It’s not as if I had never heard the term. People have been talking about the “sandwich generation” for years. And is not as if I didn’t know friends who were still talking care of their kids while dealing with a parent who couldn’t live independently anymore. It’s just that I was naive enough to think that it would never happen to me.
I had the vague idea that my kids would graduate from college, then immediately find a terrific job and a great place to live. I’d get to see them all the time, but I wouldn’t worry about them anymore. As for my parents, I pictured them living happily on their own until they were at least in their mid-nineties, at which point they would depart from this world quickly and peacefully, knowing they had lived a full and satisfying life. Looking back on it, I’m amazed I didn’t still believe in Santa Claus as well.
But then reality came knocking, and I learned that life doesn’t get less stressful or complicated when our kids become adults. A father who slid slowly into the early stages of dementia before passing away; a mother-in-law who spent three years in a nursing home (in another state) before we lost her; and a father-in-law who died unexpectedly five weeks after we lost my mother-in-law and were still in deep grief over her death, all taught me that real life is challenging and messy in ways I had never even dreamed of. And I’m still waiting for that magic moment when I stop worrying about my son and daughter. My mother told me that would never happen, and now I know she was right.
Maybe it was just denial that kept me believing that my parents and in-laws would never require any real care from my husband and me, and that parenting was something that you did only for twenty years or so per child. If so, I think that’s a defense mechanism that is shared by a lot of us. Whenever I talk about some of these issues with friends whose kids are younger and whose parents are still alive, independent and healthy, they react just the way I used to: with sincere, but distant, sympathy. They can’t quite make themselves believe that this will ever happen to them. I remember being that innocent.
I’m not going to lie. This “sandwich generation” stuff can be hard. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m much more sympathetic to my friends who are going through the same thing, and often much worse. Supportive friends help, and so does a sense of humor and the occasional glass of wine. But mostly, I just remember that the alternative is worse. I worry about my kids because I love them, and that isn’t going to change. And I am very grateful for the time I have with my mother while she is still here, because I know once she is gone I will miss her just the way I miss my father and my in-laws. Being in the sandwich generation may be challenging at times, but honestly, I want to stay in it for as long as I can.