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Feeling squeezed in the sandwiched generation

The losers in the generation game have to play the grown-up and care for elderly parents.

Mother’s Day, 2012. A woman – let’s call her Eve – is dressing her dad. Dad has end-stage emphysema. She had rushed him into hospital in the small hours. She quite often does, what with that haematoma, this embolism and all those cancers – it’s whack-a-mole, the oncology version. There are missed calls on her phone: her 15- year-old daughter is panicking about where she is. And, like, she really needs a lift to jazz tap.

For Eve, mother to all, every day is Mother’s Day. She has the heart and stomach of a land girl but the strain is steadily doing her in. She is, like so many women in their mid-forties, one of the Sandwich Generation, so called because they are the depressed filling between ageing parents and growing children. The squeezed middle, as it were. Even the nomenclature is a downer: we started out as groovy members of Generation X, a little bit unknowable, a little bit raunchy. Our new moniker is a turkey sub. It’s hard to sex up a sarnie.

Our parents are apparently living longer (though tell that to the bereaved), but with more chronic illnesses; we apparently had children later. We made our bread and now must lie in it.

The losers in the generation game have to play the grown-up, on two counts. First, the sunny plains of infant care, of “This Little Piggy” and Postman Pat, have erupted into a stranger, more volatile geography. A landscape of eruptions, sebaceous and psychic. We remain essential, load-bearing props to our teenage children: an adult joist in this seismic business of relationships, parties, exams and growing up.

And now there’s the certain knowledge (d’uh!) that none of us is getting out of here alive. The sandwichers’ parents are no longer the providers of succour and Sunday lunch, or unstinting childcare, or oral lore on gardening, wiring a plug or the French subjunctive. They are no longer the buffer between us and the chill winds of mortality.

We fortysomethings learn a shotgun intimacy with the hospital room and its enervating blend of boredom and fear; the staging of disease, the kindness of strangers. We plough the arterial routes of the country, a caravanserai of carers, and provide £39bn worth of support to elderly parents every year. All this at a time when our own bodies are beginning their own subtle mutiny and start to run teasers and spoilers for worse to come.

The storm leaves a wrack line of exhaustion and grief, which falls largely – but not exclusively – on the heads of women. Often the same women who have put their careers on ice to raise their bonny babies, only to find a real crock at the end of the multicoloured rainbow of the child-rearing years.

The sandwich starts to squeeze just at the time when she might be exhuming that career from the deep freeze, and finding an incomplete skeleton, not fit for purpose in the modern world. As she examines the ruined mastodon of her profession, she fatally doubts she was any good in the first place, screwing in an instant herself and the economy.

Sandwichers don’t see ourselves reflected in the media, much. We look at Lena Dunham’s Girls and all that bad sex in chichi lofts, not with howls of recognition (Caitlin Moran: this is a show about all the secret things of being a woman!), but with only the vaguest recollection of an exotic place with no responsibilities (Ibiza, maybe?).

We’re too tired. Too sad. And it’s not the patriarchy that’s done for us, ma semblable, ma soeur, it’s biology. Ladies, it’s a wrap.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?