Being Part of the Sandwich Generation Means Putting “Me” on Hold

I am bologna. I am stuck between two stale, slightly moldy slices of white bread and this sandwich sucks.

On one side are my grown children

On one side, I have five grown-ish children. One is mid-messy-divorce. One is in jail on drug charges—again. One has hitched her wagon to a sketchy boyfriend and is derailing her fragile financial existence. One is freaking out over college graduation and PhD programs and my youngest is a first year in college and has forgotten that I exist. I thought things would be easier now, given that the parenting problems they presented when they were young seemed overwhelming.

They were adopted at various ages out of foster care and they came with an alphabet of their own: ADHD, RAD, ODD, ASD, GT, PTSD and LGBTQIA. So, when I received my AARP card, I was ready to retire from the mom business. But in a head-whipping rewind from forty years ago, my parents said no.

grandmother with granddaughters

I never thought I would be part of a sandwich generation. (Twenty20 spencerpa440)

On the other side are my aging parents

They sit on the other side of my sucky sandwich. My mother, a spry 80-something who lives alone 1,800 miles away, thinks my empty nest means more time for her: more phone calls, more visits, more financial help. Moving in with her would be ideal, she says. And my father, who lives near me, recently suffered three strokes and is midway through what is likely to be a limited recovery. He’s using a walker, is prone to falling, and is often confused. Thankfully, my father and stepmother are financially secure retirees with a dream team of doctors. But my stepmother shoulders most of the burden of caring for my father, so I try to spend at least a couple days a week helping out.

I never thought I would be part of the sandwich generation

I never thought I’d be a bologna sandwich. I wanted to be an exotic Lunchable, a bento box of flavors from every country I would visit. I wanted to celebrate my empty nest by spending a few weeks at a friend’s new villa in Italy. I wanted to return to freelance writing, lunches and weekend road trips with girlfriends. I wanted to spend carefree days researching retirement destinations in Ecuador. I wanted to focus on me, lose weight, play piano, take yoga, moisturize more.

Instead, I am bologna: part of the sandwich generation, which is generally defined as parents in their 40s or 50s who help care for their slow-to-mature adult children and their rapidly maturing parents, both of whom often need financial and emotional assistance. In the next 50 years, the number of adults 65 and older is expected to nearly double, and the number of adults 85 and older will nearly triple from 6.4 million to 19 million. Many, if not most, will rely on their children for some form of support.

At the same time, adult children are moving in with their parents—or seeking financial assistance—at record numbers. As of 2016,15% of Millennials were living in their parents’ home, according to the Pew Research Center. A recent report from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that 79 percent of parents are helping their adult children financially, whether it’s paying for cell phone bills, car insurance, or weddings, collectively spending double what they put toward their own retirement.

My friend, Jill, is a peanut butter sandwich—the thin, dry kind with almost no jell, the kind of sandwich that my son describes from jail. She has an adult son on the autism spectrum living at home, and elderly parents with rapidly progressing physical and mental impairments living just a few miles away. She’s overwhelmed managing caregivers and looking for long-term housing options for her parents, all while continuing to help her 18-year-old son. She and her husband bought a travel trailer many months ago that sits in storage, beckoning them to a carefree life of travel and adventure they may never get to experience.

My children, while not the daily demand they once were, still invoke handwringing and Tylenol-taking stress. My oldest and easiest, is now facing serious trouble in his marriage. I’m devasted for him and his wife and am silently thankful they have no children. My second oldest has struggled with addiction since he was in high school. He came to us as his sixth foster placement when he was ten and nothing has ever been easy for him. I had to bail him out of jail last year to tell him his father had died. And again a week later to attend the funeral. After several months of sobriety, he’s back in jail on another possession charge.

My oldest daughter was doing well as a server at a nice Italian restaurant nearby, living with roommates and paying her bills. That is, until a new boyfriend with a rap sheet and a toddler but no money, convinced her to move in with him. That didn’t work out and they were evicted, had a car impounded and she lost her job. She and the boyfriend are now sofa surfing at a friend’s apartment.

My youngest son, who is on the autism spectrum, is a math major trying to calculate his way through the anxiety-inducing application process for a PhD program in artificial intelligence. He calls frequently about interviews, complicated fellowship offers and graduate school decisions. My youngest daughter is 800 miles away at a college in St. Louis eyebrows deep in her pre-med program, friends, clubs and choir. Calling me once every two weeks is a huge imposition, unless she needs money.

They all reach out when they need money.

And so here I am making time to counsel and spend time with my kids, who I miss and love deeply. I answer collect calls from jail, text about divorce attorneys, listen for days about graduate schools and fellowships, I send endless unanswered memes to my littlest. I take care of the family pets. I go see my dad and stepmother as often as possible and help them buy a hospital bed for their home, hire aides, order a new walker. I call my mother every day and promise to visit soon. And when I find a minute, I write about it all.

While I am stuck here in the sandwich generation, I’ll embrace it

What I don’t do is play piano or practice yoga or take long walks or plan faraway adventures. Instead, I gain weight, scratch my dry skin and tend to everyone but me. Although I have focused on my family first for decades, it feels different now because I always assumed this would be my time. Movies projected the allure of a magical, post-parenting era where I could find myself, redefine myself, go on some “Eat, Pray, Love” adventure and finally get my groove back. I saw myself with girlfriends on road trips like Thelma and Louise (with a better ending) and pictured us as ABBA’s dancing queens on a Greek isle. Eventually I would retire in my own “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” but on an Ecuadorian beach.

Instead, I try to embrace this unexpected delay. I hit the pause button on me and my time and instead wind my way through this difficult detour where I’m still needed, still tugged at from all directions, just now by adults of all ages.

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About Katharine Robertson

Kate Robertson lives in Texas and is mom to five mostly grown children. She finds herself caretaker of the empty nest, keeper of the stuff, tender of the poodle, parrot, and ferret, and adviser to the uninterested. A former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, she now edits college application essays and you can follow her blog, Alone in the Nest: Life After the Last One Leaves, or find her on Facebook or Twitter

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