Sandwich Generation: What Happens When Your Sandwich Falls Apart?

We all know about the sandwich generation, those of us, usually women, who are caught between the competing needs of aging parents and growing children. For several years, that was me. But what happens when your sandwich falls apart? When in the space of a few traumatic years, both of your parents die and the two oldest of your three children leave for college? If you’re no longer a daughter and barely feel like a mother, who are you?

 What happens to women in the sandwich generation when their kids grow up and parents die?

This is the question I find myself asking and, to a degree, answering, these days. June 21 marks the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. At the time, my children were 17, 15, and 13. We had just started college visits for my oldest and my youngest was preparing to enter high school. Losing my mom was heart-breaking, finding out my father had terminal cancer at the same time was devastating. The following years were a seesaw of hope and despair. Exciting college visits alternated with soul-crushing hospital and nursing home vigils in my home state. Two joyful high school graduations and several sad family funerals (including my father’s) marked the years. The circle of life hit and hit hard.

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I am, as author Jane Brooks says, a “midlife orphan.” Conventional wisdom would have me believe that I needed my parents much more in my youth but my experience is that I feel my mother could have helped me so much with this stage in parenting. I cried uncontrollably all the way home from dropping my oldest off as a freshman. It wasn’t that I was fearful or unhappy, quite the contrary. He attends my and my father’s alma mater, a place I know and love and I was confident in his ability to succeed. Rather, it was just the overwhelming emotion that came over me and the realization that the person I most wanted to talk to about it was no longer here. My husband of 24 years is a great source of support, but there are times, even in your 50’s, when you just want to talk to your mom.

So, who am I now? With only one child remaining at home for another year, I am on a quest to answer that question. I have a MBA but put my career on hold permanently in the 1990’s. My husband traveled extensively and our families lived in another state. I liked my job but felt fortunate to be able to be a stay-at-home mom. I had my own interests, but by necessity my days were scheduled around my kids’ activities. I don’t regret my decision and I think I would have been fired from any job during the worst days of my parents’ illnesses, but I do feel that too much free time can be a bad thing for a person suffering a loss. Introspection is good, dwelling on the past and your own mortality is not.

[Read Next: 9 Ways to Breathe New Life Into Your Empty Nest]

Today I look to the future, both mine and my kids. I will do anything I can to help them achieve their dreams as young adults. But I have dreams of my own now. I look forward to traveling and spending time with my husband. I have ditched my minivan for a cute new car. I am getting back into shape with the help of my new and very energetic Boxer puppy. I enjoy serving as a Parent Ambassador for my son’s college, helping new students and their families acclimate to college. I pick up my phone less and pick up a book more.

I have gone back to writing and although I have no idea where this path will lead, it has already served its purpose by helping me find my voice again. I’ve loved watching my children grow and soar but now it’s my turn.

Related:

What St. Elmo’s Fire Taught Me About Growing Older

Eight Best of the Empty Nest 

Peggy Montella is the mother of two college students and one high school junior. She has a B.A. in Journalism and a M.B.A. in Marketing from the Pennsylvania State University but has  spent the last 19 years as a stay-at-home mom. She was raised in Pennsylvania but has lived in Montgomery County, Maryland since 1990. She has been married for 24 years and is also the ‘mom’ to a Golden retriever and a Boxer puppy. She also serves as a Parent Ambassador with the Penn State Parents Program and as an alumni admissions volunteer and volunteers with her local animal shelter.

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