So I’d always found the term “Sandwich Generation” to be a useful concept. But now my friend Laurie coined an even better one: the Panini Press.
I know firsthand how perfectly a Panini Press captures this experience. It’s not that we’re nested between our parents and our kids—which could be sort of cozy. It’s that we’re being squeezed forcefully from both ends. The pressure—on our energy, vitality, and emotional resources—can be relentless. For me, it felt like a physical weight on my chest. Taking a deep breath was impossible.
Personally and professionally, I think the creation of this website couldn’t be timelier.
As parents live longer without cultural supports in place, we daughters and daughters-in-law are stepping in to help. At the same time, older mothers may still be raising moody teens who need help with schoolwork or whose friendships, partying, or college prospects keep them awake at 3 AM. With many twenty-somethings struggling in this economy to get jobs—at least the kinds that let them support themselves—they’re flocking right back to the nest. If your un- or partially employed children have returned, you’ll likely have to cope with their bad personal habits, procrastination, or unfortunate romantic choices from way up close.
Also, is it just me, or do many more people these days have adult children living with them whose serious developmental, medical, or psychiatric conditions prevent them from being independent?
In the midst of raising children, no matter their age, you may suddenly find yourself also dealing with parents who become ill or deteriorate. Maybe, like my friend Chris, you’ll find caring for a dying mother or father enormously gratifying. But for others, it’s an ordeal that may include weeks in the ICU; learning about ALFs, and Alzheimer drugs; or trudging through the health insurance quagmire. (Don’t get me started on that!) To complicate matters, you may be working with siblings who—surprise!—have entirely different ideas about how to handle every dilemma. Or, for any number of reasons, the burden may fall entirely on you.
The impact of the Panini Press may be different for all of us, but it’s potentially huge. Take the time factor. As you run parents to doctor appointments or visit hospitals after surgery or research rehab programs, you may also be dashing off to weekend lacrosse tournaments or parents’ weekends at college. That new job or Italian cooking or spinning class or career change you’ve been envisioning may be relegated to the back burner. When I finally made a dental appointment after my father’s death, the practice said they’d assumed I’d moved away.
It’s not just the time. It’s also the drain on our mental energy. Even if you’re a health professional, learning the jargon and procedures of medical and legal systems is a nightmare. When should you apply for Medicaid? What exactly does your parents’ health insurance plan cover—and why aren’t they paying for the medications doctors actually prescribe? How long exactly will their money last? And the real killers: Who can help you decide how much help your parents really need? How can you find good aides? And what if your parents resist extra help?
Most of all, the Panini Press squeezes us emotionally and physically.
It’s stressful to deal with crises—or, worse, to anticipate the next one. There are dreaded late-night phone calls: hospitals reporting that a recovering parent suddenly developed pneumonia; (supposedly secure) facilities alerting you that a parent escaped, only to be found hours later by police walking beside a highway (true story); university health centers informing of your teen’s alcohol poisoning; distraught college students needing to talk about roommate or romantic problems.
Stress disturbs our sleep, which impairs our immune systems and makes us more susceptible to getting sick. Chronic exhaustion makes it harder to keep track of everything in our lives and avoid mistakes—just when we need to be sharpest. Cue the irritability, impatience, and maybe, on a bad day, losing it with our loved ones.
This is, I believe, how the Panini Press challenges us most. Caring for parents and/or grown children requires stumbling through uncharted territory with new, often uncomfortable roles. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the women and girls in my practice, nothing affects our self-esteem and happiness more than how we feel about our relationships. If they’re not going well, we can be flooded with intense, unpredictable, and confusing feelings until we’re utterly overwhelmed.
If we’re lucky, we can enjoy aging mothers and fathers. It’s easier, of course, when they’re still vital and retain their best qualities. They also might mellow over time. We could get vicarious pleasure from watching them interact with grandchildren as we wished they’d done with us. On the other hand, we’ve all heard stories of parents who become exaggerated, even caricatured, versions of their worst selves. No longer in possession of filters, they say things that make us cringe. Imagine your 83-year-old father asking the Asian cardiothoracic surgeon who performed the emergency quadruple bypass surgery that saved his life, “Are you that Chinese girl who operated on me?” (Another true story—couldn’t make that one up.)
Sure, we can tell ourselves that we’re adults; these things should no longer bother us. Except our parents’ behavior can trigger memories that instantly make us feel like 13-year-olds again. Old hurts and humiliations recur with a vengeance. Making peace with who our mothers and fathers are and letting go of unrealistic hopes—which is the only alternative I know to feeling perpetually disappointed, angry, or crazy—takes an awful lot of work.
Even if we’re doing the “right” things, it’s still hard not to beat ourselves up. When we’re heartsick watching parents suffer, it’s natural to think, “I wish this were over already” or, less rationally, perhaps, “Why is my mother torturing me like this?” If we are relieved or feel nothing when they die, we may loathe ourselves—not recognizing the complex and deeply layered emotions that lurk underneath.
In the same way, we may love being close to supposedly grown children, but grow tired of nonstop texts or calls that ask for help, solutions to problems, money, or emotional support. We can feel overly burdened. Many women’s lives revolve around scheduling appointments and doing errands for children as well as parents. Worse, many of us absorb our children’s pain. Just hearing that particular “hello” causes our hearts and moods to plummet.
Yet it’s hard to allow ourselves to do or feel otherwise. Women are socialized in this culture to be helpers, to always be nice. So if we have “bad” thoughts and feelings, we feel like bad people. Shame and self-doubt can cause us to isolate ourselves from potentially supportive relationships.
Despite my training, that is exactly the mistake I made during the years of my father’s descent into severe dementia. When friends asked how he was doing, I just said, “Not so great.” Relating the latest incident of “inappropriate behavior” that got him kicked out of yet another facility seemed like TMI. More likely, I was mortified. Aggression? Unwanted touching? Guns? Really?
But one day, as I sat with three friends at a birthday lunch, waiting to hear whether my father would be accepted at the facility that was my last hope, my heart and head were pounding and my chest was constricting so painfully that I felt dizzy. When someone asked about my father, I heard myself blurting out the truth. My friends’ sympathy and lack of judgment were instantly comforting, like taking a warm bath.
Not only had I deprived myself of this loving support for too long, but also I had been wasting valuable energy trying to keep horrific experiences to myself. What a relief to let that go!! My whole central nervous system gradually relaxed.
That makes sense. Fifteen years ago, psychologist Shelley Taylor and five of her colleagues at UCLA determined that the typical stress model—producing a “fight or flight response”—was based on men. Women, they proposed, “tend and befriend” instead. When stressed, we protect our young (or old) by nurturing—the “tend” part—and ally ourselves with larger social groups—the “befriend” part.
This is precisely what Laurie’s website offers: a readily available community in which those of us in the Panini Press can hear about other people’s experiences, share our own, and get invaluable practical information. She’s offered us a virtual lifeline for when we’re floundering—or feel like we’re about to drown.
Visiting this website is not a luxury or mindless escape. It’s a necessity. Taking care of yourself in stressful times enables you to tend to the children and parents who need you. This community of real people, speaking authentically about their experiences in the Panini Press, can befriend and support you.