Alana Kirk is an Irish author, freelance writer, mother, and blogger. Her bestselling book Daughter, Mother, Me: A memoir of love, loss and dirty dishes is based on the success of her blog, thesandwichyears.org. She has since updated the name of her blog to Grin and Tonic, where she writes about defining her middle age years.
Caring for You: Thanks for speaking with us, Alana. Your work has been such a resource for us, from your book to your articles on grief, talking about death, and caring for your aging mom and newborn daughter at the same time. Your voice is such an important one in bringing awareness to the sandwich generation.
Can you share how you first found yourself “sandwiched”?
Alana Kirk: For some, I hear the sandwich years arrive gradually...you might not notice until it’s upon you. For me, the sandwich years arrived by ambulance.
My mom was at my third baby’s birth on a Tuesday. She was looking after my other two children. Then, the night before I was due to bring my baby home, she suffered a massive stroke. I spent the next year feeding both my mother and my newborn. My mom was the closest person in my life. I had a conversation with her on a Friday, and she never said my name again for the next five years.
It was incredibly emotionally taxing. I was parenting my three children while grieving for my mom while she was still alive. I felt I’d lost the person she was, even though she was still around.
I didn’t really know how to ask for help, and I ended up with postnatal depression, in quite a bad place. So many people needed me to be strong at the time: my mom, my husband, my kids...I was also trying to build my career.
Caring for You: This all happened so quickly for you – we can imagine you didn’t have much time to prepare. What advice would you have to others who aren’t quite there yet, but may be in the future. Is there anything they can do to set themselves up for this challenging time?
Alana: Definitely. My biggest piece of advice is to have multiple clear conversations, early and often. And it doesn’t always have to be heavy and difficult. You don’t necessarily need to be talking about death – you can talk to your parents about their life, and what kinds of decisions they’d like to make.
Starting early is key. You might decide that it’s easier to help them downsize now, while they're able. My mother had arthritis, so my brother and I persuaded my parents to renovate kitchen and bathroom to create more space. That helped us adapt the home to a place where we could care for her later on. We’d also have very practical conversations about small things we could do to make her life easier, like helping her figure out online shopping to save trips to the stores. I think the key is that we had many conversations over time, rather than one really big one.
We’re being more proactive with my father now. He’s already given power of attorney to my brother, and I have a piece of paper in a safe with all his passwords. But we also have to be careful we don’t overstep and just take over his life. My dad and I have rows when we overstep the mark.
Oh, and I’d advise anyone who’s able to draft a living will. You can lay out in detail what kind of care you’d like, should you be unable to mentally make those decisions in the moment. For example, I want my children to look after me and support me, but I don’t want them to prolong my life, or save my life if I no longer have mental capacity.
Caring for you: Yes, that all makes so much sense. What you said earlier about feeding your mother and newborn daughter at the same time is really sticking with us. Any advice on how to take care of yourself while you’re taking care of everyone else?
Alana: Yes – caregiving can be extremely lonely. So, I’d advise people to build their networks and supports as early as possible. Identify who can be there to help with the burden of parent and child care. And know that there is no selfishness in putting yourself first.
Also, allow yourself to feel what you feel. Or, more bluntly, don’t feel guilty for hating it. I loved my mom and I love my children, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t times when I absolutely hated the fact that the burden was all on me. I had so much guilt about that at the time.
But it’s okay to recognize that what’s happening impacts you. I’d get out the calendar saying “no” to all the social events that were just for me. That was really hard. But there’s this idea that we have to be present all the time when we’re caregiving and love doing it. Of course we love the people we’re caring for, but it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes it’s really hard.