Are You an Open-Faced Sandwich?

Being part of the sandwich generation can be incredibly stressful.  The sandwich generation is individuals with a living parent who is 65 or older and they’re also raising a child under the age of 18 or supporting an adult child. 

I was speaking with a friend a while back about family.  We both have moms who are seniors, both have medical issues including dementia.  We were talking about the difficulties that come with this.  As part of talking about her family she also told me about the challenges she was having at the time with her kids.  Then she said something that struck me.  She said she realized that she is lucky.  She said that, even with the troubles she had with her children, she also experienced joy with them.    

She acknowledged that she’s in the “sandwich generation”.  In other words, she was dealing with the stresses of motherhood together with the stresses of being the daughter of a senior needing care.  But she also realized that, despite the stresses with her kids, she felt joy with them.  She went on to say that she saw that I was experiencing one side of that equation.    

She knows that, while I’m childless not by choice, I do have joy in my life.  But she also knows that not having children is a pain that won’t go away.  She recognizes the difficulties of dealing with aging and ill parents can sometimes magnify the emptiness of being childless not by choice.    

She wasn’t pitying me…..she provided me with pure support.  Our conversation was entirely about “I see you and I’m here for you.”  I felt heard.  I felt seen.  In a way that doesn’t happen often.  She understood, without pity, but with total support and let me know that she was there for me.

Am I Part of an Open-Faced Sandwich Generation? 

But it left me wondering if there is a “sandwich generation”, are those of us who are childless and have aging parents we’re responsible for, the “open-faced sandwich generation”?  

Yes, I have a wonderful and fulfilling life.  Yes, I have a sense of purpose and joy.  But it’s a very different life than I had planned.  Different than what I had wanted.

I will always carry the sadness and grief over the loss of my dream of motherhood.  I will always have that empty spot in my heart.  Novelist Anne Lamott’s description of the death of a loved one is fitting for this loss as well.  “It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

The Missing Part of the Sandwich

The pain never goes away.  Some things magnify it.  Being part of the “sandwich generation”, but missing one part of the sandwich, is one of the situations that can do that – it can feel like the pain is intensified. 

Caring for parents who are ill, even with the best of parent-child relationships, is complex.  It can take a toll on all the dimensions of your well-being – emotional, physical, social, financial, etc. 

Support is essential.  So is having relief from the toll that it takes.  But for a lot of people that relief comes in part from experiencing and delighting in the opposite end of the spectrum – the smiles of their children.  For anyone childless not by choice those smiles are absent though.  

Those missing smiles, that missing contrasting side of life, can really emphasize the difficulty of caring for aging parents.  It can feel especially lonely.  And the flip side of that coin is that it definitely shines a spotlight on the missing part of the sandwich.  The pain of that missing part of life can feel sharpened and fresh. 

Your Future

The loss of the future you had planned is also a painful reality of involuntary childlessness.  With this can come a fear of growing old alone and the fear of having no one to care for you (not that that’s why you want a child).  When you’re caring for an aging parent, those fears can be heightened. They come to the forefront of your mind even after you’ve shoved them way in the back and decided not to worry about them.   

All of this can create an incredible amount of tension and stress within you.  The normal ups and downs of emotions get exaggerated.  The empty half of the sandwich leaves an even larger ache than usual. 

But the pain of the part of your life that you’ll never have doesn’t have to constantly loom large over everything.  There are approaches to manage that pain – strategies that will help you feel whole again and not like an open-faced sandwich. 

  • Carve out time for yourself and for self-care.
  • Express your feelings.  Whether that means talking it out with someone supportive, having a good cry, screaming, writing or laughing – let it out.
  • Get in movement – you don’t need to do a hard-core, intensive workout.  Dance, walk, do steps, yoga – get yourself up and moving.
  • Say no to things that don’t serve you.  Boundaries are healthy.
  • Allow yourself to grieve.  Don’t push your feelings away, resist them or put on a fake “happy” face.  Acknowledge and honor your grief.
  • Make sure you remain socially connected.  Make friends.
  • Find a hobby and focus on it and meet others with the same interests.   
  • Eat healthy.  This will have a positive effect on both your emotional well being and physical health.
  • Seek support.  Reach out to a support group, a supportive friend, clergy, therapist, or coach.

For more information on my 1:1 coaching program to live a fulfilling life and navigate triggers click here to learn more.

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