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Facing farm life in our 40s

Holly Spangler combine harvesting with sunset in background
CHALLENGE: Life is a transition and the farm is its proving grounds.
My Generation: The challenge of this season comes with aging parents, aging kids and learning to be the adult in the room.

We sat on the high school bleachers the other night and I hugged my friend tight. Really tight. Her dad was already dealing with Parkinson’s. Now, officially, he has dementia, too.

We teared up. And then watched our high schoolers play volleyball and talked about college visits.

That’s life in our 40s. Aging parents, aging kids, learning to be the adult.

I look around at my peers, and many of us have already buried parents. Ten years ago, I spent the better part of a year driving 480 miles round trip as my mother battled pancreatic cancer; she was gone in nine months. I was among the first of my peers to lose a parent, and many others have joined me since. We’ve parked the combine for one visitation, made a snowy trip to southern Indiana for another. Still another lost her father during our county fair week. I called her and listened.

“I just can’t believe he’s gone,” she said. He’d had diabetes and dementia. She’d long missed the man who raised her.

Seasons change

When my husband, John, and I got married in our 20s, we entered the wedding season. Nearly every weekend was a road trip and a party as our friends paired off.

John once dared to complain about all those weddings and his Grandpa Wilcoxen told him, “Just wait. You get to be my age, and all you do is go to funerals.” He wasn’t wrong. So we decided to enjoy those weddings even more.

Our 30s marked the baby season, as all those friends got pregnant and built their families. Showers and birthday parties and milestones and celebrations. First days of school and first county fairs. Dirty, adorable little faces everywhere.

Now in our 40s and pushing 50, we see what Grandpa Wilcoxen saw: It’s the funeral season. So many of our friends are either losing parents or caring for aging parents. Conversations change. Which nursing home is the best? Is it extended care? Who decides when they come home? How do we get ahold of that one nurse at the nurses’ station who could make a difference?

Statistically, our friends are more likely to receive a cancer diagnosis now than at any other time in our lives — like last spring, when my friends from home prayed hard and held our breath over a mammogram, then cheered when it came back clear.

This is a tough season. Fewer parties. More trying to figure out what the heck we’re supposed to do here.

We don’t have a playbook to follow for reversing roles with our parents. As the generation ahead of us begins to depend on us, it’s a season of gutting it out and praying. On the farm, we’re very likely making all the decisions now. There’s less talking it through with elderly parents; instead, we’re keeping them updated on what we’ve decided.

Now more than ever, I realize that nobody really knows what they’re doing. The people in charge? They’re also making it up as they go. Doing their best. Our families and communities are looking for leaders who are strong and wise — and they’re looking at us. We’re supposed to be the grown-ups.

Burning the candle

And yet, we’re stretched thin. That conversation on the bleachers bounced from dementia to college because our kids are approaching independence. We’re trying to guide them as they make big life decisions.

Once upon a time, I thought parenting would be easier once the kids were in school. It turns out, raising teenagers vs. little kids is hard in different ways. Little kids require constant supervision and much of your day is centered around their needs, but the stuff they get upset over has little lasting consequence — like leaving the park or picking up toys.

Teenagers are the opposite. They’re much more independent, but the emotional draw is enormous, with constant mental juggling, worry and self-doubt. Another decision, always around the corner.

Our 40s are full of transitions and responsibilities. But friends, that’s exactly where the farmer shines. We’ve spent 25 or 30 years raising crops under the fickle hand of weather and markets. We’ve watched hail fall on our cornfield alone and known life is arbitrary. We bury a calf and feel the circle of life. Kids go from riding in tractors to running tractors. We watch one season roll into another, standing out in rich dirt as grass grows and leaves fall.

Life is a transition and the farm is its proving grounds.

So here’s to you, the folks who used to be young farmers. You are the leaders today, guiding your families and your communities. It’s hard. But I’ll bet you’re doing it better than you think. And you’re never alone.

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