By Lois Flowers
A couple of decades ago, when I was a young newspaper reporter in Bentonville, Ark., the features editor at the next desk wrote an article about the Sandwich Generation.
This label, I learned, refers to middle-aged people who are juggling the responsibilities of caring for their growing children while also supporting their aging parents. In my early 20s and newly married, I could hardly comprehend the notion that I might be a part of this demographic some day. But I never forgot the term.
For some reason, it made me think of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—bread and filling stuck firmly together, a nice tidy package. These days, though, as I find myself firmly squished in the middle, it feels more like tomato, avocado and lettuce on 21-grain bread.
I love this tasty combination, especially when the tomatoes are liberally sprinkled with garlic salt. But it doesn’t always hold together well. When I take a bite, pieces of tomato and avocado squirt out the sides. The seeds in the bread get stuck in my teeth. It’s a bit of a slippery mess.
For me, right now, this epitomizes what it’s like to be part of the Sandwich Generation. Depending on what’s going on, my mental and emotional state often runs the gamut from joy to frustration, peace to exhaustion, gratitude to sadness. (I’ve even made the dizzying discovery that it’s possible to experience all of these at the same time.)
I’m not caring for my elderly parents at home. But I am on call—for my dad, who lives alone, and for my mom, who has Alzheimer’s dementia and has been in long-term care since recovering from an accident last year that made it impossible for my dad to take care of her anymore.
There’s much more to the story, of course—a series of events and realizations that, when looked at all at once, highlight the fact that it’s been a long, hard road for my family (including my six siblings who live all over the world). For now, I think it’s enough to say that I’m learning to grieve what once was a little at a time and take each new day as it comes.
It’s a gradual process, however, and there are times—amid the high-school track meets, middle-school band concerts, unexpected medical tests of my own, nursing home visits and yet another trip to my dad’s hearing aid place—when it’s still hard to wrap my head around the current phase of my life.
My blogger friend (and fellow Perennial Gen contributor) Michele Morin once told me that navigating this season is like trying to ride two bicycles at the same time. That visual resonates with me, although with a large German-Italian family like mine, it’s more like riding two tandem bicycles at the same time, each with four or five seats.
Maybe some people know how to do this naturally, but I’m a work in progress. There are plenty of books and online sources that offer guidance, but sometimes what I want most is empathy, not more information.
It’s hard to articulate what it feels like to watch your parent turn into a child right before your eyes, to sit by a hospital bed and listen to medical professionals who don’t know your mom talk about living wills and palliative care, to try to help your teenage daughter process how God could let Grandma have a stroke after all she’s already been through.
Sometimes, there simply are no words. And, I’m realizing, that is OK.
Perhaps more than in any other tough period in my life, I’m thankful for friends who have been there and know what it’s like. At the same time, I find myself drawn to other people who are in the same boat right now. I want to listen to their stories, to hug them, to let them know I care and will pray for them.
I’m learning to enjoy the stable seasons—the calm between the storms—with my parents and my children.
I’ve discovered that that the way that I react to stress is sometimes good and sometimes not so good. I’m grateful for grace, for loved ones who remind me that the way things are now is not how they will always be.
I’m thankful that my daughters are getting to see parts of life that I, as someone who didn’t live near elderly relatives and never spent time in nursing homes when I was young, didn’t witness until much later.
Even as I navigate my own emotions, I’m trying (not always successfully) to be sensitive to their feelings about what is happening with their grandparents. It’s a significant weight for a 47-year-old woman who has been rehearsing some of these scenarios in her mind for years. But it’s much heavier for my girls.
I’m increasingly appreciative of earlier seasons that stretched, shaped and prepared me for what was (and is yet) to come. God’s sovereignty, a divine attribute that first became real to me during years of infertility, is an ever-present comfort.
And on those days when I feel inadequate and question my next step, I rest in the truth of the verse that has been taped on my refrigerator door since my daughters were little and my parents were still robust: “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deut. 31:8, NIV)
Lois Flowers is mom to two lovely daughters and wife to one good man. She’s an author, former journalist and lifelong Midwesterner who values authenticity, loves gardening and always reads the end of the book first. She’s a relative latecomer to the world of social media, but you can connect with her on Twitter (@loisflowers16) or Instagram (loisflowers). She also blogs regularly at loisflowers.com.