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How Gen-X Women Are Handling Being a Pandemic Sandwich Generation

Melanie Forstall

Surely you have seen that ever-evolving meme that says, “If you’ve had this (hairstyle, shoe style, etc.), then it’s time for a night cream!” Well, I’m here to say, if you had that hairstyle, fellow women of Generation X, it’s probably a good time to learn the symptoms of a stroke. Welcome to the sandwich generation.

It’s a very difficult position to be in, hearing from a parent about a temporary episode of complete left-side limb paralysis and loss of vision at 8:00 in the evening while living 90 miles away. I knew he needed medical attention, but for a host of reasons, it wasn’t that simple.

I began playing in my mind various scenarios for getting help. I thought about calling 911 on his behalf and having an ambulance sent to his house. I know my father well, and I knew he’d hate that. In fact, I think there would be a high probability that he would turn it down; maybe not even let them in his house. He’d belabor the point to me that the call was unnecessary because the symptoms resolved and that there technically wasn’t an emergency.

While my mind swirled with options and scenarios, another glaring fact kept ramming itself into the forefront of my every thought: COVID. As I sat feeling helpless, over an hour’s drive away, every scenario I came up with was foiled by the fact that we are living in a pandemic.

There is no doubt the pandemic has disproportionally impacted women. For multiple reasons, but most notably, women are often the primary caregivers of the family, and therefore the additional burdens resulted from the pandemic — general parenting, plus homeschooling, plus working, plus additional household responsibilities — have created a new, almost unbreakable weight for women to carry.

Nonetheless, we persist.

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Melanie Forstall and one half of her sandwich bread (her kids). Melanie Forstall.

The pandemic has also shown the strength and resilience of Generation X, and in many ways brought out the best in us. The familiar isolation has served us well. The initiative and problem-solving skills that so many of us honed in the ’70s and ’80s are proving to be the exact skills we need to get us through a pandemic and a new generational identity.

Women of this age are fully equipped to deal with the crazy that erupts when a family is forced under pressure. How? Because as school-aged kids, we dealt with playground bullying without ever telling our parents. As mothers, we’ve dealt with unreasonable toddlers and raging teens. As kids, we’ve dealt with an unstable adult telling us something highly inappropriate. It was the ’80s after all, and egos were as big as the boats everyone bragged about owning. If anyone can deal with an insecure family member, it’s us. We have been there and lived to tell about it.

As mothers, we know the importance of our network, tribe, our group of people. Whatever you call it, we know how to gather information and ask the right questions. We know how to rely on the people around us. As kids we were left alone to fend for ourselves, which meant fielding phone calls at home, taking messages, dealing with strangers, and ordering (and paying for) our own pizza. We’ve also become experts at online searches to diagnose and treat any problem our children, or fellow mom friends may have.

We’ve spent most of our adult lives sandwiched between two attention garnering generations, so I guess it’s no wonder we’d find ourselves quietly sandwiched again. There is no doubt this new generational status will challenge and stretch us beyond our perceived limits. But what I have come to realize, if anyone can find a way through this, it’s us.

Yes, I have a parent who is over 70 and lives alone. Yes, he has a complex medical history. Nonetheless, he’s in charge of his own life. My father still has all of his mental faculties and maintains full autonomy over his body. He’s fully in charge of his own medical decisions and can make his own choices in terms of his health care; his choices, his terms. As his daughter, I know he relies on me for some things, but I cannot, and will not, make these decisions for him.

Here’s the thing — even though I am a mother, I’m not his mother. Even though I am a parent, he’s still my parent. As I sat, sandwiched between my roles as a parent and a daughter, I continually reminded myself of the importance of maintaining boundaries and respect, while facing the haunting reality that I really can’t make him do anything. This creates a tricky balance that’s almost impossible to strike. Especially from 90 mile away.

Navigating the shift in roles between parent and child can be emotionally difficult and far from predictable. There is a large swath of us facing this new reality, many of us Generation X; middle-aged mothers with families of our own. While we are in the thick of parenthood, ripe with homework, sports, and activities, our parents are at the age where they are needing care, too.

Did I mention this all happened the same week I had my first colonoscopy?

This generation, often overlooked, has quietly lived tucked between the Boomers and Millennials. While much of what made us strong and resilient children and young adults, has served us very well for many aspects of life. Quite possibly now more than ever, as many of us are faced with a new, uncharted generational identity.

We are simultaneously mothers, children, and caregivers. We are keen networkers, unafraid to ask questions and make things happen. We are not afraid to do what’s right no matter what others may think.

This new identity is not for the faint of heart. It will test you in ways you could never imagine. While being sandwiched as a mother and caregiver upsets your own personal life, it also upsets of the status quo for the entire family. It feels like the undoing of traditional family roles and that can send egos and insecurities into a tailspin.

While working to get my father medical care, I was accused by another family member of scaring him with medical terms and unnecessarily sending him to the hospital. People panic and struggle to feel needed, and therefore, try to assert their value in the family. It adds an entirely new level of complexity and stress.

As I found myself navigating the healthcare of my father while also being a mom to my own children, I did what any well-seasoned Gen-X mother would do. I relied heavily on my network. I called friends who are doctors to get advice, suggestions, and support. I leaned heavily on our friends to help with the kids, and of course simply to listen. Other family members who are part of my network, the ones I knew I could rely on, were there creating a web of support.

It’s a new ballgame that few of us have ever heard of let alone played. There are countless moving parts and very few guidelines or directions. No one can really tell you exactly how it’s going to be or what to expect, because each situation is completely different. Each player brings a unique, sometimes challenging set of parameters by which you can only make the next best decision.

But I have come to the swift realization that if anyone is equipped to deal with this new set of challenges, it’s us. There is no greater generation filled with bad-ass women, skilled and seasoned mothers, ready to tackle this new identify, than us.

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