I just heard this phrase for the first time a few weeks ago. Apparently there are so many of us out there dealing with the squeeze of small children and aging parents that we’ve acquired a special nickname.
According to the Pew Research Center, we are middle-aged folks with a parent over 65 and a minor child. I personally have a 77-year-old father with significant health issues on one side, and a three-year-old plus five-month-old twins on the other side. In sandwich terms, it seems analogous to one of those gigantic three-layer burgers, with bacon and cheese.
The bottom layers would be my parents, my foundation. They made me and they continue to hold me up. The top layers would be my kiddos. They complete me and also smoother me at times. By any standards, it’s a helluva sandwich to live in and I have definitely found myself struggling lately.
Having an aging and/or ill parent is both scary and sad. I’ve spent nearly my entire life worrying that something bad might happen to my father, who I love like crazy. Now, something bad has and will continue to happen for the rest of his life. He may have many good days, months, even years ahead of him, but he will always be sick and I will always feel my heart skip a beat when my younger brother calls unexpectedly. In fact, my brother and I have taken to opening all of our phone conversations with “Dad’s okay . . .,” because we know that we are both living in a state of constant worry.
And there is sadness along with the fear because I don’t want to not be my daddy’s little girl anymore (double negative there, sorry). I know I’m no longer little but being with him, or even just thinking about him, means I get to be a daughter, not a wife or a mother, if only for a few minutes. It’s a role that I relish and it brings me to tears to think of losing that piece of my identity; that I will only be my daddy’s girl in the past tense.
At the same time, I feel as though I can’t give my father the full attention and love he deserves right now because I need to be fully present to care for my children. I am the mom, and a wife, and I have to be there for my family. My children are too young to understand what is happening or recognize my need to care for my father and myself. They just know that they need me to be there for them, constantly and consistently.
I was able to get away for a few days earlier this month to visit my dad, but even then, I brought one of the kids with me. The three of them together is just so much for one person. I got to go to the hospital and see my dad and touch him (as much as the restrictions around his care would allow), but then I would go home and need to put H down for his nap or get him ready for bed. All I wanted to do was curl up on the floor and cry for hours; instead, I changed jammies and read bedtime stories and then crawled into bed beside my boy, too exhausted to do anything else but sleep.
At the time, part of me wished that H was not there, so I could completely wallow in my grief. So that I could fall apart without worrying about how that would look to and affect him.
However, my smarter half recognized that having H with me was a good thing; it kept me grounded because I had to care for him. I wasn’t allowed to be pulled under by sadness and grief because there was someone else that needed me.
While I am most definitely part of the sandwich generation, there are many who have it worse then me. I am not financially responsible for my father, my mother is well, and I have three wonderful siblings and many other family members and friends supporting my father. We also have a village helping us to raise our three little ones.
Also, I am not without fault in bringing about these circumstances. My father had my younger brother and I relatively late in life and then I waited until my mid-30s to have my own children.
So, through a series of actions and acts of fate, I have come to live in my sandwich. My heart is squeezed between my father and my children. And while it sometimes feels like I am being pulled in two, I think, more often than not, their squeezing is actually holding my heart together.