“But really, I wake up at 4, because I’m not sleeping,” she says. “I’m always thinking: What do I need to do for Mom, what do I need to do for Dad, what do I need to do for my daughter?”
She has been juggling these responsibilities for seven years — since the day in July 2013 when her mother was hospitalized. Pollard was a 46-year-old mom to an 8-year-old then, a Gen Xer who suddenly found herself among the “sandwich generation” — those who are caught between the dueling demands of raising children and offering support to their own aging or ailing parents.
The boundaries of this cohort are blurry and perpetually shifting; when the term was first coined by social worker Dorothy Miller in 1981, she referred specifically to 30- or 40-something women — baby boomers or members of the Silent Generation — who were caregivers for both children and aging parents. Now, 40- and 50-something Gen Xers make up the heart of the sandwich generation (which includes men and women), but the baton will pass again soon: The oldest millennials turn 40 next year, notes Kim Parker, director of social trends research with the Pew Research Center.
And because millennials have waited longer to have children than prior generations, they are even more likely than their predecessors to find themselves balancing care for even younger children and aging parents, Parker says.
“We know, on average, adults are marrying later now, and women are having children later in life, so it compresses things for that generation,” she says.
But plenty of Gen Xers had their children later in life, too — the trend of Americans waiting longer to start their families began in the 1970s, according to Pew — and their current reality offers a glimpse of what a “compressed” future might look like for millennials.
“It’s a constant push-pull,” says Christie Moon, a 47-year-old human resources director in the District and the mom of 11- and 7-year-old sons. “I always feel like I’m disappointing someone.”
Moon says she started to feel the “sandwich” pressure about five years ago, after her father turned 70 and both her parents, who lived about an hour away, started to have more medical needs. She often feels guilty, she says — that she hasn’t been able to support her parents as much as she feels she should, that her attention is sometimes pulled away from her children and her husband, that her child-free sister has often been the one to step in when their parents needed immediate help. And since her father’s death in August, she’s been thinking especially about her family’s deeper needs, the support that goes beyond simple chores or errands.
“When there’s something specific — like, ‘I need to relieve my sister, I need to help with this particular task’ — it’s been easier to make sure it’s a priority,” she says. “But when it’s something with softer edges — just being there, keeping my parents company, making sure there’s a relationship there between them and my kids — then it’s easier to say, ‘I’ll go next weekend, I can’t go this weekend.’ ” She sighs. “And then you lose your dad.”
In the months before his 70-year-old father died in January, Phil Sofia, 43, drove from his home in Manhattan to his father’s nursing home on Long Island at least once a week. It meant that Sofia and his wife were often adjusting their work schedules — Sofia says he was fortunate that the commercial real estate company where he works was supportive — and juggling child care for their 3-year-old son.
“I very consciously waited until a little bit later in life to have children,” Sofia says. “I thought, in a lot of ways, that would give me an advantage as a parent; I’ve been around the block a couple of times, I have more life experience.”
And that much has proved true, he says. But: “I didn’t think about this other aspect, where I was going to have multiple competing priorities that were also going to be taking time away from being able to parent.”
There has always been the cycle of growing children and aging grandparents, and the stresses that can result from caring for either or both. But as more parents trend toward starting their families later, the widening distance between the generations — child, parent, grandparent — is changing the nature of the dynamic among all three.
Growing up on Long Island, Sofia saw his grandparents every week: “They were healthy, they drove, they would cook, they were super active,” he says. “They were much younger when I was the age that my son is now.”
Moon’s mother had all four of her kids by the time she was 30, and her parents were each the oldest of seven siblings — so her grandparents were still parenting young kids themselves when Moon was a child, and everyone helped one another. “When I had my kids, I was like, ‘How come my parents aren’t helping me the way my grandparents helped them?’ ” she says. “Then I’m like, ‘Oh, because they’re literally 20 years older than their parents were.’ ”
In Pew’s 2012 study of sandwiched parents, researchers found that members of the sandwich generation were more likely than other adults to feel perpetually rushed — but they also reported that they were as happy with their lives overall as those outside the cohort. And when Leslie Hammer, a professor of psychology at Oregon’s Portland State University, and Margaret Neal, former director of the Institute on Aging at Portland State, conducted a study of working couples who were part of the sandwich generation in 1997, “it was very important to the people who participated that we didn’t only look at the negative aspects of being sandwiched,” Neal says. The participants wanted to emphasize that there was still reciprocal support among the generations, she says, “and the quality of the relationships with both the children and with the aging parents had a lot to do with one’s overall well-being.”
Hammer and Neal’s research also found that social connections, and tending to one’s own needs, were particularly important. “Our report recommended that sandwiched couples plan time for each other and for their own personal needs, and those are often the things that get ditched first,” Neal said. “But for long-term well-being, it’s much better if they can take that time for themselves.”
Donné Settles Allen has found this to be true. Between her work as a program coordinator for an organization that supports people with developmental disabilities and tending to her parents — her father has suffered numerous strokes, and her mother is recovering from a severe case of pneumonia — plus making time for her husband and their three boys (they have a 14-year-old and 10-year-old twins, one of whom has a disability), Allen prioritizes the things that help her stay balanced: She wakes up early to do yoga and breathing exercises. She talks to her friends and rarely misses church.
“That’s my therapy: church every Sunday,” says the 41-year-old from Silver Spring, Md. “It’s a place where I can release. If I didn’t have my girlfriends and church, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Shelly Moran Pollard also says her circle of friends has been vital, and adds that the compassion and support they show one another has helped her realize the importance of extending that same empathy to herself in moments when she is overwhelmed: “No matter where I am, I feel like I should be somewhere else,” she says. “I say this aloud to other people, but I need to look in the mirror and say it to myself: ‘You’re doing the best you can.’ ”
Since his father's recent death, Sofia has felt more keenly aware of the fleeting nature of things.
“Now, I spend time with my son and it sort of tinges the time I spend with him with a little bit of melancholy, because the loss is very recent, and it’s so apparent that the stage of life that my son is in, the stage of life that I’m in, it’s all temporary; it will end at some point,” Sofia says. He pauses. “The positive part of that, I think, is that it helps me appreciate that time a little bit more.”
Over the years, as Allen and her husband have supported their parents through their various health challenges, she says the couple has felt a renewed focus on building strong bonds with their children.
“My husband and father-in-law had a contentious relationship for years, and at the end they got really close. And I think, ‘What if you were always close. What if you didn’t wait until the end?’ ” she says. “I just want to make sure we cultivate that closeness now.”
Katie Shea Britton, 43, who works for a law firm in the District, has spent the past three years helping to support her father, who has dementia and lives in a rehab center in Bethesda, and her mother, who recently underwent a knee replacement surgery. Britton has seen the way this dynamic has shaped her three daughters, she says: Her oldest, at 10, is practical and reliable, and volunteered to stay with her grandmother after her surgery and helped prepare her meals. Britton’s 8-year-old daughter is a compassionate free spirit, the one who regularly reminds her mother to upload new photos to the digital picture frame in their grandfather’s room so he will know they’re thinking of him. At 6, Britton’s youngest daughter is curious and blunt, and tends to ask big questions: What happens when we die?
“Sometimes things aren’t perfect, and sometimes we don’t know what to do. But this has forced us to have these conversations that are both very practical and very spiritual,” Britton says.
There is worry and stress and heartache inherent in their family’s sandwiched reality, in navigating the earliest and latest stages of life simultaneously — but there is also a certain existential clarity, Britton says, which has proved to be a gift.
“We talk very openly about the finality of life and the importance of showing up for people when they’re alive, to make sure they know that they’re cared for,” Britton says. “The theme we always come back to, in the end, is that showing up for the people you love is always the right thing to do.”
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