I’m fifty years old. It’s an abominable age for a woman and not just because some mornings there’s so much hair on your chin you resemble a yeti. You see, fifty is an age where a woman is likely to be part of the sandwich club: jammed between her career and caring for her children and parents like a piece of overly ripe cheese and rather drab lettuce. With no relish.
Some women would rather not sign up to the sandwich club as it frequently arrives at the age when the effects of the dreaded menopause take hold. Insomnia, tiredness and hot flushes are common grievances but some women, like me, suffer from more unusual symptoms like road rage, the desire to skewer politicians with a meat fork, and lusting after David Tennant. Sadly, as the sandwich club age is the one most likely to be filled with responsibilities, there’s very little time to drool over younger men for more than a few minutes. And if there’s a choice between working and coping with demanding teenagers and elderly relatives or finding the time or money to spend on yourself, inevitably a sandwich mum’s needs sink to the bottom of the pile.
|Being a sandwich mum can take it toll. This mum is so overwrought she|
can't even find her mouth.
Another unfortunate side effect of being an overworked mum absorbed in everyone else’s problems is that you’re flummoxed or shocked by your own problems, especially during the menopause. I was upset when I discovered my waist had thickened to the extent that I could pass for a Teletubby, but I was distraught when I lost my car keys for three weeks and then found them in the fridge. However, my absolute worst moment was when, aged 48, I discovered a grey pubic hair. It was a moment of total terror quickly followed by a torrent of crazed thoughts including: “Oh God I’ll never have sex again!”, “Should I get a Brazilian?” and “Does pubic hair fall out with age?” Luckily, I had to dash off on the school run before any ideas about fashioning my pubic hair into a comb-over took root. Two years later I still haven’t contemplated my dilemma any further - although I’m fearful the next time I dare look I may find my beaver looks more like a badger.
But the truth is no matter how much sandwich club women want to be in control of their lives, the day-to-day struggles of living mean plans and aspirations can fly out the window at any time. All of our decisions, big or small, pose moral dilemmas. One of my friends chose to send her poorly child into school with a sachet of Calpol in their lunch bag rather than endure the flak of missing a critical meeting. Another was forced to choose between finding a care home for her mother, moving her in with her family, or facing a 200-mile round trip every weekend to check on her. Another had to tell her son he couldn’t play in the school football team because parents were responsible for travel arrangements and she couldn’t take the days off work.
Like my friends, sometimes I’ve had to prioritise. The decision to switch from full-time to part-time work when my husband and I were in negative equity but childcare was becoming a monumental struggle was a tough call. But perhaps not as hard as my friend’s decision to give up her job to care for her 88-year-old father with Alzheimer’s. Fortunately, her siblings agreed to pay her a wage from her father’s estate so she wasn’t financially disadvantaged but, no doubt, had he lived for a long time and his funds run dry then the pressure on her to be both carer and part-provider or to place him in a state-funded care home would have mounted.
|Elderly parents can sometimes be very unpredictable and require |
After her father’s death, my friend was left with having to jump-start her career and worry about her pension, which can be another problem for women who have at some point forsaken their careers or put them on the backburner. It can be disheartening in middle-age to find yourself at the bottom of the job pile again knowing the little you earn is going to help pay for your child’s university bills, your mum’s home help or the latest overpriced gadget for your teenager when what you’d really like is a holiday or a facial to boost your flagging self-esteem. And a gap in your CV, even if filled with numerous voluntary roles, is equivalent to having the plague. Trust me I know. I have the career equivalent of the plague and syphilis. I’ve come to hate job application forms, especially ones which insist you list every period you didn’t work, the reasons why you left, every exam you’ve ever taken and your sexual preference. (After 8 pm with Mr Tennant.) It’s like the Spanish Inquisition. The only question they don’t ask is when you last broke wind. Worse, since I’m a child of a less politically incorrect era, if I do manage to get as far as an interview I inevitably blow it apart with inappropriate responses. Sadly, I’ve learnt that the answer to “What are your personal weaknesses?” is not “chocolate”.
So life in the sandwich zone can be very frustrating when you’re being squeezed from so many sides. Especially when you don’t have the same youthful energy, no longer recognise yourself in the mirror, and the only time you’ve ever fashionably layered your clothes is when you’ve had a run of hot flushes. Every sandwich woman, no matter what hours she works, has at some point either failed to change her knickers, worn her cardigan inside-out or forgotten where she’s parked her car. I’ve done all three. On the same day.
Unfortunately, society places so many expectations on women now that it’s almost impossible not to at least momentarily consider what others think of you. Life is so public and so competitive that if you aren’t constantly posting Facebook status updates and pictures of your busy life you could easily feel a failure. In addition, those annoying coined phrases like “Super Mum” and “Having it all” rather than inspire, only serve to remind us of our inadequacies. (Mine are an extensive history of burning pizzas, pans, sofas, carpets and just about any combustible material as well as the ability to reverse into parked cars with alarming regularity.) In fact I’d happily consign all those silly phrases to Room 101 (alongside celebrity chefs, support pants and tights which collect around your ankles) because sandwich mums do not need reminders that they’re not Hollywood stars or CEOs with perfect kids, perfect teeth and the ability to whip up a perfect broccoli smoothie at a moment’s notice. And what’s more, we don’t care. Chiefly this is because we’re realists and a pretty sensible lot, but it’s also because anyone with any common sense hates broccoli smoothies.
|This is a kale smoothie. It also tastes gross. Looks can be very deceiving.|
Despite all the problems and difficult choices I’ve faced in my life, I know I’m extraordinarily lucky to have had so many opportunities and the freedom that has been, and is, denied to so many women. I’m thankful I’ve never used a twin tub like my mother or a mangle like my grandmother, and I’ve never had to chain myself to railings to be heard. Yet, when I reflect upon my own life and the lives of my friends, I can’t help thinking that female emancipation has brought us a new set of problems as we attempt to compete with men in the workplace and value ourselves more in monetary terms.
It’s unsettling that modern life now has so many costs attached to it: the cost of childcare, the cost of parenting, the cost of living. I don’t think we can ever escape those financial burdens, so sandwich club ladies just have to do whatever they need to survive. Like women have always done. Sometimes it’s choice, sometimes it’s necessity.
Perhaps what’s most important, as women challenge their traditional role in society and continue to push open the door to equality, is to be true to yourself, know you made your best decisions and don’t live a life of regret. Being a sandwich mum can be exhausting but it can also be very rewarding and a lot of fun. So whatever your struggles, as you seek out your own path to love, laughter and fulfilment, always look forwards never backwards. And when the going gets tough put on your best lippy, smile, and keep on walking.