As a child, I craved bologna. Fast forward 40 years and I have become it. I grew up in the south as the turbulent 60s were melding into the psychedelic 70s—the daughter of a working dad and stay-at-home-mom who made homemade butterscotch brownies that were as routine to Friday nights as those Brady and Partridge kids.
But bologna? The staple of lunch boxes everywhere during that era? Not in my house.
Mom made homemade pimento cheese, cream cheese and olive, and ham salad created from the heavy steel grinder that Dad would attach to the edge of the table. It was at friends’ houses that I would revel in bologna sandwiches on Bunny Bread and hot dogs (another no no in our house).
And so, when I hear the term “sandwich generation,” I am reminded of bologna. For years I was its human embodiment—sandwiched between caring for my parents and my daughters.
It was a social worker in the early 1980s who first coined the term “sandwich generation” and now it has become a part of our vernacular. It is a clever turn of phrase, so accurately depicting the phenomenon many of us are living. Day after day, we caregiver children feel the pressure, the downward vise of the butter knife cutting us into pristine triangles.
We are the lunch meat.
My journey as caregiver to my parents was not born alone. I have involved, loving brothers and a highly supportive husband. I have children that call, visit and care for their grandparents without my urging. And so there is no reason why I should feel alone, yet so often I do– sitting in hospital rooms, waiting in doctors’ offices, feeling the stretch across my back as I hoist the walker one more time into my trunk. I have taken solace in friends who walk their own journeys parallel to mine. And yet, in the end, when night comes and I close my eyes to another day, I often feel like a lone piece of bologna squeezed between the white bread.
No one told us life would be like this. We anticipated our lives following a particular trajectory: Multiplication tables. Braces. Pimples. Adolescence. School. Job. Marriage. Children. Grandchildren. We expected to eat spaghetti as newlyweds to save money, to invest in a money pit and delight in fixing it up. We knew children would keep us up all night with ear infections and then as they put the key in the ignition and pressed accelerate. We knew we would sit alone in a pristine house, void of soccer cleats and backpacks and discarded t-shirts and reintroduce ourselves to that person we fell in love with back before we fell asleep at 9 PM.
What no one told us was that the plane of our lives would be interrupted in ways that would make our throat catch. No one prepared me for how to quiz an eighth grader on Spanish verbs at the same time I was cradling the phone, counseling an aging parent on how to use the TV remote. I expected youth dance lessons, but envisioned myself sitting there reading a novel, not with the phone to my ear, waiting for my father’s urine analysis.
Perhaps it’s best that we pieces of lunch meat dove into the world of adulthood and, for some of us child rearing, blindly. If someone had told us we would feel as if one foot was walking on a college campus and one down the halls of a nursing home, would we have believed it?
I’m writing this blog because writing, for me, is cathartic. But that’s not the only reason. I write it in hopes of buoying the spirits of even one fellow piece of lunch meat. And I write for future generations—for I have no illusions that my daughters won’t one day feel as I do. Maybe years from now I will wander into my daughter’s living room, having painted my hair with red lipstick and she will be able to roll her eyes and calmly say, “Oh, I got this!”
I must point out that “sandwiched” doesn’t just apply to children acting as caregivers to parents. It also applies to spouses who find their relationship sliding from a romantic partnership into a caregiving role. It applies to people who juggle making time with their family with their commitment to caring for a seriously ill friend. And it applies to parents who feel sandwiched between the needs of an adult child and those of a teenager. Such is the yin and yang of life. The result of being loved and loving back.
The fact is—what I want people to know—is that for years I have been overweight, underpaid, and stressed. My junk drawer is so hopeless that I’m scared to open it, and one of every set of placemats is missing. Every night when my head hits the pillow I question whether I did enough—whether I did all I could. Who needed me and came up short? But here’s all I can say for myself: I showed up. And what else can any of us do? We are all extraordinary… those of us who juggle the chaotic happiness of child rearing with the chaotic pain of watching a life eek out, sunset coming earlier each day. We are extraordinary just by showing up.
Perhaps I’m not bologna after all. Perhaps aged, exquisite pimento cheese.