Here’s a word problem just for parents:
Find the most self-assured, model parent you “think” you know.
Place her in the middle of the following two people: her young child (or her teen) and her aging parent.
Her self-assuredness gets a bit shaky; her patience a tad thin. Despite the fact that she goes to the beauty parlor to get her roots done, and has a monthly facial and does yoga–all things that look good on the outside–one can’t help but notice how much mental time she spends trying to “figure out” this does happen or “make sure” that doesn’t.
But then as she begins to feel like her world has finally opened up because her youngest child is heading off to school and her teenager finally has found her perfect best friend, her 60-year-old mother falls on the golf course–and breaks her hip–and her 65-year-old dad is a wreck about it.
Our model parent is beside herself. She’s angry, too. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way! And her guilt gets the better of her. She springs into action mode and for a while progress seems to be happening. Therapies are ordered, carpools assigned…but then, much to her surprise, she is unable to resume her life as it was.
In a way, this is the best thing that could happen to this woman–though at first it does not seem like it. Being frozen with fear, glued in place, like peanut butter stuck between two pieces of bread (her parents and her kids) is something that would never affect her the way it affected other people.
Being in the Sandwich is not always going to be easy, but it doesn’t always have to be hard, either. How to make it less hard? By doing the most counter-intuitive thing imaginable, especially in situations that are expected to go on a long time: practice not knowing the answer to everything. But this I mean, let yourself be open, teachable and willing to take direction (very different from being bossed around). Check in with your heart or gut to see if things feel right to you. By letting of what you think things are supposed to look like on the outside, you’ll find the answers are already inside you waiting to be discovered–about your aging parent, your kid–and about you.
Along those lines, here are three things to think about and try to help you stop being the peanut butter in the Sandwich:
- Metaphorically speaking, fill your own cup first. You’ll find you have more left over for others. You’ll find that what you have to “give” feels like so much less than you though it would be–because you are giving it from a heart that has been tended and nourished.
- Remember that time for yourself doesn’t have to look a certain way. Yoga is great, so is having your roots done, but snippets of time early in the day, late in the day, in between carpools, in the bathroom with the door locked do add up. You deserve them, so take them.
- When it doubt, don’t. If something really, truly does not require your intervention to ensure safety, stay out of decisions that don’t concern you. Let other people step in and notice how it feels to step back (and stay there). This is the tricky part, determining where your concern meets the reality of the situation–but the more you give yourself time and space for…you!…the easier this becomes.
Meredith Resnick, LCSW, worked as a clinical social worker in geriatrics, psychiatry and home health/hospice for more than two decades. Her personal essays have appeared in Newsweek, Bride’s, JAMA, The Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times and many others. She writes about all things “Sandwich Generation” for Psychology Today–Visit: More Than Caregiving: The Real Truth About Life With Aging Parents. For more, visit: MeredithResnick.com.