The Caregiver Sandwich

When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, I was living on the other side of the world, working a high pressure job. While my mom helped him through treatment, I worried. I kept my phone by my side, both wanting and not wanting news. The stress of my workplace and my dad, along with the day to day life with children took its toll on my health, and eventually my job.

Once I was able to go home, I was with my dad about a week before he passed. I flew to him without my kids. Once there, it was a wise decision as I quickly assumed the role of chief and counselor (an unusual role for me as the youngest of my siblings) supporting my mom’s decisions, asking my dad what he wanted for his service, updating my brothers, and talking to the doctors to better understand the situation and the timeline. I made sure to call home and talk to the kids at the end of each school day. My husband held down the fort until they flew for the funeral.

Once the kids arrived, naturally my focus shifted. I did my best to be there for my mom but jet lagged 3 and 5 year olds demanded playgrounds and snacks to be added into the schedule along with trips to the church. But also—the kids offered moments of ease and joy. During the service, when it felt like my heart was going to squeeze out of my chest, the kids started fighting over a snack. My mother in law took them out, but the change in focus allowed me to breathe again.

I was able to hold off starting at my new company until I returned, which I appreciated. With most jobs it would have been difficult to take a month off and finding time to check in with colleagues would have added stress while spending long hours at the hospital.

Friends have taken different approaches to taking care of their parents and their children. One mother moved her young family to be closer to her mom the year before she passed. Another friend moved her parents to be with her. She’s managing doctors’ visits, meals, and playdates for both her children and her parents.

After the funeral there was less ‘to do’ so my family and I flew back across the world. I was left with my grief, a new job and parenting.

When we were told to work from home just a few weeks later, I was so grateful. It gave me time and space to heal while still doing my job, with the kids and pandemic offering distraction. I could step away if I got overwhelmed, which somedays was a lot, and other days I was buoyed by new exciting projects at work.

Still, I  struggled when the kids wanted to talk about their grandfather- my grief felt private. But as we celebrated his birthday and made a photo book to remember him by, I started to open up more and let the kids see my sadness. I think it helped to heal us all.

Helpful questions to explore for yourself:

  • Have you needed to be the caregiver for a parent or grandparent? How did you balance those priorities with those of your children?
  • Are you being sandwiched, between your parents and your children? Does it ever feel like a squeeze?
  • When you feel sad or upset, do you share your pain? Why or why not?
  • How can we show ourselves more compassion in time of stress or sadness? What would make a tough time like this easier?