I’m Worrying About My Mum, My Daughter, My Job. I Feel Squeezed From All Sides

Meet the new sandwich generation.

Mother, Grandmother and daughter

by Sarah Rainey |
Updated on

At 6am every morning, Rosie Harrison’s alarm goes off – although, these days, she’s almost always already awake, to-do lists for the day running through her head. She goes downstairs to feed the dog, hang out the laundry, put the kettle on, make breakfast for her four-year-old daughter Issy and scroll through her work emails. When she’s done all that, she picks up the phone for her now-daily chat with her mum.

They didn’t used to speak every day – Rita, 73, is healthy, active and very self- sufficient – but since the spread of Covid-19, with the vulnerable over-seventies urged to self-isolate, this daily phone call has become not so much a ritual as a lifeline.

‘Mum is anxious all the time now,’ says Rosie, 38, a solicitor from Manchester. ‘She’s always been very old-school, resisting things like online shopping and emails. So a world where she can’t just pop to the shops or the post office is really alien to her.

‘Dad died three years ago, so she’s on her own, scared and completely reliant on me,’ she continues. ‘She only lives 30 miles away but now that I can’t visit her we have to do everything remotely. I’m making sure she’s got enough food in the house, explaining how the Sky Box works... things that previously she would have taken in her stride. All that while trying to juggle my own life, keep my daughter entertained and salvage what’s left of my career. I’m being squeezed from all sides.’

For my sons, it’s like two people they love have been erased from their lives overnight.

As the strange new reality of a world under siege comes into focus, this squeeze is being felt by millions. Caught between being a mother and caring for her own mother, Rosie is part of the ‘New Sandwich Generation’, with both young and old relying on her for support.

The term, coined in 1981, used to apply to women (it is, sadly, still women who bear the brunt of the pressure, due to our traditionally greater roles in childrearing) in their late forties and early fifties, struggling to raise teenagers while simultaneously caring for ageing parents.

But in this new world order, a younger generation of women is finding themselves in the same unenviable position. It’s a sharp departure. Before all this, countless Millennials still relied on their parents for support, whether financial, emotional or practical – or, in many cases, all three. Over half of those aged 21-37 received regular monetary help from Mum and Dad, while 40% of parents relied on grandparents for babysitting duties – largely because of the costs of external childcare. All of a sudden, that support has gone, while Grandma and Grandpa are stuck indoors, isolated, depressed and desperately missing the chubby-cheeked grandchildren they adore.

Parents up and down the country are facing impossible dilemmas as we all try to navigate these uncharted times. If a grandparent is unwell, do you risk a visit or drop in with supplies, knowing it could put your own family at risk? What about elderly relatives a little further removed – or in-laws? The potential for household disagreements, at an already fraught time, is huge.

London teacher Lauren Gregory, 30, who has an 11-month-old son, admits she’s feeling the strain. ‘I’m WhatsApping my parents multiple times a day at the moment, making sure they have supplies, talking them through online food shopping and trying to persuade my dad, who was a chain smoker for years, to be extra-careful,’ she says. ‘I was due to go back to work after maternity leave in a couple of weeks, while my son was supposed to start nursery. Now neither of those is happening and I feel a bit lost. Overall, my anxiety levels are 100%.’

Carol Abaya, who writes and lectures about the Sandwich Generation, says women like Lauren and Rosie are far from alone. ‘Everyone is going to be more co-dependent now,’ she explains. ‘Caring for two generations is physically and mentally exhausting – even more so when you’ve got kids of school age or younger who aren’t used to being stuck indoors – and there will be plenty of tears, guilt and frustration.

‘Parenting a parent presents extraordinary challenges as well, but you need to remember that the challenges for them are just as daunting. To lose control of one’s life – even the little things – can be shocking. No one was prepared for this and it will take some time to adjust.’

According to the Office for National Statistics, before coronavirus hit, there were around 1.3 million people in the UK simultaneously caring for children and parents, two-thirds of whom were women. As more and more of us take on responsibilities for parents aged 60 and 70-plus, that figure could double or even treble, meaning the New Sandwich Generation is the biggest yet.

‘Pretty much all my mum friends are in the same position,’ says Gina White, 29, a mum-of-two from Ipswich. ‘Not only are we all worrying about our parents’ health, but we’ve lost that practical support they gave us with the kids. For my sons – who are too young to understand what’s going on – it’s like two people they love have been erased from their lives overnight.’

Experts warn that this dramatic shift could have a seismic impact on the mental health of those who now find themselves squeezed in the middle. Sandwich Generationers are notoriously prone to anxiety; according to the American Psychological Association, 40% report bouts of ‘extreme stress’.

The important thing to remember, though, says Carol, is that this situation isn’t permanent – although of course no one knows how long it will last. So try to make the most of the extra time with your children; swap visits with the grandparents into daily video or phone calls; accept that work might have to take a back seat for a while – and, above all, she adds, ‘Maintain a sense of humour.’

In these strange, strained times, especially for those caught in the middle, laughter may be the best cure we’ve got.

Since becoming a mum last year, 36-year-old Hayley has felt more responsibility towards her parents – but nothing compared to the pressure she feels under now.

‘Mum and Dad are in their sixties, so I still see them as young,’ she explains. ‘They’ve always resisted any help, whether practical or financial. But my dad’s been ill recently, so I had been going home to Kent more, helping out with heavy lifting, cooking and just calling in to check they’re OK.’

Suddenly, as increasingly extreme lockdown measures were imposed, and with her dad in one of the at-risk categories for Covid-19, those visits have had to stop. Hayley, who lives in London, can’t help out like she used to; nor can she rely on grandparents to look after her son, Owen, now one, while she goes back to her job in mental health.

‘Their vulnerability in terms of their age is frightening,’ she says. ‘I feel I should be protecting them more, and doing more, and with that pressure comes anxiety. I also feel a responsibility to share Owen, to make sure my parents see enough of him to bring joy to their lives, which they need now more than ever.

‘I’m under pressure to be a good mum and a good daughter. Not only do I have this new, almost-primal need to protect Owen, but now that’s extended to my relationship with Mum and Dad. It’s like our roles have reversed.’

Already, Hayley is worrying about how she can continue to support her parents from afar – and how long it will be before they can cuddle their grandson again. ‘I think I’m still in denial.’

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