“Your girls remind me so much of you and your sister.”
My dad doesn’t utter that phrase lightly. Nor does he say it in the quiet moments when they are snuggled together on the couch watching a movie. In fact, the fondness in his tone stands in stark contrast to the scene in front of us.
As the words come out of his mouth, we stare down upon an all-out, tooth-and-nail brawl—blonde hair flying, claws out, screeches piercing the air. My daughters are working out whose turn it is to hold the new Hello Kitty doll. I glance away to beg my father’s help in refereeing the battle, and instead of connecting with an ally, I see a man who is positively gleeful. His bright pink cheeks frame a huge smile. Finding no help, I search out my mother. She’s there, hiding behind him, trying to disguise her snickering as a cough. I want to hate them for their casual disregard of my parenting pains.
I am the sandwich generation. I’m stuck in between the children I’ve had, and the grandparents who want to see them. Neither side is particularly empathetic to my plight. I am both mother and child, shouldering the burdens of expectations from a role I was born into and the one I chose on my own.
“The kids want to go to Disney World,” I announce over dinner and my husband drops his fork. “We can’t afford Disney, we’ve got to buy plane tickets to visit our families.” If left to our own devices, we’d book an African safari. Instead we’ve got to convince our kids that the Disney Store is a suitable alternative, and our parents that a five day trip is better than nothing.
Each weekend, we wrestle the kids onto the couch so they can Facetime with their grandparents. We coach both sides through the conversation. “Tell Grandma what you did today!” “Ask Gigi what the tooth fairy brought her!” We turn a blind eye to the frustration, because our children will know their grandparents, goddammit. We grit our teeth and plow ahead, week after week, overseeing an orchestra of three generations of performing monkeys.
At night, we lie in bed and wonder if we need to visit more, sooner. “Do they look older? Sick? Do you think they’d tell us if something were wrong?” We struggle under the weight of permanent failure, of knowing that no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we do, we are somehow failing everyone with our inability to make them all happy, to meet all their needs.
I know I shouldn’t complain, that not everyone is as lucky as I am. My friends speak of the tragedy of losing a parent too soon. I can’t imagine how hard that must be to look at your children, wondering what traits they have brought forward that were also your own when you don’t have parents to tell you. Those days when I worry that my five year old will suck her thumb forever, my mother is here to remind me that my sister did the same. My father brings me closer to my children by unearthing memories long forgotten, “You did that,” he says, “she loses herself in books the same as you used to do.” Their calm words of encouragement provide pathways through my turn at parenting.
My friends who face the parenting road without the support of their mother and father don’t have that same luxury. They avoid the burdens of being in the middle, but that freedom isn’t without a cost. While they may have family and friends who can help fill some of the gaps, it is not the same. Now that I am a mom and my husband is a dad, we understand what it means to watch a child grow and mature, making a mental note of every step along the way. We now know, better than ever before, what the loss of our parents will cost us individually and as a family.
I think of those whose older generations are no longer here and I feel guilty for ever complaining about being the meat in the middle. I remind myself that I shouldn’t see the weekly, sometimes daily phone calls and messages as a burden, but as blessings. “Even the call attempts that fail are still good!” If I say it really loud, I can almost believe it.
Those nights when I give up on my efforts to chat, hang up the phone and lie in the floor with actual clumps of my hair in my hands, I don’t have to worry what my parents are thinking. I know. They are laughing in delight, finally achieving that long-awaited punchline of their “I hope you have one just like you” joke. My struggles and frustration, my delight and joy are all the apologies they need for the havoc I wrought when I was young.
Someday, hopefully many years from now, I’ll have to face the harsher realities of being the generation in the middle. I’ll yo-yo between covering the costs of retirement homes and college tuition. I will shoulder the burden of caretaker for my parents the same as they took on the challenge of raising me long ago. Their memories and health will slowly fade and it will be my turn to take on the task of being the older generation.
Thankfully, right now I still have the luxury of standing beside my parents, the grey in their hair offset by the spring in their step, a visual reminder of both how far I’ve come and how much further there is to go before all of this is done. Today, I can rest my head on my father’s shoulder and gaze down upon my daughter’s head and just breathe. I am the sandwich generation.