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.


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.