Updated at 5:57 p.m. ET on January 14, 2020.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I stood with my 13-year-old son in a long line stretching over the West Side Highway, cars careening below us. He was waiting to take an entrance exam for a specialized high school, a sacred moment, and yet I kept glancing at my phone to check the time. I had to meet my mother to tour an apartment because my childhood home in the East Village had burned down the week prior—a month after my father was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. My parents, who are in their 70s, were too overwhelmed to handle the logistics of finding a sublet on their own. On that day, and just about every day these past few months, I had to choose between caring for one family member or another. With so many crises under way, caring for myself hasn’t really been on the table.
Like me, many educated, middle-class women in Generation X, those born from 1965 to 1980, are experiencing a different middle age than our mothers and grandmothers did. As a generation, X is small, a great baby bust, and we are now caring for the far larger generations that tower over us on either side—often while working full-time. Since the 1980s, middle-aged adults have been called the “sandwich generation,” wedged between caring for their parents and raising their kids. But this metaphor feels too innocuous for what Gen X is going through. I find myself drawn to a less friendly analogy: not that of fresh Wonder Bread slices gently squishing us, but that of panini grills pressing us flat.
According to Amy Goyer, AARP’s national family and caregiving expert and the author of Juggling Life, Work, and Caregiving, women in Generation X face unique challenges compared with their predecessors. “More women are working. When you’re trying to work while juggling caregiving, and trying to have a life and maintain your primary relationship, it really affects you,” she told me. Our parents and grandparents are living longer than ever before (my 102-year-old grandmother just entered hospice). Goyer explained that these older adults may have complicated, chronic health conditions that require expensive and time-consuming treatments. “There are more treatments, more medications, more things to be looking out for,” she added. “It’s a lot of pressure.”
And caregiving is often very expensive. When a woman leaves work to care for a sick relative, the potential cost of lost wages and Social Security benefits could average $324,000 during her lifetime. “Boomers weren’t great about saving,” Goyer said. Gen Xers “may find themselves contributing more and more toward their parents’ care and finances … and the costs of care are on the rise.” Caring for an aging relative costs $7,000 a year on average, but increases when the relative has dementia or lives a long distance away.* In addition, the divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early ’80s, meaning that many Gen Xers are children of divorce—something that can complicate caring for parents now.
If Boomer parents are pulling on one end of the rope in a game of tug-of-war, Millennial and Gen Z kids may be yanking on the other. Gen Xers’ delay in childbearing means that many may find themselves either struggling with infertility or raising little kids in their 40s. Generation X is downwardly mobile as costs are rising, but we’re working hard to give our children advantages that we didn’t have. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2015, the estimated cost of raising a child born to middle-class parents from birth to the age of 17 was $233,000, not including college tuition. The amount rose 40 percent from 2000 to 2010. One friend of mine told me the other day, “I grew up an ‘at-risk youth.’ My Barbie clothes were all made of scraps of leftover fabric. My daughter goes to French-immersion school.”
Goyer told me that she believes women’s 40s and 50s are ideally a time to find their true calling and focus on themselves, but that today, many “women are too busy to even think about it.” AARP reports that although men do more these days to take care of the elderly and children, the average caregiver is a 49-year-old working woman. And the demands of caregiving seem likely to only increase. In 2010, the ratio of possible caregivers to people needing care was 7 to 1, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. By 2030, the ratio is predicted to be 4 to 1; and by 2050—about when we will be needing care ourselves—the ratio will be 3 to 1. If nothing changes, this caregiving crisis is likely to hit Millennials and Gen Z even harder than it has hit Gen X. Knowing that I’m right in the center of my generation’s caregiving struggle is some comfort. At least I’m not alone.
As I waited with my son for his test, word filtered back that the kids could go into the building and parents could leave. I wished him good luck, then sprinted to the subway. On the walk to the potential new apartment, I took a work call, then I met with my mother and the landlord. The place seemed like it would do, so I wrote down the details of the security deposit and the move-in date. I took my mother out to lunch and then we took some food to my father. Looking down at my phone, I saw that my son’s exam was due to end soon, so I got back on the subway and reported to the prearranged pickup spot.
When I arrived, another mother told me the test had started late and the dismissal time was delayed. She was in the middle of high-school admissions too; our kids had even toured some of the same places. As the minutes of our wait turned into an hour, we joked that of course we had an hour to spare, what else did we have to do? We sat together as it got colder and windier, waiting for our children to come bustling out of the building.
“Take time for yourself,” the women’s magazines say. “Practice self-care.” What they mean is that once a week I should take an hour for highlights or a massage or an exercise class. What I hear is that I should treat myself by paying someone to help me look less tired than I am, because no one wants to see that. And I do some of those things. But the only thing I’ve found that actually helps is being in the company of other women, like the one I sat with for that hour in front of the school. Laughing about school admissions, about the cold, about how ridiculous it all is, that’s what we really need—not self-care, but solace.
* This article previously misstated the average cost of caring for an aging relative.