The older I get the more interesting life becomes. Each twist and turn leads to a new way of being and a new level of thinking. However, changes from one phase of life to another sometimes come through convulsions or turbulence rather than smooth turns. After spending over a decade learning to embrace my status as a single parent, I have now discovered that I am also a member of the so-called sandwich generation. I am sandwiched between raising my children and caring for my mother. While one can understand the term "sandwich generation" because I must learn to care for the person who cared for me from birth, while I also continue to nurture the children whom I birthed, the term may also have a negative connotation.
Sensitive to the negative images sometimes associated with others categories or labels that I fall into such as divorced, single mother, or African American, I considered closely the discourse related to the sandwich generation and I found that I disagree with the connotations conjured up by the term. For example, sandwiches are made up of elements that are squished together and then devoured. For the most part, my mother, children, and I are individuals who are bonded, but not consumed by each other. Additionally, as an obese African American woman I am trying to minimize unnecessary connections to food. Therefore, my main purpose in this essay is to challenge the implied discourse of the sandwich generation label and offer a more positive imaginary for those in a similar position.
Rather than being sandwiched between my 81 year old, widowed mother and my teenagers, I believe I am a bridge to these two generations. At times, the two generations actually support me in many ways. My mom's love has nourished me beyond measure and the joy my son and daughter have brought to life keeps me going. Facilitating the ways of being in my household between my mother's perspective on life and my teenagers' views, while challenging, has had several rewards.
Therefore, instead of a sandwich, I am a bridge over the generation gap in my family. Language is one of the greatest gaps between my mom and her grandchildren. With one foot in each generation, I frequently must interpret the slang of our youth for my mother. Teens have shortened and altered versions of the Standard English spoken by my mother. My mother became highly troubled hearing my daughter speak in Ebonics, in the comfort of our home, until I explained the notion of code switching many ethnic-minority children must do between their home persona and school persona. Even so, I have directed my children to keep the Ebonics to a minimum in her presence, as she is reluctant to perceive the altered speech as a creative expression.
As a bridge over the troubled waters of the generation gap in my household, I must seek ways to preserve our family history and foster our family's future. This means I must bridge my mother's experiences as a child of The Depression with my daughter's experiences as a teen during today's recession. The treasured conversations that ensue provide a coping mechanism beyond measure. Listening to my mother's accounts of life in The Depression enables us all to appreciate the history and better understand our experiences today. We also come to realize and appreciate that no matter how rough life appears to be today, we are in a better position than my mom's family had back then. Best of all, we know that survival is possible and some of the survival strategies from those times, as told by mom, gives us ideas for coping today.
As a bridge, I make sure that I do not get lost between the two generations of my mother and teenagers. Instead, I am an important conduit for the flow of everyday life in our household. At times I have to be a drawbridge separating the flow between generations so that I can focus on me. I am a trestle bridge at times because I've been constructed and equipped with indestuctible supports. First, and foremost, my faith reminds me that I will never have any more put on me than I can possibly bear.
Last year, the first of my two teenagers flew the coop for college after his high school graduation. Of course, this event was accompanied by the convoluted emotions of joy for his success and sadness for his 'sudden' departure from my everyday life after 18 years. But, I am learning to read the signs ahead of the journey. My son's graduation also signaled the start of a four-year march towards my status as an empty nester. Rest assured, three years from now when my youngest begins her college years, I will have thought of another way to interpret my nest other than as empty.
A member of the UGA College of Education faculty, Dr. Cheryl Fields-Smith is currently an assistant professor of elementary education in the Department of Elementary and Social Studies Education. She received her doctorate from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to beginning work on her Ph.D., she taught elementary school for eight years in Connecticut, grades 1, 2 and 4. Her research interests include family involvement, sociocultural context of teaching and learning, and multicultural education.