, an opinion, but I know that some survivors bore tremendous guilt for living when so many of their loved ones didn’t. They desperately needed to feel “worthy” of surviving by producing children who would be “superstars” in their respective professions and careers, and change the world.
Their children – especially the boys – had to become, for example, brain surgeons or cancer specialists and their daughters had to be beautiful and accomplished. Perhaps this need to justify their lives also manifested itself in earlier generations of Jews who escaped vicious, brutal persecution in Russia. Beset with extreme guilt for surviving pogroms and other massacres, they put great stress on their children and heaped unrealistic expectations on them. (The emotional toll our parents’ unreasonable and unattainable goals took on us, who for the most part failed to achieve them, is for another article).