Do women have to decide on 'who to let down'?

"We often talk about mother guilt.  But on hearing this news I was knocked over by a wave of daughter guilt."

"We often talk about mother guilt. But on hearing this news I was knocked over by a wave of daughter guilt."

Last week my kids had a tummy bug.  While I was staying at home with the grumps, my mother rang to say she also had a sore stomach.  I dismissed it as the same bug.  Days later, still in pain, but not wanting to be any trouble she asked me to take her to the doctor.

Her appendix had burst.

We often talk about mother guilt.  But on hearing this news I was knocked over by a wave of daughter guilt.  As I cancelled work and took her to Emergency, every look from the nurse felt like a barb and every question from the doctors seemed a recrimination.  It’s a confronting twist to realise the woman who gave you life, kept you alive and held you when you were sick needed your help.

But there was little time for such emotion.

Advertisement

In the days that followed, I cancelled all work and bolted between my kids’ school, my dad at home and my mum in the hospital.  In doing so, I became an official ingredient in the ‘sandwich generation’.  A group born in the seventies when white bread was king and women entered the workforce in greater numbers to become pressed between competing demands of children and parents.  Yet the generation has multiplied in the era of multigrain as we delay having children and find ourselves looking after much younger kids and older parents.  Generation X also works more hours than the boomers and is more likely to have full time jobs.  What hasn’t changed about the sandwich generation is that most of it is still made up of women.   But men are definitely feeling the pressure as well.

The Herald recently reported that there are 1.5 million members of the Sandwich Generation and there will be 2.45 million by 2050.   So I don’t feel special.  Nor alone.  I have friends who are caring for the children of sick siblings while running their own family and working night shifts.  I know many who run frantically between full time work, after school care and their mum.

Some days I feel life is as yummy as an avocado and haloumi on rye or as sweet as a jam baguette.  But when the peanut butter hits the fan, life doesn’t feel like a sandwich.  And it’s way short of a picnic.  These are the days when being labelled ‘Sandwich Generation’ feels like a twee insult.  On these days it feels like we are juggling grenades.  When we drop one, it blows up in our face.  When I dismissed my mum’s pain as a stomach bug, the delay led to a perforation of an organ and a leakage in my life that was already precariously balanced.  Last week I felt I dropped every ball I carried, or to change analogies, the wheels fell off, big time.  The final straw was the day I got home from the bowel unit of the hospital to find the dog had pooed all over the house.

Often, for Generation Grenade it’s a matter of deciding who to let down.  Which grenade can you drop that will do the least damage. If you’re lucky, it’s the dog.  Most often it’s you.

Earlier this year I embarked on a fitness program and felt fabulous.  For a few weeks I saw myself as one of those women who are slim, healthy, happy; managing work, kids and checking in on parents.  But then I realised one of my children was having a major issue at school that needed attention.  Then the other got so sick she was home for three weeks with suspected glandular fever.  My fitness fell as the flab came back.

Sometimes I can do a bit of exercise, keep up with the kids, check in with my parents and manage to do a bit of work.  I’ll feel on top of things.  But then I’ll realise I’ve neglected to see any of my mates for months.  Then there are times in my life where I feel I can keep an eye on my parents and be physically fit as well as emotionally and intellectually connected to my children.   These times involve giving up most work.  Something has to go.  Sound familiar?

In 1996 the former CEO of Coca-Cola Brian Dyson made a commencement speech where he told students to imagine life as a game where you are juggling five balls – work, family, health, friends and spirit.  Work is a rubber ball that can be dropped and will bounce back. The others are made of glass and will shatter if let go.   This analogy has become a self-improvement theory in the business world sprouted by those with secretaries.  And possibly wives.   But it’s useful.  When we talk about getting women to shatter the glass ceiling we need to understand the fragility of all she juggles - glass balls, grenades, or sandwiches.

Earlier this year, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard did so; talking about flexible workplaces for those with dual demands of elderly parents and young children.  But when Tony Abbott mentioned housewives doing the ironing, he failed to realise many of us don’t iron much anymore - non-crushable fibres and creased school uniforms are the sandwich generation’s best friends!  It will be interesting to see if flexible workplaces and lives are a policy issue for the new government and it’s male minister for women.

But I’m not sure policy alone can help.  Except for it to acknowledge that the eight-hour day is anachronistic and inefficient.  It’s why so many women I know of ‘sandwich age’ work for themselves, casually, part time and often at home.

So what to do?  We need to drop our standards and accept having a messy house and life.  We sometimes need to accept defeat.  At other times we should cling to little wins.  We need to remember that while the day-to-day responsibilities can be crushing they are better than the alternatives.

Because kids are only kids for a while and parents won’t be around forever.  Our parents have cared for us, and let’s face it, they’ve often cared for our kids.  Helping them is not about paying them back; it’s about decency and is both a privilege and an honour.  Just don't get a dog.  Or do.  Because Fido will remind you that life can be covered in shit.  And he may also remind you that dropping balls can be fun because we can always chase them and bring them back.  Besides, juggling and dropping and chasing is better than the alternative of having no balls, grenades, or sandwiches at all. 

 

27 comments

  • Sarah, your father is a doctor. Why was your mother ringing you about her stomach ache?
    Unless he is suffering from dementia, he's the guilty one.

    Commenter
    Les
    Date and time
    September 24, 2013, 7:49AM
    • I really feel for you in your situation. I'm in my 60s and feel torn between three generations, my very elderly mother, my kids in their 30s who don't expect help but are struggling with their own pressures and I want to help them as much as possible, particularly with the grandchildren. And I still work.

      Commenter
      When is the time to smell the roses?
      Date and time
      September 24, 2013, 7:53AM
      • I get sick of hearing about how easy the Boomers had it! Yes, we didn't get a lot of pressure from ageing parents because we married young and had our children younger. We grew up with our kids. We were at the forefront of women's lib and we fought hard. Fortunately, living in Canada I received support for part of the time I stayed home to raise my kids. I didn't return to work till my kids were in school. I did without! We battled with men who didn't think it was a man's job to clean, cook or change diapers. We raised the next generation of men who are a darn sight better at the job that the ones we married! You should be thanking us!

        Commenter
        Neg
        Date and time
        September 24, 2013, 8:05AM
        • No thanks.

          When the oldies insist i came and scale the roof 30m up to fix their antenna... when they own 3 houses and have millions in super. C'mon! I am risking my neck for THEM to save a 100 bux.

          Parents and parents in-law are in their 60's. Of the 4 of them, one works 4 days a week. They are far too busy with world holidays etc to ever baby sit or to ever help with anything. This year my wife and I have not had then sit for us ONCE... not ONCE!. Most self absorbed lot i know. They didn't even raise us.... their parents. i.e my grandparents came to our house 5 days a week and cooked, cleaned and looked after the kids.

          What do my parents think of this "we did them a favour by keeping them busy".

          Sure i will fix their antenna. But if i fall from the roof.... i WILL return and haunt their P&O cabin.

          Commenter
          cranky
          Location
          pants
          Date and time
          September 24, 2013, 9:28AM
        • Well bully for you cranky. I'm now 60, working full time, do not, and never have owned an investment property and am still supporting uni aged offspring.

          On top of that, my elderly mother is consuming untold hours each week because she has no insight into her moderately severe dementia, insists on living alone (despite the fact that her three daughters, yes, daughters, not sons) are providing all of her food and doing all of her shopping. This when the parents moved at one stage so that she is more than two hours away. In the last 24 hours alone I've spent nearly two hours on the phone on her account.

          I received a total of one day's babysitting from MIL when working (never stopped) on the basis that she didn't approve of working women. She stopped working when her first child was born and never worked outside the home again. Same with my mother.

          As for world holidays - I can only hope we stay healthy long enough to enjoy it, after CHOOSING to spend our spare money on education for the next generation, unlike the seriously crappy one both my husband and I had at appalling country high schools, with neither of us able to attend uni from school as it was fees upfront.

          If either of the pair of parents you're talking about fall off their perch early (and some will), you will be the first generation in history to receive million dollar inheritances without lifting a finger.

          Stop assuming whole generations benefit from your stereotypical view of them.

          You won't of course.

          The sandwich generation. Give me a break.

          Commenter
          cuts both ways
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          September 24, 2013, 10:08AM
      • "This analogy has become a self-improvement theory in the business world sprouted by those with secretaries. And possibly wives."

        Why? Why insinuate that wives are like secretaries. What you really mean is Personal Assistants. Just because you have chosen a particular path why lump that on all married women. Talk about furthering a sexist stereotype.

        2ndly, this is not just a female phenomenon. Men have to decide who to let down too and just like a lot of women their 'spirit' is last on the list of priorities. Work all day. Help kids with homework. Make dinner. Get them all off to bed. Fall in a heap exhausted.... daily. There is no coffee with the girls, afternoon nap or doctor phil. There is no gym just work and childcare.... rinse and repeat (oh.. and i must get to mums house, get on the roof and fix their antenna).

        This is a sexless phenomenon of living in a city so expensive that mostly both partners have to work (even if if it is not both full time). This is due to long commutes. This is essentially because we have become so time poor. Sure, the house is worth a million bux but there is no time to even mow the grass.

        Commenter
        cranky
        Location
        pants
        Date and time
        September 24, 2013, 8:11AM
        • I'm confused. Are you suggesting that coffee with the girls (hate that term) afternoon nap and Dr Phil is what women do? Seriously, Cranky, you're doing your relationship wrong if the burden of work and leisure is that unevenly distributed.

          Commenter
          Old bag
          Date and time
          September 24, 2013, 9:29AM
      • Why couldn't your Mum take herself to the doctors? She's not a child. She could have called an ambulance if she felt that bad. That's what I would have done. I'm 66 and know full well what it's like to be part of the "sandwich generation" because I'm also part of it. I'm a very involved grandmother of grandchildren while their single mother works. I also have other grandchildren who I help out with as well. I help them emotionally and psychically. I also help look after my very, very elderly, confused parents who still live in their own home. Thank goodness I've now retired though so it's easier now and I don't really mind too much. So it's not always just your generation who is sandwiched. I realise that it's not as difficult for me because I no longer work but I don't want people to think that my age group is burdening all of you because that's not the case mostly. Even if I was unwell, I'd take myself to the doctors. Things would probably different if I was an invalid but most of my age group is NOT a burden on their children.

        Commenter
        ChrisNell
        Date and time
        September 24, 2013, 9:25AM
        • Also not all of us can afford overseas trips. I take none at all. I'm 66. Any spare money I have is spent towards helping my family and I am rewarded with their love. I am VERY involved with looking after my 4 grandchildren and my very elderly, confused parents. I must admit it irks me as well when I see people my age constantly travelling while ignoring the needs of their families. I love the fact that I have a very special bond with my grandchildren. I feel the world travellers think they have it all but are really missing out.

          Commenter
          chrisness
          Date and time
          September 24, 2013, 10:06AM
        • Indeed. Some of this article left me feeling there's another half to this story that we're not hearing.

          People have severe stomach pain. They should call an ambulance. Hospitals have services available to give people nursing care visits for four weeks after discharge. The woman had a husband.

          Seriously, sometimes it's tough, but cry me a river, people have been going through this throughout history, and if the women who went before didn't work as many paid hours, they sure worked an equivalent number of unpaid hours.

          I have a sister doing untold amounts of babysitting for her older children, at the same time as supporting a VCE student, and spending more untold hours on our Mother's issues, despite still working.

          Makes me laugh to see younger women thinking they've invented something new.

          Commenter
          cuts both ways
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          September 24, 2013, 10:24AM

      More comments

      Comments are now closed