I remember the moment I realized I was sandwiched so clearly. My first born, Charlie, was not yet two months old and I was in the weeds of the early days of parenthood.
Charlie wouldn’t latch. I was doing the trifecta: pumping, supplementing with formula, and trying him on the breast for every feeding. It was the most time-intensive system I had ever taken on.
Additionally, I was suffering from intense guilt about not being able to feed my baby the way I envisioned and I cried over the struggle with it daily. My husband was gone all day busy finishing med school. I was beyond tired.
It was in these blurry days that I got a phone call from my mom. She told me that I needed to go and buy a cordless phone and take it to my grandma at the nursing home.
My grandma’s handset was broken and I needed to fetch her a new one immediately, she told me. My mom called my grandma (her mom) daily and it was a big issue not having a line of communication operating between them.
To put things into perspective, my mom has Relapse-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (MS). She was diagnosed when I was 12. My biological father died when I was a baby and my step-dad and mom divorced when I was 19.
At this time in my life, at 31 years old, apart from my husband and his family, my mom and my grandma were all the family I had.
My mom lives alone but she doesn’t drive. Her MS has lead to limited mobility, social anxiety, and a poor sense of direction, making it a challenge to venture out solo. Going to Walmart to get the phone on her own was not something she would do.
So What to Do?
I felt enraged. She had no idea how hard this time was for me. No idea what the sleepless, bewildered, shame-filled nights and days had rendered me into.
No idea the lengths I would have to go to in order to organize my day of pumping, supplementing, sterilizing, and anxiously trying to breastfeed unsuccessfully on repeat just to: leave the house, battle Walmart, search for the right elderly-friendly V-tech phone, drive it to a nursing home, unbox it while keeping a newborn settled so as not to disturb the other residents, set up the damn thing, and kindly explain how it operated to my grumpy 96-year-old grandmother.
She didn’t know what I was going through because I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t make her sick with worry by explaining the extent of the tough time I was having. MS is a disease that affects the nervous system and any additional stressors can bring on an attack.
I could not express my unmet needs to her for fear it would add to her pain and thus double my carer work-load. I could not let her worry because I could not handle the consequences.
So I stuffed my anger down and took the phone to my grandma.
What is The Sandwich Generation?
The Sandwich Generation is a generation of people who care for their parents and/or other dependent family members as well as for their children. The term was popularized through the work of Carol Abaya, a nationally recognized expert on the matter.
Much research has been done on the economic consequences of people stepping away from the workforce to care for their loved ones, both old and young concurrently.
The emotional detachment I experience from my mom because of her illness is what has been one of the most difficult parts of dealing with my own sandwich.
My mom is the most generous and kind person I know. She sacrificed so much for me to have a good life and continues to do so despite being unwell. My mom has trusted and supported me unconditionally every day of my life.
She is a heroine to me. I truly love her deeply.
The pain of seeing her suffering is hard to bear. The burden of caring for her alone is weighty. But it is my feelings of isolation within my relationship with my mom that I struggle with most.
I cannot express my hardships to her in fear my needs will be too much for her to bear and this adds a falseness to our relationship. I can’t be my true self. While I share my joys to make her proud, I also keep my struggles to myself to protect her. Our relationship feels strained at times and I can’t see how to change it.
How Do I Deal with Being Part of The Sandwich Generation?
The road map to successfully being sandwiched is one I’m currently designing. My second child is now 22 months and I have found lately that I’m suppressing more of my own needs to my detriment. I keep stuffing them further and further down as I continue to care more for others.
My husband is in a critical time in his career, writing his medical board exams. I feel like I am not able to add to his burden at this time by unloading my grief on him.
So I need to recognize and communicate my needs to someone who can handle them – a good therapist. I have seen a counselor from time to time over my adult years and it has helped me deal with what is on my plate better. Also, I have enrolled my youngest in occasional daycare so that I can see a therapist again.
I love my family immensely and nurturing them comes naturally to me. I need help to remember myself and to love myself.
A piece of Advice from Someone in the Same Situation
If you are in this situation, I encourage you to make every effort to embolden your true self.
Deal with your feelings of loneliness and resurface your needs that have been pushed below the surface.
This is what I’m trying to do now; it is a constant battle. I am confident that a season full of nurturing is ultimately most rewarding (at least for me). But it can come with difficult feelings of estrangement from those you love most.
These feelings should be addressed, not suppressed.
Please remember that while loneliness may be a part of this journey, you are not living this life alone.