Monday, October 1, 2007

The Sandwich Generation

Last "Questionable Judgment" column I really beat myself up for being what I called a "crackmom". This was because I occasionally forgot homework, or sneakers, or made the kids late for school and so forth. Many readers said to me, "Hey, don't be so hard on yourself….we all have days like that."

Then I was having a moment recently where I thought: You know, most of the time I'm a damn good, rockin' out, pigtail-wearing, supremely adoring mom. No crack involved.

My girlies, now 6 and 5, like to know in advance what their weekend plans will be. On Friday eve we lay in their little futon bed together and discuss the activities ahead so they know what to look forward to (playdate with Isabel) or what to possibly dread (visit to grandparents – more on that later). Generally speaking, there should never be anything not to look forward to, only two days jam-packed with fun.

One Saturday, I sat at the indoor city pool, breathing in the chlorinated balmy air, feeling weary but content. The girls swam around in the shallow end under my watchful eye (because those lifeguards were too busy playing footsie with each other to be totally trusted). I thought about the day, last winter, when the girls had their first swim lesson on a Sunday morning. We had to drive from my friend's house in Connecticut all the way to this pool on a snowy winter day. I woke that morning with a stomach flu powerful enough to force a puking pit stop at least twice on I-95.

We made it to the swim lesson right on time - then I dozed fitfully in a chair, still wrapped in my down jacket, fighting off chills. Okay, so that is an example of what a "crackmom" does NOT do. The "crackmom" would have blown-off the whole thing and stayed in bed in Connecticut, allowing her friend to tend to the kiddies all day. Come to think of it….maybe that would have been smarter.

The girls hate to go their grandparents' house; and I cannot blame them. It is a truly awful experience, and that they are my parents, makes it okay for me to admit that. My sick and elderly folks are just a ventilator's breath away from being holed-up in a nursing home – yet they persist in this nearly vegetative state. Welcome to what is now called "The Sandwich Generation". This is when your kids are young and your parents are old, becoming a burden and responsibility themselves. You are literally "sandwiched" between the obligations from both sides – and you become a parent, effectively, to both generations simultaneously.

I am intrigued by this label "Sandwich Generation" for several reasons. One, it's sort of non-descript and self-defining, as I suppose "Generation X" also is, so you can interpret it in a few different ways. One parent I know asked, "Oh, is that because we're all so busy we only can make sandwiches for our kids' lunches?" I also find it amusing that Wikipedia states: "There are very few or no other articles that link to this one." So, not only do people not really know about this phenomenon, but people don't seem to care that much about it either. I'm living and breathing it, so when I heard my situation described with this bland moniker I thought, "Ah, finally! I have a definable syndrome."

My parents wear diapers. I'm not exaggerating when I say that as soon as my children were out of diapers my parents were in them. Kids' diapers come with images of princesses and superheroes on them. A friend joked, "Couldn't your dad's diapers come with say, a photo of Ed McMahon on them?" Though this made me laugh, I could not get the image of those giant-sized white diapers out of my head; nor how awful it looks to see your parents wearing them as they toddle – always too late—to the toilet.

Both my parents became dysfunctional old people before my eyes. My father used to drive into Manhattan and watch my daughter when she was small. They'd eat at Joe Junior's diner together then hang around in the playground with all the nannies. From that level of independence my father quickly became a menace behind the wheel, lost most of his common sense, and suddenly developed a mean, argumentative streak.

Soon after, my brother and I discovered that he was spending thousands of dollars a month on worthless coins from the infamously fraudulent Franklin Mint. I cried to him, "Dad…I could have used that money to pay for preschool! For a college fund! For gymnastics – anything! What are you thinking?" But he truly believed that the coins were an excellent investment – perfect for hoarding until the kiddies were older.

However, that was not the case, we learned. Some coins worth only $75 were never going to be valued at the $1,500 my disillusioned father had paid for them. Eventually, we managed to wrestle control away from him with his coin craze. As he grew more confused and forgetful we were able to take his credit cards away. I took Power of Attorney and my brother and I created living wills complete with a "Do Not Resuscitate" order. Talk about cheery dinner conversation.

Back in the present, this explains why the girls do not like visiting their grandparents. It's downright depressing and it smells bad at their house.

Sometimes we pull into the driveway and I pause to prepare them: "Girls…I know this isn't easy. I know you don't like coming here and frankly, neither do I. But they're my parents and that's what children do. However, if I get ever this bad please smother me with a pillow, okay?" All right…I left out that last line which clearly indicates "questionable judgment".

I could write about the downfall of my parents, but I shall stick to the topic in this particular little essay: Not such a "crackmom", after all….

And so, after I scored a superlatively loud mini-sound system, the girls and I danced around to Avril Lavigne in our empty living room to cap off an action-packed weekend of fun. There will always be visits to the grandparents, but hopefully this anti-crackmom will balance the chore with all the great things that make us rock out....with hula-hoops and pigtails no less.