Guilt in the Sandwich Years
Published in Silver Sage Magazine, January 18, 2019.
Birthdays for children are a time of excitement and pure joy: the anticipation of cake and presents and a party, sometimes a special outing or sleepover with a group of friends. Birthdays for those of us in middle age are often less exciting and more contemplative. I recently spent time reminiscing about “our forties” and realized how grateful I was that those years have now passed.
In remembering that period of time, the word “guilt” continues to echo. Guilt that I wasn’t doing enough for our parents. Guilt that I wasn’t doing enough for our son. Guilt that I wasn’t doing enough with our friends. Guilt that the house was a mess. Guilt that I didn’t have time for self-care including personal fitness. Guilt that I was chronically so exhausted that there was no emotional energy for intimacy with my spouse. Guilt that my career was taking too much time away from my family life.
It wasn’t so much that anyone found fault with my contributions as it was the feeling of being in a constant race to get everything done and make everyone happy. I wouldn’t, for a minute, take back a single one of those visits to the nursing home or the hospital, or undo any one of the thousands of shopping trips and errands that were run for our parents. And I am so grateful for the time we had caring for each other in practical ways at a time in our parents’ lives when they especially needed our support.
Sometimes I worry that the time spent caring for our parents took away from our son. Whenever we broach this with him, he reassures us that, despite the many hours spent travelling back and forth to see grandparents, that he never felt short-changed. When I reflect on his gentleness and compassion as a young man, I relax a little, believing that despite us, he has grown into a loving person with good judgment and values.
But there are things that I wish I had known during that time of caring for a parent and our child at the same time. I wish that someone had told me that:
1. It’s okay to have eggs and toast for dinner, or frozen pizza, as long as we eat together;
2. No one cares if the house is messy as long as the bathroom and kitchen are sanitary;
3. Packed lunches can sometimes be left-overs;
4. Tops and bottoms don’t always have to match;
5. It’s okay to go to bed early, even when the chores aren’t done;
6. Setting time limits on phone calls and visits with parents and being upfront about those thing isn’t unloving, it’s practical and practicing self care;
7. Establishing boundaries for those things you can/cannot do on a work-night/school-night for both your children and parents isn’t unloving, it’s real;
8. It’s okay to take a night or an afternoon off to rest, relax, or have some fun (by yourself, with your family or your friends)—it’s healthy to have your own outlets and time away will help you to refresh and recharge;
9. It’s important to access the community supports that are available to your parents, even if your parents are unhappy accepting assistance from anyone outside the family; and
10. Talking through your guilt and stress and exhaustion with your partner, support network or a mental health professional is important for your personal well-being—it’s a sign of strength.
During the passage of time, as people’s needs changed, the “new normal” meant providing different types of support and care. Being attuned to those changes and recognizing what was possible without self-destructing became easier to manage. I would not revisit the decisions we made or the time we spent actively sandwiched between parents and our son and our careers. But looking back, there are things that I should have let go, and expectations that I imposed upon myself that I see now as unreasonable.
If you are juggling family commitments and career and feel stressed by competing expectations, I would encourage you to look at my list and ask yourself if any of these things resonate and whether you could make adjustments in your own lives and schedules. I would encourage you to try to do so without guilt. Celebrate instead the loving things you are doing for the special people in your life. Cherish the time you have together. It goes by so quickly.