Avoid the squish of the sandwich generation

We read in the media about the "sandwich generation." It's a label that describes people who care for their children and aging parents at the same time.

This might be as simple as a few shopping trips or as complicated as assuming full care of the parent in one's home.

My goal in raising my family was to teach my children respect for family members and the community at large. Respect involves valuing and honoring each person's individuality.

Like many parents, I began teaching this to my children when they were young. However, by the time my sons reached their late teens, I wondered why this quality, once so freely expressed, had disappeared. Occasionally, respect and compassion would surface, but more often there was a visible demonstration of "Me first."

From time to time I wondered, "How might I remind them of the importance of respect, patience, and compassion for others?"

Intuitively, I knew the answer was not in admonishments or lectures.

The answer came to me in a manner I had not anticipated. It was a lesson to be practiced daily, and it lasted more than nine years. It came about this way:

My husband and I realized our mothers were in need of help. We live in New England, his mother lived on Long Island, and my mother in central California. Over this period, our sons attended schools and colleges in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Missouri, New York, and northern California.

Over the nine years, as we made visits to the boys we also "checked" on our mothers.

We had their homes repaired, repainted, and made secure. We set up care and support for the mothers and hired lawyers and contractors from out of state.

It was an educational process; my husband and I discovered what the sandwich generation meant.

Our mothers had lived in their homes a combined total of 90 years, and, although they were in need of care, did not wish to leave them.

I realized that, in the same way we could not tell our children where to go to college or what careers to pursue, neither could we tell our mothers what to do. We had a responsibility to care for them and ensure their safety, but perhaps there were less-radical alternatives than having them move. The decisions made could not be based solely on what was convenient for us, nor on what we perceived as safe or best for them.

At this point, I knew we needed to be patient while the changes could be absorbed by our mothers.

Respect for our parents was manifested in waiting for them to make the choice most suitable for all of us. Compassion came in understanding the need for tenderness in the transitions.

This was the answer of how to remind our children about the importance of respect and family ties.

During the process we did these things for our sons: We kept them abreast of what was going on in their grandmothers' lives and provided as many opportunities as possible for visits with them.

We shared why we were taking certain steps and asked them to help us do tasks such as cleaning out houses to put them up for sale.

We communicated and worked with our siblings. This, of course, made our mothers happy.

After several years of overseeing care in their own homes, we took both mothers into our home for three years.

We sometimes felt like a squished peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But despite the occasional stress, it was a deeply rewarding experience.

Today, our adult children, as evident in their careers and lives, are no longer influenced by the "Me-first" attitude. I silently thank my mother and mother-in-law for the many lessons they taught me.

Being part of the "sandwich generation" really isn't so bad.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to home@csps.com, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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