Guest Post: Life Is Like An Open-Faced Sandwich

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sandwich Generation.  

Turns out there are three types of sandwich generations, according to Carol Abaya, an expert on the subject, who gives the following definitions:

Traditional:  Those sandwiched between their children and aging parents who need help

Club Sandwich:  Those in their 50s or 60s who are sandwiched between aging parents above them, and adult children and grandchildren below them; also those in their 30s and 40s, with parents and grandparents above and young children below

Open Faced:  Anyone else involved in elder care

The sandwich metaphor involves being encumbered by needs, usually on two or more levels, and perhaps most importantly, often requires having to give up some of “me” for “them.”

I consider myself part of an open-faced sandwich, but not exactly as Abaya defines it.  I’m lucky; my aging parent is extremely self-sufficient and my brothers and sister live within a mile of her home.  She needs the occasional trash can lifted, and ceiling fixture lightbulb changed, but not much more.

But my 23-year-old son is still at home, working and saving money to travel, and isn’t quite ready to live on his own.  He doesn’t require a lot of care; we’re more like roommates, each with his/her own responsibilities.  But supporting himself in his own place is another matter.

At the same time, I’m trying to figure out a relaunching for myself. 

I’m 60, not working full-time, needing to redefine my next chapter, and struggling to figure out what that might look like.  (I should have paid attention earlier to what George has been saying for years about being planful.)

The possibilities for my future are wide open, but there is a layer of metaphorical sandwich bread below me, and while those demands on my time and resources are minimal, I find myself holding back on any major changes until my son is fully launched.  I’m looking at everything — where to live, what to do to make a living, what I want my life to look like – but I worry about where he will live when he comes home from his travels, and how he’ll possibly make enough in San Francisco (where we live now) to afford even a shared room with some other 20 somethings.

I feel I should stay put until he’s ready to go.

My opportunities are greater if I leave San Francisco. It would certainly give me more financial freedom.  I wonder, though, with both my sons living in San Francisco, whether I should plan to live near them, the same way my parents and their parents before them did. Or is a change of venue in order? 

All this angst is self-imposed, and perhaps even an excuse for not moving forward. 

Am I giving up too much of me for my family?

Should I be limiting my possibilities at this stage of my life?

Am I doing my son a favor, or am I holding him back from taking on adult responsibilities?

I feel squeezed between my future and my present, between my son’s life and mine, between an exciting next act and a small but heavy pair of emotional cement shoes.

Mary D., San Francisco, CA

10 responses to “Guest Post: Life Is Like An Open-Faced Sandwich”

  1. Ann M. says:

    Like Mary, I am trying to define the next phase of my life and have provided a home base for a 20-something child who lives a three-hour drive from both of her (divorced) parents. I decided that I need to concentrate on developing myself and exploring the other side of the country; that it is with love and anxiety and optimism that without me near both my daughter and I can grow and develop in new ways. While I cannot know what Mary’s son needs or of what he is capable, perhaps by being the caregiver at this point in his life she is unwittingly showing him she thinks he couldn’t succeed on his own. Having grown up in the area, would it be possible for him to connect with other young people who would welcome a house mate? What life skills does he need to “launch” and what is the best way to obtain them? Perhaps a psychologist or social worker could help Mary and her son design a plan.

    In addition, while it sounds great to save money to travel, maybe it’s time to learn to support himself and postpone travel a bit longer. He might even be able to find a job that would ultimately involve work in other parts of the country or the world (even on his employer’s nickel.) Somehow, for Mary to “hold herself back” so her adult child can “travel” seems unfair to both of them.

    Like so many parents of my generation, I spent some years as a “snowplow parent,” removing obstacles for my daughter. Perhaps in doing so I held her back by not letting her move forward unsteadily, off balance, falling, and getting back up (and maybe giving her a vote of no confidence in the process.) I’m now trying to cheer her on, lauding her courage in the face of difficulty. It is only mastering difficult situations that brings confidence – not absence of difficulty. I’m trying to show her that I believe in her.

    I’m also trying to broaden the definition of who I am and what I can achieve by having “parent” be a lesser part of that definition. This is likely to be difficult for both of us but it’s high time I figure out what’s next for me. I’d like to find other fulfilling ways to give, ways to grow, and I need to push myself out of the nest to do that. I can be a better role model for my daughter by doing so, as well.

    I don’t pretend to have the answers Mary seeks for herself – I commiserate with her and want her to know she’s not alone!

  2. Thank you, Mary D., for the insightful, meaningful thoughts on your life. Life does present constant challenges and they often require choices. I hope writing these challenges and choices will help you see the new path awaiting you.

  3. randi hoffman says:

    I hear ya baby!

  4. Mary, this was an excellent blog. It made me reflect on where I am in life. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Mary,
    Thanks for writing, I can’t imagine what that is like and I hope you update us with what you end up doing!


  6. nellj says:

    Thank you Mary for sharing your thoughts. Very well said, and has me reflecting on my own life. I think I’m a bit of an open faced sandwich as well, for many of the same reasons.
    All the best, Nelli

  7. Marshon says:

    WOW — well done, Mary. My son, Collin, returned home from SF this summer after living/working there and is now working/living at home. I understand the balancing act between enabling the adult child to live at home and just shoving them out of the nest!! And then, when we throw in “the new economy” – so different than when we were their age (remember :)),– the decisions of what to do can become more complicated. Thank you for a great read!! Marshon a.k.a “Shonee”

  8. Tregae says:

    Sweet Mary… We are a whole different generation…its time for us to take the steps that are a little scarey ..we’ll never know until we do…and we can always change that path….change helps us have clarity…which adds to growth….I have watched to many of my friends provide a lifestyle for their children and not for themselves…..just saying….

  9. Kathy Ryan says:

    Thank you for such an insightful and thoughtful piece. It made me stop and think.
    I am now that aging parent (66) children living within a few miles who sometimes needs the
    smoke alarm battery fixed, or the tire pressure checked. I did things much differently and sometimes I have regrets, other times I am quite proud of who I am.
    When my youngest left for school, I made a decision that it was now “my time”. That was not without significant angst. My Mother had recently passed and I knew I did not want the end stage of my life to be like hers. I wanted to get out into the world and see who I was. No longer would I be the struggling divorced Mother of two. I was determined to work hard and make money so I could travel, live at the beach, buy nice things, and be more than Mommy.
    But wait…I never thought that having Grandchildren could change a person so completely!
    Before I knew it, the grandchildren were arriving and my Dad got sick. I was fortunate to have a brother who cared for my Dad and a sister in law who opened her heart and her home. I did my best to help by taking Dad a few months each year during the winter months. It was a labor of love. Before his death I did not realize the impact he had on my business successes. He was my listening post…patiently advising me how to navigate the boys club, how to ask for more money, how to be a better person. So my “sandwich” was different. I was torn. I wanted to be more present for Dad, and be a part of the grandchildren’s lives. It required great balancing and I started to spend significant effort scheming ways to be in Florida with the grandchilden. I bought a condo for Dad to use in the winter…near the grandkids. In doing so I finally realized that my greatest accomplishment had nothing to do with business. I began to see that my two sons had married very strong women, and they in fact are very strong men. Good husbands, good fathers, good men. These two boys shared the sacrifices I made in many ways but I believe they are better husbands and better fathers because of that. Yes, I wish I had been a better Mom, and may be I shouldn’t have said “you’re on your own now” so quickly…. but in retrospect you have to live your life. So I guess I’m more like an grilled sandwich…pretty well baked . Kathy R. Cocoa, Fl

  10. Julia Halladay says:

    Mary, what an insightful commentary! It caused me to pause and reflect a bit about my “sandwich” challenges.

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