We can’t go back.

“You’ll miss this someday…”

“It goes so fast…”

“Enjoy this now, just wait…”

We hear it all as parents and none of it is helpful or welcomed. It’s that moment when your toddler is arguing with you over which juice box they’re willing to drink but the juice boxes are the same and they’re only speaking in grunts that day. The kind stranger smiles and offers, “Enjoy it now, it goes fast…”

Repeat after me: NOT. HELPFUL.

You’re trying to use the changing table in the bathroom and debating how clean your child actually can be when others don’t clean up after themselves and your baby is trying out for a log rolling contest in their own feaces. Out of nowhere behind you a voice says, “Oh, how old are they?” You half-heartedly respond and try to giggle as you want to scream.

“I remember that age. You’ll miss this someday, trust me!” 

No, trust me, stop.

We can’t go back. For some of us, myself included, we don’t want to. I prefer looking forward for my kids. I leave the looking back for showing them photos and telling them funny stories. As much as we love our children, hearing these platitudes cuts in a thousand ways that a stranger can’t intuit by glancing at myself or my children. There are phases that look beautiful in photos but were laced with the pain of regressions, aggression, and mental health episodes for our children that most neurotypical families can’t relate to and that I wouldn’t want my kids to have to repeat.

I would be a millionaire if I had a nickel for everytime someone wanted to comment and minimize the meltdown my child was exhibiting while we were in public. I can’t explain how ostracized it made me feel to be told that I should be enjoying the pain they were experiencing, or inflicting, all while people looked on nervously or tittered in amusement. The judgement didn’t matter to me as much as the forced isolation. Being excluded from activities or asked to leave public settings because of my children’s behavior. I would like to say that ended but it hasn’t.

What I wish people would say, instead of couching their own feelings within a seemingly playful admonishment of passive aggressive guilt towards other parents, is to state their own feelings.

“Wow, do I miss when my kids were that age…”

“Boy, do I feel guilty for not enjoying my kids more…”

“If only I had help and sleep so I could have been the parent I wanted to be.”

Because to be a parent in this society, especially a mother, is to be the object of scorn and failure for not being able to “do it all”, the impossible, because “having it all” is a pipe dream. Increasingly, we’re also caring for not only our children but our elders and possibly grandchildren simultaneously.

Women typically are the primary caretaker and default for parenting and caregiving in any household, whether that’s children or aging parents. Sandwiched between raising children and caring for elders that are declining, I belong to a growing segment of the population who have little support and received a moment of compassion during the pandemic in the news, the sandwich generation.

As Elizabeth Change commented, “At times, caring for elderly parents and adult kids or grandkids is like existing in two different realities.”

As the primary caregiver, you’re squeezed between the needs and demands of disparate groups of family. I think of it more as a pulling apart than a squeezing. Needing to be on one side of town with children while someone is calling in a panic from home or the hospital. 

When my mother passed in 2021, I felt the tremendous guilt of breathing a sigh of relief over the emotional and physical workload easing and shifting back to caring for my autistic family. Yet I am still pulled between children and extended family. My role hasn’t changed just the terrain.

No one offered to help with a memorial for my mother. It was the middle of the pandemic. Everyone had their own worries, grief, and cares. The assumption was that I would organize one but the idea of offering a Zoom memorial for my mother was an insult to her memory and the idea of sitting in a crowded room with others masked up was preposterous as a celebration of life. So I posted photos, stories, and slideshows on social media but it wasn’t a substitute for the support network that I wish would have been there for me. Grief is still a taboo in our society and everyone was grieving on some level during the pandemic. The sandwich generation is discovering that we’re not allowed to have a sick day let alone a day of bereavement because there’s always someone that needs us.

It was in the heat of summer when my mom passed. I was suffering with my medical issues and caring for my children all while grieving her in isolation. The disenfranchised grief of the pandemic. This after being by her side day in and out for months. My health had suffered and the veins in my legs were damaged due to my lymphedema. My heart condition had worsened. My mental health was teatering on the edge after holding her hand until the very end of her life after advocating and organizing her care. The mental workload had worn me down and buried who I once was under what I needed to do for others. I felt lighter from being freed from caring for her, guilty for feeling so, and desperately missing her all within the same breath.

“I miss grandma.”

I had just hugged my daughter goodnight. I was standing by her bedside as she looked up into my eyes. It had been a long day after a long week, longer months, and endless years within these past five years. There’s a bone weariness that doesn’t leave me. It’s not just my poor health, the strain of the pandemic, our family having COVID twice, or the ever present labor of being a caretaker and homeschooling teacher to two kids on the spectrum. It’s the lead laden fog of grief that clings to me that has soaked into my psyche, yet I have to be supportive of my children processing the loss of their grandmother which they just now, almost two years later, are beginning to do so.

My mind searched for the messages we’re expected to share in these situations of parenting. There was the momentary inhale and blinking to resist the tears so that she could settle herself to sleep without the weight of my emotions. I resisted them and then took a breath to accept that it would be good in this moment to cry with her. So instead, I hugged her again, and was honest.

“I miss her too…She was my mom. I miss my mom.” We both began to cry and I waited for her to regain her breath.

“I’m sad that we haven’t had a memorial for grandma. It was during the pandemic and the summer but I still think we need one. She deserves one but I can’t bring myself to host one for people that couldn’t bother to help her or us while she was passing.”

We held hands and she thought for a moment, “Did I ruin your Mother’s Day by bumming you out?”

“No, I’m sure we’ll have a great day if I get to hang out with you guys. Don’t worry about it.”

She wasn’t convinced, I could see it in her eyes and she was right, I was lying. This Mother’s Day, like many to come, will be a bittersweet reminder of the complicated relationship with my mother and the ache of what I had always hoped to have for myself and give my own children. The safe harbor that I never found in my own childhood is what I pledge to give them every day with the ways I show them love but I fear I won’t be around to do so when they’re young adults.

As caregivers to children with special needs, there’s the ever present fear of being able to care for them as long as they need us. There’s the societal expectation of children leaving home as they reach of the age of adulthood but a great many kids, on the spectrum or not, don’t. Then there’s the reality of my health issues that means I might not be around as long as they would need me. I can only hope that friends and chosen family will step in to support them but, as the “sandwich generation”, it’s unclear as to who would be able to do so given the demands they’ll have themselves.

For Mother’s Day, I hope every caretaker has a chance to feel appreciated and loved. Whether you’re caring for your children, parents, grandchildren, or anyone else. Our society is going to quickly reach a tipping point of needing to pay for care when those that have been doing so without acknowledgement will age out of that role and need care themselves as the Boomer generation is in decline and Generation X is looking more Golden Girl than Girl Interrupted.

Enjoy and celebrate those this weekend that put others first far too often in their lives and remember that we all deserve to feel supported and cared for. I don’t care what sandwich you feel represents you, but honor it and know that you’re not alone.


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