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The Earnheardts | Living my best 'sandwich generation' life

One piece of bread is my mom. The other piece is my kids. I'm stuck in the middle taking care of them both.
The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie, and Ella.

It doesn't matter that I'm almost 51 years old, I still can't escape my mother.

To be fair, she’s a really good mom. If I really wanted to escape her, I wouldn't have devised a plan to move her from Brackenridge, Pa. to Youngstown more than 10 years ago. 

The fact is, I’m not really trying to escape her. 

Her latest maternal mission is working on my relationship with my little brother, Jeremy. Every conversation I have with her includes some news about Jeremy, and at the end of nearly every conversation, she gently rebukes me for not replying to one of his texts or not calling him enough.

We also have a sister, Jennifer. Alas, Jennifer tells me she never gets this kind of pressure from my mom. This special treatment is only reserved for her eldest child, yours truly.

Mom has even gone so far as to call my three oldest kids, getting them to reinforce her message — which, of course, they happily do because they have no loyalty to their father. Plus, they know I’ll be slightly annoyed. When grandma calls, my eldest daughter, Ella, will roam the house, room to room, like Paul Revere on horseback, shouting “Grandma is calling! Grandma is calling!” — all the while with a smirk on her face. 

This has only gotten worse during the pandemic as we try to keep our distance from my mom who has already had COVID and seen her fair share of hospital rooms and rehab facilities. Still, I know it brings Ella great joy to annoy me from time to time. So, if the prospect of annoying her father also gets Ella to answer the phone when grandma calls, I’m here for it.

What I’m not here for is constantly trying to reassure my mom that I think about my siblings often. I’m not here for trying to constantly comfort her with the phrase, “I just talked to Jeremy (or Jennifer) today…”  After all, I do talk to my siblings. OK, well maybe we text more than we talk these days, but hey, we’re communicating. And if I see that my bro or my sis are calling, I always answer the phone. They know that if I don’t answer, it means I’m at work or managing one of the million things happening in our far-too-busy Earnheardt lives. 

My siblings and I are a pretty close bunch and we even got together regularly pre-pandemic. For this reason, it took me a while to figure out why my Mom was so insistent. Then it hit me: At one of her recent doctor visits, she admitted that she’s afraid she is going to die soon. It’s not that she’s afraid of dying. She’s afraid of leaving behind unfinished business with children who have unresolved business. 

I'm not young, but I don't think it matters how old you are. No one wants to think about dying. Moreover, no one wants to think about losing their parents. I’m still upset about my Dad’s death, mostly because I wasn’t there when he passed. That was over a decade ago. He was in and out of the hospital so much that I wrongly assumed I’d have another chance to set things straight, to let him know he was a good Dad, to tell him we were going to be OK.

Grappling with losing my mom is a gut punch every time I think about it, because I want her to know the things I couldn’t tell my Dad — to set things straight, to let her know she’s a good mom, to let her know we’re going to be OK (and that my siblings and I will all take good care of each other). 

I wish her fears were unfounded, but she's been no stranger to hospitals and doctors' offices for years. During the pandemic, her health has declined even more. I can't blame her for starting to think about the end. 

Who hasn’t thought about the end over the last 18 months? If you’re old enough to have suffered the loss of a loved one, the pandemic has likely only heightened your concern for the most vulnerable family members and doubled your resolve to protect them. 

Think about how hard the last few years have been for family caregivers. COVID has isolated older adults from their children and grandkids. If there’s one thing we know about older parents: they want more, not less, access to their children and grandkids. 

It’s the inevitable truth we all learn at some point. When we're young, it seems like we have an endless supply of days. But in the twilight of our lives, a year is a gigantic sacrifice. Years feel like decades when we’re kids. Decades now feel like years, years like months, days like minutes.

Mom is looking to me for reassurance. Her firstborn, now second in command, is to be responsible for maintaining relationships with his siblings. I know she's right, but I find myself resisting. And it’s not the whole truth. My sister and brother do their fair share of keeping us connected. Yet, I sense their resistance as well.

For the last two years, I've been in a position similar to so many other adult kids. The Internet calls us “the sandwich generation.” One piece of bread is my mom. The other piece is my kids. I'm stuck in the middle taking care of them both. This also has the added fun of happening to people when, in our professional lives, job expectations are very high, the fruits of our labor feel somewhat low or inadequate, and we’re constantly scraping to move up, or on, or out. 

Thanks, COVID.

This is a tough position at any time, but the pandemic has been the Heinz ketchup on my sandwich. Some people might like ketchup on their sandwiches. For me, yuck! Hamburgers, yes. But on a sandwich? It just makes everything extra messy.

The point is, caregiving is never easy, but the isolation, medical rationing and fear of sickness and death has made many of us — stuck in the middle — feel the undying crush of responsibility. As we start to come out of this, I'm a little wary of adding things to my plate (no side of chips or dill pickle, thank you very much), but — I promise Mom — I’ll always take care of my family. 

Remember, too, when you see a middle-aged man with a permanent look of concern on his face, or a frazzled lady with both adult and children's diapers in her Sam’s Club shopping cart, give them a smile. 

The one person a sandwiched caregiver never has energy for is themselves.

Adam Earnheardt is professor of communication at YSU and executive director of the Youngstown Press Club. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn. 

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