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(September 2006)

Although you may escape the MALADIES, you rarely escape the OVERFILLED PLATE.  You find your plate heaped high with a three-layer GENERATION SANDWICH, plus two helpings of EMPTY BIRD’S-NEST SOUP, and a side of ROTTEN EGGS.

 An example from my own life amply demonstrates the dreaded GENERATION SANDWICH.  I learned first hand in May of 1999 why we are called the Sandwich Generation, caught up in that three-layer concoction of caring for elderly parents while we are still trying to launch our adult children, and finding ourselves smashed by duty and diligence at the filling in-between. 

On Saturday, the tenth of May, in 1999, I watched with delight as my youngest, a daughter, graduated from college with multiple honors.  On Monday, the twelfth of May, I took over the care of my elderly mother and stepfather after my mother had fallen and fractured three vertebrae.  Six years of caretaking them, first in assisted living and then in nursing care, went on until their deaths, nine weeks apart in the summer of 2005.  In the meantime, my daughter, successful and independent, yet like many adult children, occasionally in need of support, moved in and out of my life.  So, May 11, 1999 was my ONE day of total freedom.  NO…it was not!  That day my daughter had asked me to celebrate her graduation with a trip to Disneyland. 

Some women are burdened or blessed, if they can see it that way, with additional layers of the sandwich.  Perhaps a husband with cancer or early Alzheimer’s, an adult child with special needs, or the rearing of grandchildren.  Taking over where irresponsible or incompetent adult children leave off in rearing their own progeny becomes more and more common as we experience the terrible aftermath of the proliferation of drug and alcohol addiction in our society.  It is not uncommon for me to welcome a newcomer to my Women’s Midlife Group who is chasing after two or three very young grandchildren, caring for an elderly parent in her own home or theirs, schlepping her husband, who’s had a quadruple bypass and now a pacemaker, back and forth to medical appointments, letting dope-smoking sonny rent out the back room gratis while he’s getting his life together, and struggling with her own fibromyalgia and diabetes.  When the combination leads to physical or mental breakdown, she often bemoans the fact that she used to be so strong.  It is no wonder that we’ve nicknamed my Midlife Support group, The Group for the Formerly Strong. 

Helping that woman sort out how she can extricate herself entirely from some of these obligations (e.g., booting sonny out, placing Mom) and at least for a few hours a day from others (e.g., taking a walk, coming to group, asking for help from her church members) is an awesome task.  The biggest source of resistance is the woman herself, who has been reared or self-taught to believe that when there is a NEED, that SHE must fill it.  We focus on acknowledging the need and, then, allowing some of those needs to go unmet, giving others the privilege of meeting yet others, and finding new, less burdensome solutions to meeting the rest.  The barrier of GUILT is overcome with support and with reframing that particular feeling as simply the signal that we are DOING SOMETHING NEW.  I always remind women that if they become emotionally uncomfortable, to pat themselves of the back because they are moving ahead.

The opposite set of circumstances, having no one to care for, leaves women with a double serving of EMPTY BIRD’S-NEST SOUP.  This is particularly true if one’s nest is emptied prematurely (e.g., the youngster who is off to juvenile hall) or unexpectedly (e.g., your seventeen year old elopes) or when some of the losses are permanent ones through death.  Even when women who are prepared and proud that they have reared independent children who are NOT hanging around, often sink into a kind of grieving reaction, especially when the last one leaves.  We are not just missing the person.  We are certainly not missing the extra laundry, the astronomical grocery bill, or the high car insurance.  What we are missing is a sense of purpose, a surety about our role in life (even if a marriage and a career continue).  Women who cannot rediscover a sense of self, of purpose apart from parenting, very often fall into the trap of continuing to parent, in a very codependent manner, adult children who need to be caring for themselves.  And caring for any other human being who needs to be caring for him- or herself has a very tragic result.  No, it’s not just that they still occupy their childhood bedroom and eat you out of house and home.  The most tragic outcome is that they are filled with an overwhelming sense of incompetence—Mom can do it better.

The best antidote is to think of this period of life as one requiring a mid-life career change.  Maybe not from Mom to Magnate, but at least from Mom to a woman who can find fulfillment in activities and roles that do not involve parenting.  I often ask women where they left off before they became a parent.  Some left off almost before the end of their own childhood.  They, in particular, must experiment with fun classes, new organizations, activities, crafts, travel, and sports of all kinds in order to find out who they want to be when they grow up.  Now, there is absolutely nothing the matter with taking over a major grand-parenting role, as long as it does not prevent a woman from also growing emotionally and spiritually within herself.

To add to the already overfilled plate, few women avoid having the SIDE OF ROTTEN EGGS, otherwise known as menopause.  I think I liked it better before the medical world suddenly discovered that the be-all and end-all of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) wasn’t such a good idea after all.  Although, it has forced a large majority of women to take more personal interest in their own health care as they scour the internet and the library, interview friends and well as their health care providers, and experiment with natural remedies to offset the symptoms of both peri-menopause and menopause itself.  They may also be faced with finding solutions and remedies for other female problems, for example, deciding when to go ahead with a partial or complete hysterectomy, facing the increased likelihood of breast cancer, and even dealing with protection from STDs as they explore the dating world many decades after their initial experiences.  There is help out there.  One of my favorite websites that offers a dynamite combo of humor and good advice for women in their peri-menopausal and menopausal years is, one of the recommended resources on the NABBW site. 

I hope these three columns have helped you get an overview of what women face in midlife as well as some handy hints on how to address those various ills, responsibilities, and even adventures.  There is often joy buried beneath the STUFF on that overfilled plate.  Our job is to dig down and find it!