Woman is caught between demands of work and family


Chris was eating a sandwich when I asked how it feels to be part of the sandwich generation. "Like this," she said, tearing it into ragged pieces. "I'm torn all the time between the people who need me.

"My father died five years ago. My mother is diabetic and has had a mild stroke. She's determined to go on living by herself; she says if she had to go to a nursing home she'd just curl up and die.

'I try to call her a couple of times from work. Then I go over after work every day to bring her groceries, fix her supper, do her dishes and get her settled in for the night.

"Most nights I'm lucky if I get home in time to say good night to my kids before they go to bed -- or say hello to my husband before he's fast asleep on the couch.

"The boys (13 and 15) are growing up so fast; between working all day and spending evenings with my mother, I don't get enough time with them. It's hard on my husband, too. I'd quit my job tomorrow if I could, but we wouldn't be able to make our mortgage payments or buy food without my paycheck, let alone help my mother with her expenses and buy all the clothes my sons seem to need now that they're in high school.

"But someone has to take care of this woman who spent her life taking care of other people, and my two brothers say they're too busy," she said, real bitterness in her voice.

"Someone has to be a mother to my kids, too, and supplement my husband's income. That someone is me, and Jim's parents are getting older and more feeble as time runs on, so we may have to take care of them someday, too.

"So, yes, you can say I'm part of that sandwich generation you mentioned. And most days I feel like a sandwich on day-old bread, with wilted lettuce."

It's still daughters, not sons, in most families who assume most of the responsibility for elderly and ill parents, just as it's still mothers, not fathers, who still assume most of the responsibility for the day-to-day rearing of the young.

This dual care-taking was hard enough before we added full-time jobs at work to the full-time jobs we already had at home. Now, the triple burden of working and caring for both elderly parents and children still at home can quickly turn into a vicious cycle of stress, exhaustion and guilt.

Said Margaret Arnold, manager of women's activities for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in a recent interview, "Our own health will go if we women constantly feel as if we can't be all we want to be for our aging parents, while at the same time we know that we'll never again have the chance to do all we can for the younger generation.

"There's a limit to what one's energy allows," she added, "and we women must recognize this. We must not hold ourselves to impossible standards. We must ask for help from the resources in our communities -- and insist that more resources are put into place."

To find the resources in your community, call your minister or rabbi, local hospital and nursing homes, Senior Citizen League, Meals On Wheels, your state's Commission on Aging, Human Services offices, senior citizen centers, the YWCA, County Extension Services, AARP, mental health centers, your elected senators and representatives, and your city's or mayor's Council on Aging.

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