We play this game at home called “Sandwich.” It requires three people – two for the bread and one for the meat. (You can play vegetarian or vegan, even freegan, versions of this game, but the stakes feel higher when the third person is “meat.”)
The two Breads often conspire to seize the Meat, squishing her in the middle of a take-no-prisoners human panini. One rogue player might also choose to take the other two by surprise, during an otherwise peaceful snuggle, say, thus subjecting them to a top-down, heavyweight, George Foreman-style sandwich that is never long lived, but always a triumph for the Top Slice.
The game isn’t won until the Breads invoke the name of the persecuted Meat, the indefensible contents now relegated to a modifier: “MOM SAAANDWIIIIIIICH!!!”
Not long ago, while immobilized between two exceptionally enthusiastic Bread Slices otherwise known as my sons, I had this thought: This is a metaphor for everything in my life right now. I am a shelf-stable slab of bologna smashed between my kids and my parents, my work and my family, desire and ease, youth and old age. And someone forgot the French’s.
As the key ingredient of this generational sandwich, I would not be delicious. Not right now, anyway. Not for the past year or two really. I lay there for a while, to the Slices’ delight, my breasts one hundred percent flattened, wondering if my compressed innards might burst, and considering – beyond this obvious predicament – why “being the bologna” feels so hard.
My kids demand more than ever. Now both ultra-mobile, clearly monkeys in a former life, they move faster, climb higher, require more focused attention, yet less help, and they have inordinately high entertainment standards. (I think back to their days of infancy wistfully. How squishy and immobile they were! How adoring of every expression I made!)
My mom needs me more than ever. Up until my father died this spring, he needed me, too. Although he never let on. My parents have always taken care of everyone else – my brothers and me, our extended family, our friends. We’ve become so habituated to this dynamic that, even as adults with children of our own, we still gravitate to them for holidays and summer vacations.
The flip side of this is that asking for help has never been their forte, and intuiting when they need it has never been mine. So when Dad’s illness took a sharp turn for the worse and he insisted I take my family on a trip to Jamaica regardless, I went. “Don’t put off having fun,” he said. “Enjoy the time you have with them.” Also good advice when it comes to your father in the last months of his life. I don’t ask Mom whether she needs help anymore; I just show up.
I am, allegedly, at the productivity pinnacle of my career. A full-time professional from post-grad to present, interrupted only by two three-month maternity respites, I’ve managed to accrue a few skills – just in time to have less bandwidth than ever to exercise them. (Dorky office vocab alert: band'width'. noun. The brain capacity or stamina required to store and sort the multifaceted jumble of ostensibly useful stuff that adults with jobs manage to do in a given day.)
My husband and I have crossed the 10-year mark into decade two of marriage. Say what you will about “holy matrimony,” but it’s a hell of an achievement in my book. And it continues to be – something to achieve, that is. Because the growing and getting to know each other doesn’t stop. Love is a stunningly irresistible, many-chambered thing. We are recalibrating all the time. Not always gracefully.
I’m older than I was before. (No shit, Bologna.) I now reminisce about my 30s instead of revel in them. Things feel harder: running up mountains, partying like it’s 1999, multitasking, making awesome food from an abundance of fresh, glorious ingredients, regular sex, waking up. Despite my mysteriously advancing age, I still wonder if I’m ever going to feel like a grown up. My kids wonder the same thing. This is just plain disorienting.
Lots of things – big things – are happening. All at once. To everyone. Hereditary diseases advance. Heart parts need replacing. Kids lose teeth. Potty training finally works. So do vasectomies. You leave a job, get another one. Surgeries on enlarged cysts, irregular bone protrusions, a prolapsed uterus, loom. Babies become boys, learn to read, ride bikes, need glasses. People you thought you could rely on become unreliable. Kindred spirits leave town. Then you find someone lovely and fun right around the corner.
Marriages take hits, rally. Some fail. Organs fail, too. Parents die. So do beloved pets, and dear, young friends. There are accidents. Falls. Piles of grief, of disbelief. Hearts break, crack open, become exposed. The oven breaks and you cook from the stovetop for a year. The tractor breaks and you almost welcome the re-wilding of the lawn. Someone sits on your son’s Millennium Falcon Lego set. You painstakingly help him rebuild it again. In a fit of distraction, you take out a taillight backing into your husband’s motorcycle. “Screw it, let’s sell the car.”
You see what I’m saying. It’s a messy, overstuffed time of life. Our limited energy reserves get spread in so many directions that it can be difficult to be present and grounded and good at caring for the people who need us the most. (And if your Parent Sandwich looks anything like mine, it’s loaded up with “The Works” because everyone knows that exciting condiments do an awesome job of masking the basic failures of any food group.)
So what can we Gen-Sandwichers do to make our lives more nourishing and yummy? Ease up on the Sriracha mayo and slow down. Let go of your guilt. Like sodden bread, it makes everything else distasteful. As the Meat (or Meat Substitute of your choice), you’ve got everything those home Slices need, so make sure sneak attacks aren’t the only way they manage to get your full attention. Maybe cut the baloney routine and surprise them with slow-roasted pulled pork every once in awhile.
And next time you feel sandwiched, keep in mind that being needed is a gift that you can offer others, too.