Most people my age are part of the “sandwich generation” – squeezed between the constant demands of marriage, children, and aging parents. Their schedules are packed with family birthdays, school activities, college visits, and holiday planning. My schedule looks nothing like that, which all too often leaves me feeling like chopped liver – without the bread.
For better or worse, I’m in a vastly different place in life than 99.9% of my forty-something contemporaries. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be isolating. And feeling isolated is familiar to me.
As a child, I grew accustomed to feeling like I was on the outside looking in. As far as I knew at the time, I was the only ten-year old who had watched her father die. I was the only fifth grader who went home after school to an angry, clinically depressed, despondent widow. I couldn’t relate to my grade-school friends, whose biggest troubles in life were deciding which new toy to buy with their allowance or who to invite for a sleepover. I always wished my life were more “normal.”
Looking ahead and imagining my adulthood, I pictured something far different from my reality today. I assumed I’d be one of the first of my peers to get married and have kids. Then, I could start a brand new life, free of my mom’s anger, criticism, and alcoholism. If I couldn’t bring my father back and restore what had been lost, I would create my own new happy family.
But life had other plans for me. I married at age 30 – the wrong guy – and kids were never to be. I felt like a failure, without the family that would resemble everyone else’s, and that I imagined would make my life complete.
So here I am, still on the outside looking in. I have friends without kids, and I know many people who have lost a parent, but few who have lost both, even among friends much older than I am. I don’t think I know anyone personally who has no parents and no children.
At one point I considered starting an online community for people like me. Something like FortySomethingChildlessOrphanedDivorcees.com. But I’m fairly certain my subscribers would consist solely of me, myself, and I.
Instead, I’ll share a few lessons I’ve picked up from my situation. My circumstances may be relatively unique, but the feelings of loss, insecurity, worry and stress are something most of us experience at some point, certainly during midlife.
1. No matter what your relationship with your parents is or was, you will miss them when they are gone. While there are exceptions, for most of us, losing a parent hurts, whatever your relationship. I’ve lived almost a quarter of my life without parents, and I still miss them. Even if you only have one parent left, you’re fortunate.
2. No one loves you like a parent does. They may express it awkwardly, but most parents love their sons and daughters unconditionally. Trust me when I say that I’d settle for some of my mom’s worst parenting rather than no parenting at all. On her worst days, and there were many, I still knew how much she cared.
3. You won’t remember as much as you think after they are gone. Memories fade, so get busy making as many memories as you can while you can. Be sure to record them in photos, journals, and videos. Interview your parents and document their stories. A significant piece of your family history dies when your last parent departs, and you can never get it back.
4. Spend quality time with your loved ones, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Be grateful for what you do have, not bitter for what you don’t. Don’t wish your life away with “destination-ism,” i.e. “I’ll be happy when I __________.” Find reasons to be happy today with your life now.
5. It’s scary not having a ‘safety net’ at any age. Even if you never had to use it, when the parental safety net is gone it feels a bit scary. Fortunately, I didn’t need to call on my mom for help very often, and when she helped, there were often strings attached. But ultimately I knew she would be there for me. After she died, I felt like I was in free-fall, with no one to catch me ever again.
6. You may feel some relief and freedom, and that’s okay. After I got over the intense sadness and grief of losing my mom, I started to feel something totally unexpected: relief, and freedom. I initially felt guilty about these feelings. According to Death Benefits, by Jeanne Safer, these feelings are normal and not unusual.
7. There’s freedom in being child-free, too. While I don’t have anything to compare my child-free lifestyle to, I can recognize that not having to raise children can have its benefits as well. This may not be what I would have chosen, but I haven’t had to deal with the emotional roller coaster of raising kids, or the financial squeeze so many of my friends go through.
8. Milestones, good or bad, are tough when you’re flying solo. Who do you call when you get a promotion, buy a house, or celebrate a big birthday? What about receiving bad news or winding up in the hospital? For me, this has been a tough year of relocation, divorce, health issues, and other personal challenges. On the one hand, I wish I had a mother or father who would listen and assist. Conversely, I see my assumptions about relationships. My own mother probably wouldn’t have done many of these things with me even if she were still alive.
9. When facing challenges, social media can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Depending on the day and mood, social media can bring comfort, smiles, and community. If I write about my parents, it’s helpful when everyone chimes in with their memories of them. Friends who have lost a parent can express their feelings, and I can offer support and understanding. Other days, it’s bittersweet to see “happy posts” and photos of parents proudly displaying their children and grandchildren. Especially around the holidays, others enjoying family time makes my sense of loss more pronounced.
10. Change your perspective with positive thoughts and self-talk. To combat feelings of failure, loss or loneliness, I focus on the positives in my life – a career I that affords me independence, and flexibility that comes in having no parents and no children. I can view my life as child-free and parent-free, as opposed to childless and parentless, and I’m sure there are many in the sandwich generation who would love to have my abundance of uninterrupted time. I also look at the positives in a wonderful relationship, and I am truly grateful for that, and for my friends and family who have helped me through tough times. Surrounding yourself with optimistic, supportive people helps to maintain a positive outlook.
The bottom line is this. Let’s cut each other some slack! Everyone is shouldering a burden of some sort. Many people are facing much tougher circumstances than I have – financial dramas, serious illness, caring for sick children, and caring for aging or dying parents. I admire their endurance, and I pray for them.
We never know what battles people are fighting by looking at them or even knowing them. So couldn’t we suspend judgment and show them some kindness? And give yourself a break too – loving yourself despite failures or setbacks.
In a way, this is like parenting each other and ourselves – with a show of unconditional love.
© Andrea Clement
Andrea Clement Santiago is a career advice columnist, writer, and communications professional with a background in medical sales, training, and healthcare recruiting. She is the Guide to Health Careers for About.com. She has contributed to books, journals, websites and has made media appearances on television and radio. Visit her blog, No Parents No Problem. Follow Andrea on Twitter at @AndreaSantiago, or connect with her on LinkedIn.
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