If you’re reading this, chances are you (and your children, if you’ve chosen to have them) have reached a certain level of maturity. Being at this stage may mean you have more authority and autonomy at your job, and feel more confident in your skin than you did when you started working. Your kids may be functioning more autonomously, too, freeing up a lot of your time. Plus, you have more wisdom and life experience than ever before. For all intents and purposes, you should be living on Easy Street.
So why do you feel so drained? It’s not just lack of sleep and other physical symptoms that can often pop up during the perimenopausal and menopausal years. It’s also because, as lucky as we are to have reached this plateau, it comes with its own new and distinct challenges.
Welcome to life in the “sandwich” — a time when we're wedged between caring for aging parents as well as children transitioning into young adulthood. While you may be feeling the squeeze right now, it doesn’t mean you need to suffer. We’ve got coping mechanisms to help you care for others — and yourself.
Caring for Our Parents...
Often, women in late perimenopause or menopause have elderly parents or parent figures who may be facing issues such as loss of memory and mobility, loneliness, and declining health. That doesn’t mean they’re done engaging with the world, though.
“My older clients are often interested in healthy longevity,” says Jennifer Reddick, an integrative health coach in Chicago. “They want to be mobile, perhaps lose some weight, and feel good. But there’s also a significant population who are looking to redirect their lives in some way. For example, perhaps they’ve lost a spouse and want to put themselves out there again.”
Although our instincts as caregivers may be to provide our parents with constant assistance, the key to helping people in this demographic is to enable them to have autonomy and make meaningful connections on their own, says Reddick, who leads a wellness group for women called Vibrant Living. “People’s potential for wellness increases substantially when they have a group setting to support them. Senior women, especially, want someone to listen to them.”
The most helpful thing you might be able to do for an aging parent is getting them involved in the local senior center, or other places where they can do activities outside the home, even if they’re one-offs.
“From my experience, what seniors want is to be independent and engage in life without their children. So, if you can take them to something new where they can meet with other people — to a museum or a garden, perhaps — you will be doing them a favor,” Reddick says.
While connecting your aging parents with others may help them (and you) feel more settled in life, some other key forms of care begin at home. These include decluttering the house, estate planning, and helping them get more organized when it comes to bills and bank accounts.
“I also recommend getting your name on your parents’ checkbook so you can help them keep their finances in order,” says Dr. Ange DiBenedetto, a holistic psychotherapist in western Massachusetts. Although it’s sad to admit, people at this age “can go downhill in a heartbeat,” she says. “So I support a lot of planning. It’s reassuring for everyone.” And it doesn’t need to take long.
“Perhaps just get your parents to direct you to where everything is in the house — keys, safety deposit boxes,” DiBenedetto says. And ask them to write down their computer passwords and keep them with the rest of these important items.
... While Caring for Your Kids
The best thing you can do for this cohort is not too dissimilar to what you can do for the seniors in your life: Give them autonomy. This is a golden opportunity for you to run around a little less, and trust your kids with some small responsibilities. For example, do you need to bring your adolescent to their pre-college physical, or can they go solo? Are there school-related errands they can run on their own?
It may be counterintuitive, but “you have to have a little more faith than usual that everything is going to be OK,” says Reddick. Maybe your adolescent isn’t making the same decisions you would for them — but as long as they’re being safe, it’s OK to let them learn through some light trial and error.
And when conflict bares its fangs, you can take care of yourself by lovingly disengaging when appropriate. “Teens are so different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But this is a stage of life when things are getting gritty. And when you can see that a conversation isn’t going anywhere, you can take the liberty to walk away,” Reddick says.
Caring for Yourself
Both DiBenedetto and Reddick underscore the importance of finding time for ourselves during these stretched-thin years.
“From a therapist’s perspective, my first thought when I encounter women in this stage of life is, what kind of support are you getting? Because you’re giving it out on both sides,” DiBenedetto says.
“It’s that old saying, you have to put your oxygen mask on first,” Reddick says. “Don’t feel like you have to rationalize self-care. It is a necessity. The fact of the matter is, you can’t properly care for or give full attention to another person, your career, or your child unless you’re taking care of yourself.”
Giving yourself permission to practice self-care — not that you need anyone’s permission — may be as simple as telling yourself, “I deserve a little in all this,” DiBenedetto says.
And it doesn’t have to mean planning a spa day — or even necessarily seeing a therapist. It’s really more about finding a support system. DiBenedetto recommends connecting with your friends who are facing similar issues. “Use your internal support system to cry, moan, complain — and unburden yourself of the burden.”
Sometimes just dropping the to-do list and going for a walk can give us some time to focus inward. Mindfulness is another coping mechanism, Reddick says. Not necessarily a meditator? Don’t stress it (please). Instead, try to be present when things are going well with the younger or older people in your life.
“Say you’re out walking and you know your mom is feeling well, and you just bonded with your teen over breakfast,” Reddick says. “Sit with that moment and savor it. Take it in. It stays with you longer than you realize.”
Didi Gluck is a New York City-based writer and editor who has covered beauty, health, and fashion for more than 25 years. She has been the beauty and health director of Marie Claire, Shape, Real Simple, Redbook, and MORE, and contributed to InStyle, Allure, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Travel & Leisure, Town & Country, Better Homes and Gardens, PopSugar, and Southern Living.