The Sandwich Generation.. how did it all start?

In the second of a series, our guest blogger describes life as a member of the Sandwich Generation.

When I first heard about the “sandwich generation” I immediately identified myself as part of this group – except that I felt more like a half-eaten, fish paste sandwich than one of the lovely, wholesome cheese and chutney sandwiches I create with my own home-made bread and apple chutney.  Why is this?  Hasn’t it always been the case that women like me, in their 50s, are squashed somewhere between demanding offspring and possibly grandchildren, as well as older parents and relatives?  Well yes, and yet, no.

In my 20s I launched headlong into marriage and then motherhood rather more easily and quickly than I could get to grips with a new iPhone these days.  Whilst I felt I had chosen it, the pathway had been mapped out for me in many ways, for many generations before me.  The freedom of what turned out to be a claustrophobically controlling marriage, was at the time eminently more enticing than staying at home with my rather strict parents.  The biggest difference between then and now is that when I left home, I really did leave home.  I chose to set up home in a nearby town to my parents, but in some ways it might have been Mars.  In my day (a phrase I find myself thinking a lot, despite vowing that I would never continue my mother’s habit of prefacing every criticism with this), girls were brought up to be good capable housewives.  I would often be interrupted from my school homework to knock up an apple pie for passing visitors, or run up a PE (I expect it’s called something else this week) bag for my brother who was often losing his down unprotected manholes on the way to school – health and safety had yet to be dreamed up.  Newly married and installed in my excruciatingly hard saved-up-for first home with a very fixed landline, I could no more have squandered money on a phone call to my mum for advice on how to iron a shirt than fly to the moon.  It was also a matter of pride and courtesy; I would never have wanted to offend my mother by letting her think for a moment that she had left gaps in my domestic education.

It’s almost unthinkable for people of my daughters’ generation – and absolutely impossible for my grandchildren – to imagine what it is like to be completely uncontactable, but this is how life was.  I remember telling my daughters how at the age of 12 I had gone on a ten-mile cycle trip with a friend.  Upon reaching our destination, I got a puncture.  Fearing a telling off for not having taken a repair kit along and not having 2p for the phone box in any case, my friend and I walked the whole way home.  When the howls of laughter and the miming of violins had subsided, in between screeches of incredulity, my daughter asked why on earth I hadn’t asked to borrow a stranger’s mobile.  She no doubt assumed mine had died – this explains why present day regular ’emergencies’ start with a phone call from a stranger’s phone number.  She simply could not conceive of a world in which the first thought on her lips in any challenging situation wasn’t “Mum?”  I tried to explain that no 12-year-old of my time would have carried enough money to get on a train, and the very last thing I’d have done -even if somehow possible – was drag one of my parents away from their leisurely afternoon reading of the newspaper. But it fell on deaf and unbelieving ears.    My daughters are grown women, and they are never a nanosecond away from their phones and therefore help, advice or a lift from me.  This is where the sandwiching started I believe.

Our generation was slower to embrace technology than our babies who grew up with it, and our ageing parents who earned huge kudos and respect for attending those free silver surfer classes in their ample retirement spare time.  We sandwiches naively thought mobile phones were for making phone calls whilst on the move, whilst our children were busy WhatsApp-ing our parents dangling from the Grand Canyon or climbing over the Sydney Bridge (parents and children are interchangeable here).  It took all my wit for me to get my phone to stay silent during work meetings so that when a daughter phoned to ask me how to make scones, I didn’t have to share this tutorial with my colleagues.

The point is that those of my daughters’ generation and younger, expect me to be constantly available and connected at all times, because thanks to technology, they think it is their birth right, and it’s all they know. They don’t experience what it is like to go on holiday and be completely out of contact.  When one daughter went to India, within an hour of arrival she was Skyping me, showing me her surroundings and involving me in her world again.

On the other side of the sandwich, the technologically empowered older generation seems to have skipped smartly from early retirement to completely unreasonable expectations.   My mother comes from the generation of women who regard women’s work as rather more of a chosen hobby than necessity.  On one particularly tedious day when my mother and one of my daughters were simultaneously moaning that I wasn’t available enough for them, my mother very self-righteously told me how I had my priorities all wrong, and that I shouldn’t be so selfishly sacrificing our relationship on the altar of my career.  Try as I might to explain that I work in order to help service our fantastically large mortgage, which helped finance the fairly large home that my whole extended family regularly and effortlessly enjoy being entertained in, I kept hearing the words “pin money” and how “in my day, people were more important than things”.  I’ve been so nicely brought up that to this day I still can’t answer my mother back – my daughters have no such hang-ups – and so like fluffy, soft white bread I just absorb the barbs, the criticism, the large doses of sarcasm until I am a docile, compliant, squashed sandwich.

That’s how we got here – bolshie, independent, techno-savvy parents on the one slice, and needy, vocal children on the other, who can never quite be arsed to cut the apron strings, just in case they might need something…