The Sandwich Parent: Caring for Your Child and Your Parents


If you are a mom in your 40s, you might feel like a piece of meat stuck in the middle of a family sandwich.

That is, you may routinely vacillate between caring for aging parents (or in-laws) and your young child. In our family’s case, my husband could simultaneously push a wheelchair and a stroller. He turns 50 in another month. It’s not a unique phenomenon. With many of us delaying our families until we have other pieces of our lives under control, we are caught somewhere between choosing to save for our own retirement or our children’s college funds–and wondering where our aging parents might live. We are the meat stuck between two pieces of bread–and it’s no baloney.Walking with cane

We stay awake at night thinking about how we will care for and support our elderly parents and our young children at the same time.

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half (47 percent) of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older, and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child (age 18 or older). And about one-in-seven middle-aged adults (15 percent) is providing financial support to both an aging parent and a child. The financial part isn’t a concern for us at this point; but time is certainly valuable and we want to spend it wisely.

My mother-in-law is 80 and absolutely adores our two-year-old, who visits her every Sunday.

Pushing baby with walker.She often pushes him down the hallways of her elderly apartment complex using her walker. They read stories together, practice the alphabet, and pore over family photos. We sadly lost her husband (my former father-in-law) to cancer three years ago, so she lives alone but enjoys the company of other residents in her complex. She’s led a fairly independent life without him, but faces another hip replacement surgery this spring. We know she’ll be okay, but we worry about her recovery and future.

My husband’s sisters are 53 and 62; one is a grandparent and the other is an empty-nester. They live hours away and have been awesome about pitching in and helping out. We live 10 miles down the road and wish we could do more to help, but also juggle jobs and an active toddler. It’s a tough balance to strike: how do you plan for the future and take care of the people on the lower and upper ends of the age spectrum?

U.S. World & News Report provides tips to ensure you survive your “sandwich parent” years.

Such tips include being proactive about finances (both your own and your parents’), choosing retirement over college savings, and involving siblings in family decision making. I think we are following these pretty well. But the article doesn’t touch upon how to manage your time without feeling like you are neglecting anyone. And self-care? Not sure how that fits into the equation. 

My son knows many of the residents of my mother-in-law’s building by name.

Giving grandma a kissHe rides up and down the elevator with Martin. He’ll knock on Sally’s door to see if she’ll answer. Nestled in Marie’s lap, he practices counting to 10. And he’ll wave to anyone doing their wash in the laundry room. Most of all, he loves Grammy and can’t wait to run through her door. And when my mother-in-law sees him, she breaks out into a big smile. There’s an extra spring in her step as she walks with him, one hand on her cane, the other entwined with his little hand. And in that moment, no one feels like a piece of the sandwich: our hearts are all full.