I didn’t know there was a thing called “the sandwich generation” until a few years ago when a friend told me we were in the thick of it. According to Wikipedia, the sandwich generation refers to the cohort of adults in their 30s and 40s who are taking care of their aging parents at the same time as they’re raising their own kids. At the time, I couldn’t really identify with the concept, because both my own parents and my in-laws were in fairly good health.
Now, however, it’s a different story.
I’m not sure if the current sandwich generation is unique at all, but having parents who are active and healthy well into their 70s can leave you feeling like they may be invincible. We all know better, and we’re aware that aging will eventually lead to death in some form, but the realization is one we can put off, while our parents are still in good health.
It’s a slow change, but often hits you as a sudden realization: you notice that your father isn’t able to get down the stairs without leaning on something or someone; your mother gets tired after just a short visit with the grandkids. Or, one of your parents is given a diagnosis for some kind of disease, and they’re simply not healthy enough for the type of treatment a younger patient might be able to endure. All while you’re working at your job and schlepping your kids around from one extra-curricular activity to the next.
It’s emotionally exhausting. There are so many balls in the air, so many people to take care of that you don’t even consider yourself part of the equation until it’s too late and you become sick or fall into a depression. And yet, this becomes the new normal for many of us. But where is the bandwidth to handle it all?
I wish there was a handbook to help us navigate this challenging time. When I entered my 40s almost 2 years ago, I felt like this would be my decade, the one where I could find a way to have it all and own every moment. Now I see how naive that was. I had forgotten about the circle of life, and the inevitability of it.
I’m only at the beginning of this next chapter of life, but if there’s any advice I can give to those also on the journey, let me say this: take brief moments to take care of yourself. Five minutes of mindfulness meditation (there are plenty of apps that will guide you through timed meditations), a 20-minute walk, meeting with a friend with a sympathetic ear for coffee. You’d be surprised how much these tiny actions can refill up your cup and allow you to come back to all of your obligations with a lighter load.
And, through all of this, I’m going to make sure I stay connected to the joy my own children bring into our lives. I’m going to listen when they want to tell me stories, make crafts when they ask, have dance parties, and soak up just how incredible they are. Because life is precious, and sometimes it isn’t until we become aware of our own mortality that we truly begin to appreciate it. I plan to do just that.