The hubby and I had a rare Sunday to ourselves as junior was up with my in-laws and his cousins in Northumberland. We enjoyed a blissful lie-in, followed by a leisurely trip into Leeds for lunch and cocktails, followed by shopping. There was no-one to go home for or get tea for or remind them about homework that needs doing. It was ace!
In this post-cocktail/full-tummy utopia, I reflected to my husband that I felt contented. I felt the most contented I had in a long time. A long-term client had recently offered me a permanent part-time position offering me the job security often lacking in my time as a freelancer, my son’s doing alright at school and is happy and healthy with several groups of friends and my hubby and I are also doing OK and we’re happy together.
Life isn’t perfect by any means. I worry about a few friends who have their on-going challenges with work, grief or their health. My sister’s Springer Spaniel has a poorly leg. My niece is starting her GCSE exams. My Mum is a bit forgetful but, at 77, she’s still the life and soul of the party – maybe just with more aches and pains these days. These are all minor niggles in the grand scheme of things. And anyway – wouldn’t life be mega dull if there wasn’t something to worry about?!
Sometimes, though, I don’t feel as contented. In fact, I feel downright bloody stressed and under pressure. And not just from work. No, I feel pressure from having to sort everything and everyone out. Not only am I dealing with my own family and home and giving 100% to the job that I love, but I also have more significant worries about my Mum.
Like many of you, I’m part of the “Sandwich Generation” or SG as I’m going to shorten it to. SGers are men or women caring for their own children/family but also caring for an elderly parent or other relative, often whilst holding down a job.
Lexi and I were discussing this when I suggested I write about this subject. Like me, she’s in the ‘lull’ period at the moment. Things are OK and there’s nothing major going on, but that doesn’t mean that sooner or later things are going to kick off big style leaving us like emotional and physical wrecks…….
I guess for me it hit me like a train six or seven years ago. At that time my son was still little and I was doing my consultancy work. Being a consultant is great financially but there is no security, no holiday pay, no sick pay, so I worked my ass off – all the time! I was only ever as good as my last job!
And then my Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimers’ Disease. We should have probably all seen the signs but when you’ve not had that prior personal connection with it I think it’s difficult to really say what’s genuine forgetfulness and something more sinister.
Life changed – in small ways at first. Mum was 13 years younger than Dad and had been a carer all her life (to her kids, her grandkids) and now felt it her duty to care for Dad. And she seemed more than capable. She took him to his GP appointments, the Memory Clinic and the Dementia Café. Me and my siblings carried on as normal.
But as the disease progressed and Dad’s condition worsened, it was clear that ‘normal’ was no longer an option. Particular crises and incidences prompted what we started to call ‘family conferences’. My five siblings and I would meet to discuss what we should be doing to support our parents. Mum was mortified as she felt it was her responsibility to care for Dad. However, as his mobility came to a standstill, she reluctantly started to accept some help from us and from professionals.
My week would see me rushing to get Elliot up, ready and out to school, working at a pace unheard of before and then either calling to check on my parents, attend medical appointments with them and spending every Thursday with my Dad so that Mum could carry on her volunteering role (bless her) at the local hospice.
Now, don’t get me wrong…. I loved the Thursdays I spent with my Dad. I probably spent more time with him on his own then, than I had in a long, long time. And those Thursdays were really special. Dad still knew who we all were right up to the end, for which we are eternally grateful, so we talked a lot about his childhood and his youth in Dublin before World War II.
What I don’t think I realised was the immense amount of pressure it put me under. The juggling of my roles was one thing – wife, mother, daughter, friend, worker – but the worrying was on a whole different level. I went from sleeping soundly to going to sleep quickly (I was so knackered) but then waking up in the night worrying about my parents and how I was going to help them. Insomnia was a massive part of my life in 2011 and 2012, and I didn’t like it.
I got to a stage where, in February 2012 (2 months before Dad died – not sure how I made it that far), I walked into the GP surgery to see if I could get myself an appointment and, when the receptionist asked if it was urgent, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop sobbing.
Half an hour later I was despatched with a prescription for anti-depressants that would also help me sleep.
God, I really hated anti-depressants. I wasn’t me on them. I was like this ‘shell’ of Marguerite. Marguerite, but not quite Marguerite. I was exhausted all the time. I could sleep for England, but at least I could sleep! But I felt….. nothing. We had some stand up shows booked and everyone around me was laughing until their sides ached. I could only smile in a half-hearted way. I also found myself at the theatre to see one of Shakespeare’s plays (can’t remember which one now) and booked for the Matinee performance (couldn’t risk the evening in case I fell asleep). Dark theatre, comfy seats and I could feel my head dropping and a slight snoring sound come out! Needless to say that I left the theatre at the interval and went home….
Dad died on 1st April 2012 – his April Fool to his family. Daft b*gger! His death affected us all, as you’d expect. However, my role has continued as support to my Mum. Mum’s now on her own. She’s adapted well, although there have been some teething problems. At first, after Dad’s death, there was an intense period of support emotionally and practically as Dad had always organised all the finances, paid the bills etc, so I became (and still am) Mum’s unofficial financial advisor.
Things are in the ‘lull’ period at the moment, although we had another intense period between 2015 and 2016 when Dad’s bachelor brother also had dementia and died at the end of 2016, but it wasn’t as intense. I’m anticipating the next spike to come with Mum, but I really don’t want to think about this as I think this will affect me even more. So, I’m just going to partly bury my head in the sand for now – thank you very much!
So, how can we survive these periods of physical and mental pressure and exhaustion? I haven’t got all the answers and it’s not easy to take my own advice so I certainly don’t expect you to, but:
- Realise it doesn’t last forever
As Lexi and I discussed, life seems to be made up of peaks and troughs – or I prefer to call them – spikes and lulls. It may be all-consuming, upsetting, tiring and generally horrible during the spikes, but it will pass. Hold on to the good stuff that happens in the lulls and keep that in mind.
- Give yourself a break
Literally! Give yourself a break. You may feel that you have so much to do, but try and find willing volunteers to help take the pressure off – even if it’s for a few hours. You’re not Superwoman or Superman! The friend who offers to look after your kids for a few hours or the cousin who suggests they might be able to drop in to visit your parents. Accept graciously and then do something for you. Whether you decide to take yourself off to the cinema (just don’t fall asleep in the darkened theatre!) or that you have a bath instead of the showers that you normally only have time for. Just do it!
- Look after yourself
One thing I can look back and see from the last major spike, is that I ate a lot of crap and drank too much alcohol. I put on weight. I wasn’t sleeping well. My skin looked a mess. I was a mess. Although it’s easy to opt for chocolate, just try not to opt for it ALL THE TIME!
Last year when I focussed on my diet and what I was eating was probably the healthiest I’ve felt and looked in a long time. Eating a balanced diet, drinking less alcohol and only having the occasional chocolate treat made me feel healthy and made my mind feel healthy (if that makes sense?). Walking also helped. I’m not a gym bunny and never will be, but I’ve learned to love walking. I can’t meditate as my mind is usually too full, but I’ve learned to do a kind of meditation or mindfulness through walking. I take in my surroundings, appreciate the buds on the trees, the sounds of birds and people going about their daily business.
- Become more flexible
I’m a terrible person because I’m a bit of a control freak and get slightly stressed if plans change at the last minute. I’ve gradually had to wean myself out of this way of acting/thinking. It’s difficult and I still have issues with it, but I now try to be less stressed when something happens out of the blue. This has helped me be more accepting of spikes and to be able to deal with situations when they arise.
I’m sure we’ll revisit this topic in the months to come, but I wanted to finish by saying that there are thousands, millions of us in the Sandwich Generation going through spikes or lulls at this precise moment in time. Sometimes, the most comforting thing is to talk to someone who has been through it themselves or is currently going through it who can tell you ‘it’s going to be OK’, ‘you’re going to be OK’. However, you obtain this reassurance – whether it’s from your own personal friends, family, colleagues or the growing ‘virtual’ networks of friends many of us have through social media like Instagram or Facebook – take it! It’s a lifeline and will help you weave your way through the dark times until you come out the other end and into the sunshine.
More about Marguerite
Wrong side of mid-40s. Champagne socialist. Owner of too many handbags. Wife. Mother. Gig-goer. Campaigning for 6pm to become #freetheboobiesfrombras happy hour.
You can find her (Style Begins at Forty) @Stylebeginsatforty on Instagram or on her blog
From Lexi… We would love you to share your experiences and thoughts on the sandwich generation with us. In fact, you could join in by writing your own post if you wanted to. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact page.