Balancing recovering from childbirth, nursing a baby and caring for three older children while helping my parents make big life decisions wasn’t easy. Here are my tips for the sandwich generation.
I was heavily pregnant with my fourth and final child when my very fit 71-year-old father, who frequently ran road races, had a devastating stroke. I knew this day might come eventually, but now?
It was my official induction into an ever-growing club referred to as the sandwich generation, a term used for those with aging parents they may be tasked with caring for while raising young children at the same time. With many of us having children at an older age (I was 41 when I had my youngest) being a member of the sandwich generation is becoming increasingly common.
In the days and weeks following my dad’s stroke, I tried my best to visit him in the hospital every day after putting my three elementary school-aged boys on their bus. I was at the end of a challenging pregnancy and suffering from the early stages of preeclampsia, plus I had a son with significant disability issues.
I could feel my health being stretched as I lumbered back and forth from the hospital. My sole sibling is profoundly mentally ill and lives in a group home, so I was the only child my parents had to help. I also wanted — and needed — to be there, but it didn’t change the intense balancing act and feelings of overwhelm that this new phase of life brought.
Eventually, my dad was moved to a rehabilitation center only one town over from my home, but his time there was challenging. Rehab is demanding work both emotionally and physically. I would visit him daily, and he’d beg me to take him home, pleading with me from his bed with an alarm attached to it alerting staff if he got (or fell) out. I felt terrible because I understood his angst, but he wasn’t strong enough or ready to leave.
My mom was amazing, but there was so much for her to absorb. I attended as many meetings about my dad with her as I could, acting as a second set of eyes and ears, to take notes and help advocate for him while trying to prepare for my own impending birth. It was a lot.
For the first time ever, my very capable dad had become frail. Literally overnight he went from running marathons to being tied into a wheelchair, wearing compression socks, and refusing to eat, preferring to drink protein shakes instead.
Thankfully my dad recovered from his stroke, but I realized the issues my parents are struggling with are stunningly similar to the issues I’m dealing with raising my children. Fostering independence but being safe at the same time.
So, what helps when you’re in this situation?
When you’re a member of the sandwich generation, you’re often burning the candle at both ends. As hard as it can be, setting some boundaries for yourself is crucial.
Learn to say no. Identify what extraneous things are adding to your stress and see if you can get them off of your plate. Is making goodies for the preschool bake sale really necessary right now?
I tend to lie awake at night catastrophizing. Anyone can work themselves into a frenzy with worry, but all it does is expend your precious energy and sanity. Instead, write out your concerns and make a list of actionable steps to follow.
One thing that worried me most involved my parents traveling, so I talked to them about it. My mom texts where they’re going and checks in during their trips and it’s made an enormous difference in my stress level.
No one expects the worst but, by planning ahead, you can take some stress out of the equation if it does. Talk to your parents and make sure current health care proxies are in place, and items like wills, account information, and preplanned funeral documents are accessible at a moment’s notice.
This is good for you to do too for your young and growing family. No one wants to scurry around and find vital information in the midst of a medical crisis.
My mother-in-law is now a widow and lives in the desert of Arizona, and my husband is her only child. For us to reach her, it’s a 6-hour flight followed by a 2-hour drive. We are having conversations with her now about what to do if she has a medical crisis so we know that her wishes are expressed fully, and we can move with confidence.
Many are afraid or embarrassed to talk with their parents about tough topics like end of life or maybe moving out of their home or state — but what’s worse? Having them now when everyone is healthy and can make decisions or having to guess in a crisis?
Not all of us will join the sandwich generation, but for those of us who are in it, planning ahead as much as possible has made it easier. It’s a phase of life that has its challenges but its triumphs too. When my dad finally held his last grandson mere weeks after being released from rehab, the smile on his face put everything in perspective and made me proud to be able to walk with them during this next phase of life.
Laura Richards is a mother of four sons including a set of identical twins. She has written for numerous outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, The Boston Globe Magazine, Redbook, Martha Stewart Living, Woman’s Day, House Beautiful, Parents Magazine, Brain, Child Magazine, Scary Mommy, and Reader’s Digest on the topics of parenting, health, wellness, and lifestyle. Her full portfolio of work can be found at LauraRichardsWriter.com, and you can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.