You may have heard of it – the “sandwich generation.” Let’s define the concept loosely as someone essentially trapped between two things, either good or bad. In this case someone finds themselves between two generations. If you’re reading this while hungry you might prefer to be trapped between a huge slab of crunchy peanut butter and homemade freezer jam within the comforting bookends of non-nutritive Wonder bread. After a decade of focusing on high fiber, I’ve had my fill of bread with so many seeds I often confuse myself for a bird enslaved to a suet feeder!
A true sandwich generation victim finds himself walking out this thing called life between children on one side of the bread and aging parents on the other. Conveniently this season of life most often strikes at middle age, but I imagine there are many who’ve found themselves feeling the hulk smash a little earlier than planned. While I am personally blessed to have two amazing young adult children on the peanut butter side of my life, I am equally thankful to have healthy parents on the jelly side. I assign the baby boomers of my family tree to the jelly camp because they have been washed and strained, mashed and boiled, and vacuum-sealed by life, resulting in something beautiful and smooth. I’m certainly not saying my girls aren’t beautiful…au contraire! They just have much more life ahead of them that resembles the crunchy landscape of peanut butter, full of life lessons and obstacles to overcome. While I hope their lives will be smooth peanut butter, I recognize that this is no longer under my control.
Mid-life can mean so many things - a feeling of losing control or perhaps a peaceful letting go. As a mom, releasing the grip of my intrinsic desire to overprotect and control situations was one of the hardest experiences of being a parent. I rung my hands over everything from the choice of lunch bag juice boxes, decisions over public vs. private school, and sooner than I was ready, decisions about who passed muster to date my children. There was so much freedom found the day I realized my young adults had been sailing their own boats for several years; I just didn’t get the memo. Note to parents with teenagers - things will get better.
Most kids who temporarily orbit the dark side of the moon for a few seasons will come back to you, and when they do you’ll be standing in front of an extraordinary person - no longer your little one. It’s a poignant and bittersweet moment as many can attest to, when out comes the tissue at prom or high school graduation or the day you take them off to college. If this is where you find yourself, congratulations…they’ve launched! For a moment in time you can take a breath, a deep one because you’ve earned it, and you can move to the most rewarding stage of parenting. You have the honor of still being a parent, yet one who is now standing shoulder-to-shoulder next to your “child” and no longer over them. No need to carry them, but rather walk beside them, a kind of life coach, at times a consultant, perhaps a mentor, and if you’re lucky– a friend.
So you’ve graduated your kids and graduated yourself…amazing! But wait…what about the jelly on the other side of the sandwich? How are your parents really doing? I sincerely hope that your folks, or those who raised you, are still living and are in good health. This is where the sandwiching happens for so many. You drop your kid off at college and pull out the personal bucket list only to get “the call” that one of your parents is in the hospital or is diagnosed with a life-threatening or difficult to manage illness. For many this marks the beginning of a whole new kind of caregiving where roles are reversed and you begin to tend to the ones who wiped your runny nose and cried at your graduation.
Whether your parents are healthy and thriving or infirm, take heart. Their health status is yet another thing you can’t control. If you find yourself truly sandwiched with an untouched bucket list and your parents need you, first be good to yourself. It’s the hardest thing to do, but likely something your parents in their wisdom may have said to you. The flight attendant reminds me whenever I travel to secure my own oxygen mask first before helping others. If you have siblings, share the caregiving responsibilities, unless you keep a poster-sized photo of your sib in the garage for dart practice. If you can find affordable resources, leverage any form of respite care to build in breaks from caregiving. If a life goal or a trip has to be cancelled to care for your parents, don’t file the bucket list away. Post it somewhere you can see it every day, front and center. Remind yourself that life is a continuum of seasons and that you can still tackle the bucket list on whatever timeline or budget you can handle.
By all means, if your young adults are gainfully employed and your parents are in good health – celebrate! Get out there and tackle that bucket list, take the big trip, make that career change, buy a Harley Davidson, go on a mission trip – whatever charges your personal battery. Life has a way of draining our daily amps as fast as our smart phones, and life can change in an instant. Whatever your story, there is likely someone else eating the PB&J that is life much like you, one bite at a time.