I don’t know who came up with that term—the sandwich generation. It’s supposed to describe the state of being stuck in the middle of your school-age children and your retired parents, and having to take care of them both.
But the meat and cheese in a sandwich are not caretakers of the bread. I would argue, in fact, that if anything, the bread is protecting the meat and cheese, and is indeed holding the lettuce, tomato, and mustard inside to create a working whole. I mean a sandwich isn’t a sandwich without bread.
Perhaps the sandwich moniker refers more to the squeezing of what’s in the middle by virtue of the bread being on top and bottom, but the more time I spend thinking about it, the whole sandwich metaphor just doesn’t work.
For the Chinese, it’s tradition, a way of life. One generation raises the next who brings up a third generation, and they all live together in harmony. The older ones care for the young until they need care themselves, at which point they become wise elders dispensing advice and reaping the honor they are promised because they did the same for their parents. Or I think that’s the gist of it.
For me, I just feel that it’s the right thing to do—your parents raised you, and when they’re not capable of living on their own, you take care of your parents, if you’re able to. My mother took care of lots of relatives on both sides of the family. Because she could and it was the right thing to do. My siblings took care of my parents when they needed care because they all lived in the same area, so neither one ever had to go to an old folks’ home.
Technically I don’t fit the sandwich generation template because our daughter left for college in August and my father-in-law didn’t move in until November. So it’s more of filling a still-warm nest situation. Although for five weeks over winter break we housed three generations. (And for a few of those days we had several visitors of the Gen-Y variety and only one toilet, but that’s a different story.)
And I should be clear, I am not a caretaker for my father-in-law because he is not physically incapacitated. His balance isn’t good since he broke his hip several years ago, and he suffers from a mild form of arthritis, but he can still walk to the gym around the corner, make it to 7-11 to buy candy, and feed himself while my husband and I are at work during the day.
Note: I did not write fix himself lunch because that would imply some forethought, maybe a plate, and consuming something of nutritional value. Despite my efforts to leave easy-to-reheat leftovers from dinner or ready-made sandwiches, his midday meal usually consists of peanuts or salami and beer when he remembers to eat. Plus a few cookies or a candy bar. Apparently he doesn’t really like sandwiches. When my husband fixed him a BLT, he took it apart and ate the B, leaving behind the L, the T, as well as the all-important bread that makes it a sandwich in the first place.
Now if I were his mother, I would feel guilty and inadequate, allowing him to eat like that all the time. After all, I never packed candy bars or beer in my daughter’s lunchbox.
And therein lies the rub. I’m not his mother, so I don’t feel I have the right to dictate what he eats when I’m not around. I fix him a normal dinner with one protein, one starch, and one vegetable. He only eats enough of the vegetable to say he had some, but at least my conscience is clear, right?
So I’ve decided to pick my battles. Because taking his meds is vital, that’s non-negotiable. I tried opening his pill box and placing it prominently at his table setting in the dining room, but he still didn’t take his pills until my husband or I reminded him. But I figure for lunch he can eat anything he wants. I just try to remember to do a sweep of the living room when I come home at night to collect the peanut can from the floor, the half-drunk Corona bottle from the bookshelf, and the package of salami from the magazine rack. (It was sheer luck that I found the toast in the closet.)
We’re still working out the laundry details. To encourage him to put away his own laundry, I left the bin of his clean clothes in the middle of his bed, thinking he’d have to put his underwear, socks, T-shirts, and handkerchiefs away in their proper drawers in order to lie down. He’d just move the bin to the chest at the foot of his bed and leave it there until I needed the bin to put in more clean clothes the following weekend. So now I put away his laundry so I can get the bin back. It’s not a big deal. I’m adjusting.
But today something hit me the wrong way, and I felt the need to push back.
He knows he’s supposed to throw his used Depends in the trash, but he keeps putting them in his laundry hamper, where I find them when I’m sorting laundry. Previously my husband has handled speaking to him when issues arise where he might be embarrassed discussing them with me. But today I decided that if a little embarrassment would help him remember where to put his soiled diapers, that would not necessarily be a bad thing.
So I brought his laundry hamper into his room with the offending object still in the bottom. I told him in calm, even tones that he had thrown his diaper in the laundry hamper, and that it didn’t belong there. He looked at me with no visible discomfort and instructed me to throw it away. I explained without raising my voice that this was not something I did.
He replied,”Well, just leave it there and I’ll deal with it.”
So I left his hamper sitting between his bed and the French doors to the back yard, not its usual spot in hopes that its odd placement will jog his memory.
I keep thinking about it there in his room while he reads or watches television. I hope he does throw it away. I need to stop dwelling on it…
Instead of the sandwich generation, or empty nester, I think the phrase that most accurately describes me at this point is back to diapers.