You see them at Nordstrom or neighborhood diners or in cafeterias: middle-aged women (occasionally men) and an older parent. The child is in charge without letting the parent know they’re in charge. They explain the menu to them, ask questions of the wait staff, smiling though the tension that’s alway there. Sometimes they help their parent walk, or cut their food. Their conversations are superficial: the food, the temperature in the room, the noise, maybe family news.
Occasionally their cell phone rings. They look down, annoyed, debating if they should answer, but when they do, it’s almost always work-related. You can see their bodies tense up more when they speak, juggling some new complication in their already jammed lives.
I’m one of those people. My mother is 89. She lives 300 miles away from me. So I drive down from Chicago whenever I can to help my sister help her.
For years now, I’ve been told that I’m part of the “Sandwich Generation”, the one that finds itself taking care of children and parents, often at the same time.
I like sandwiches. I’m partial to the chicken club sandwich at Nordstrom and shrimp po’boys at Heaven on Seven, as well as the cute little sandwiches they serve at Bosie Tea Parlor. They’re yummy. I eat one and I feel good, maybe even happy. Nothing about my life is reminiscent of a sandwich.
I struggled for the proper metaphor twelve years ago, when my dad was going through chemo. I had a husband, a 10 year old daughter, a part-time job and a home-based business in Chicago on my mind whenever I drove to St. Louis. I had the realization of my father’s limited time on my mind when I drove back. Without the benefit of a TARDIS, I had to choose where to be, who to support, every day. Now I’m doing it again.
I don’t feel like the filling of a sandwich. I feel like I’m on the rack, the torture device favored by Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition. I’m not being squished between two lightly toasted slices of marble rye: I’m being pulled in two opposite directions at the same time.
Every day you weigh the pros and cons. Every day you make a decision that is less than perfect, one that is guaranteed to leave you feeling guilty and inadequate. Those around you – friends, family, coworkers – will either have very vocal opinions or won’t understand why you have to do so much.
You are a slave to your to-do list, which never shrinks. You’re online or on the phone while sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms, filling out forms, making appointments, praying you wrote down everything correctly and won’t forget to share it all with siblings, spouses and children.
And in quiet moments that make you feel even more guilty, you ask yourself, “What about me? How long can I keep doing this? Will I ever catch up on my sleep?”
Most of my friends have been on the rack at least once. Many of them were lucky; their parents lived in the same area. Some of us are hundreds, even thousands of miles away.
Last week I wrote about the beginning of a health crisis for my mother. After that post, things got worse, though are now (hopefully) better.
Meanwhile, my book is on hold, travel anywhere else is on hold, book signings and speaking engagements are on hold. That’s okay. I’m able to do this for Mom and I would be devastated if I couldn’t.
I should’ve finished our taxes over a week ago. I should’ve completed certain tasks related to my next book. In fact, I should’ve finished the book and sent it to the editor. I should’ve sent my web designer the updates for my website. Personal things are starting to fall through the cracks. Someday everything will get done, but not today.
It’s almost impossible to concentrate at times without being distracted by those ‘shoulds’. And that’s when I most feel like I’m on the rack. I need to be here, but I need to be other places, too. I don’t have coworkers who can take up the slack. I don’t have accrued sick days or FMLA. My business is me and me alone. At the same time, I need to be physically present to make decisions that are too often a matter of life or death.
We struggle to ask for help, guilt-ridden that we can’t do everything. If we’re lucky, we have family and friends to share the load. Sometimes we have to pay for assistance, a financial model that is not sustainable, even if you are lucky enough to have long-term care insurance.
I don’t have a solution for this. I’ve heard blame assigned to my generation for failing to continue the model many of us grew up with: several generations in one household. But even living in the same house doesn’t eliminate the feeling of being on the rack. Will she be all right while I go to work or the grocery store? Can we afford in-home care? Should I take advantage of Family Medical Leave, or more likely, can I afford to take advantage of it? It’s not that we don’t want to help. It just that we can’t do it all, at least not all the time.
So for the time being, I will continue to feel like I’m one of Torquemada’s prisoners: stretched in two different directions. I will struggle to take care of myself so that I can continue to whittle down those to-do lists. And I will remind myself that I’m lucky to be able to help my mother when she needs it the most, and pay her back for all the times she took care of me.