hang in there

Caring For My Aging Dad & Young Kids Has Taken A Toll On My Health

I continue to tell myself it’s a phase, balancing full lives with our kids, parents, and health — but it’s overwhelming.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock
The Sandwich Generation Issue

Here’s the brutal truth about being a mom of young kids and supporting aging parents: Managing my health takes a backseat to the pressing needs of others in my daily life. It’s yet another job to balance my mental and physical health. The truth is very often, my needs come last.

I’ve rescheduled my dentist appointment three times, and continue canceling a massage that was gifted to me. I haven’t had a haircut since the summer, and my online barre class attendance is sporadic. And why can’t I brush my teeth before 11 a.m.? I don’t drink enough water and my mammogram is overdue. One more appointment, one more task to schedule, is sometimes too much.

My father had a stroke almost two years ago, and flying to be with him, the fallout from missing weeks of work, and coordinating kid school and activities with my partner from across the country took its toll. Life did not stop. I was stressed, sad, burned out, and did not have time to actually feel my feelings. Many of my close friends are going through similar experiences with their parents now: health emergencies, extended hospital stays, coordinating care visits, and dealing with cognitive decline. Are any of us really ready to discuss estate planning, finances, and treatment plans with our parents? These conversations are beyond difficult.

The sadly true video making its rounds on social media captures parents in the crunch of sandwich season. Juggling the challenges of intergenerational care, we often neglect our basic needs. Our mental and physical well-being are put on the back burner to handle the rest of our family. I learned about my health the hard way: I had my first iron infusion last fall. Full plates take a toll on a caregiver's health.

And our kids need us. Just this week our oldest daughter had a knee sprain with a brace and crutches, while my youngest had a double ear infection and sinus infection that landed us in the ER. We were at the doctor’s office five times in two weeks, all while juggling work. Barely keeping up, neither my husband nor I were our best selves during those just-get-through-it, short text-exchange days.

Being sandwiched affects our bodies, minds, and all of our relationships. Stress builds, jaws clench, and fuses are short. We each have our own ways of dealing with the burden of sandwich season: runs, meditation, wine. It’s hard to handle the responsibility. We want to collapse but we keep going.

Caregiving has made me a multitasking pro, Zooming in the grocery store and talking to my sister while I’m peeing. But when our personal scales are off balance, health, sleep, workouts, nutrition, and sex can suffer. There’s even a caregiver intensity score that proves we’re in the red. With high demands and low resources, we’re struggling to stay afloat.

I continue to tell myself it’s a phase, balancing full lives with our kids, our parents, our health, and our goals, but it’s overwhelming.

I’m grateful for close friends also feeling the squeeze. We share our frustration, sending “everything is fine” house-on-fire gifs on our text thread. Sometimes I scream in the car or blast loud punk music. I often find myself texting IT’S TOO MUCH, or WE NEED MORE, because, in this fraught reality, we do.

During this time of big changes and overwhelming life decisions, it’s small moments in a quiet house, or a song that shakes me awake. When I start to slog through, I remind myself that I’m still here, and there is beauty around me.

I don’t want to miss my kids’ soccer games or those funny farting moments from my daughters. Or my favorite: listening to old Rolling Stones albums with my dad on a recent visit home. These crystallized moments are my life. I’m learning to be present and prioritize my health needs however, whenever I can — even if it’s just a deep breath or hot tears. This is living in the glorious messy middle.

When my physical and mental health are struggling, I no longer put on a brave face. I don’t manage it anymore, because I’ve learned: you can’t. I refuse to normalize exhaustion. Before I panic, I hit pause on life, walk outside, and attempt to calm my frazzled nerves. I can slow down; the struggles will still be there when I return.

In the thick of the tough stuff, I think of my favorite Scholastic classroom poster from the ‘80s of a cat dangling by its arms with the words HANG IN THERE across the bottom.

I know it will get easier, but when?

Natalie Serianni is a Seattle-based writer, teacher, and mother of two with work at HuffPost, Insider, ParentMap, and Grown and Flown. She writes about midlife parenting and long-held grief. Find her on Instagram @natserianni.