There are certain things in life that you're never prepared for until they happen.
For example, having a baby. Your friends can warn you about the sleepless nights and the "terrible twos," but it's not until you live it do you fully understand the magnitude of being a parent.
The same goes for caring for an aging parent. I've watched close friends and family members care for their sick and aging parents, while caring for their own young families. However, I never fully comprehended the enormous emotional and psychological toll on the so-called "Sandwich Generation" until now.
The "Sandwich Generation" is a generation of people typically in their thirties or forties who are responsible for bringing up their own children and for the care of their aging parents. That's a lot of responsibility!
I recently got a taste of it when a weekend trip to visit my mom in Massachusetts turned into a month-long trip. My mom has a rare auto-immune disease that landed her in the hospital. She went from a "relatively healthy," active and independent woman working as a real estate agent to a "very sick woman," according to doctors, practically overnight.
My heart ached to see her suffer. The idea of losing my mother - and I came very close to losing her - was terrifying. And, while I was so grateful to be by her side and help advocate for her care, my heart was also torn because I have three young kids at home and a husband who needed me, too. A month is a long time to be away.
I now know that being a member of this Sandwich Generation isn't easy, but neither was raising me - and Mom did it - just like I'm doing it for my own kids.
My friend and colleague Amanda Lamb, who recently lost her dear mother, told me not to feel guilty about being away from my kids. She said kids learn an important lesson from the experience - that we have to take care of our family, especially our aging parents.
We can only hope that our own children will return the favor someday.
Sloane Heffernan is a mom of three and reporter for WRAL-TV.