The end to a long, covid-era hibernation
And a prologue to empty nesting, in which I learn how to be alone again.
Last week’s writer’s block reminded me that it’s easier to write if you’re out there living life—and by “life” I mean getting out of my own head and out into the world. One of the things that struck me while I was skimming through the archived blog was just how much we did as a family when the kids were young. Every weekend we were logging miles, getting our hands messy with paint on family museum days, exploring new parks and playgrounds, driving to farms to pick fruit for the pies we would bake later, and eating our way through NYC. Those early childhood years would build the foundation of what would become fond food memories for the kids—soup dumplings on Mott Street, takoyaki on 9th street, red bean and custard buns on 32nd, jjajangmyeon on Northern. Cravings they already pine for as college students away from home.
In post 9/11 Bloomberg-era NY, the city, for better or worse, was in hyper-development mode and there was always something new to visit and see. We did most things on the free and cheap and I made that my personal mission. I was so adamant to prove to a certain chorus of New Yorkers who were stubborn in their conviction that you couldn’t live in the city for less than $250k a year, that not only was it possible on much less, it was the norm for most families and you could even thrive. We may not have sent our kids to sleepaway camps or vacationed as a family every school break, but I can confidently say that we gave our kids a great NYC childhood.
“Maybe you did it for content,” my cynical voice whispers in my ear. Yeah, well maybe we did? But the less cynical side responds with, “hell yeah! We took advantage of everything the city had to offer!” Otherwise what was the point of making compromises to live in cramped apartments without yards and a driveway? Besides, it was a real joy to relive this city as a parent, walking down familiar streets that I knew like the back of my hand with fresh eyes, and watching the kids fall in love with the all places I loved to go to when I was a kid growing up in NY.
When the golden age of family outings comes to an end
If you have teenagers, then you know that weekend family outings are a limited-time only special and will inevitably turn into battles not long after they hit double digits in age. Aside from the homework that starts to inconveniently seep into weekend plans, teens start to develop prickly reactions when you suggest spending a Saturday at a museum, even if it was an activity they enjoyed when they were young. Look, I get it. Parents, from a teenager’s perspective, are not cool no matter how “cool” of a parent you think you are (we’re not), and at some point they aren’t going to want to hang out with you to gaze at some Hockney painting or take long walks across the Brooklyn Bridge to catch the sunset just for the sake of taking a walk. Sometimes you can still bribe teens with food. It doesn’t always work. The allure to unwind from school and homework by binging on anime is far stronger than anything you can bribe them with, and frankly when that time finally comes along, you might be exhausted from all those years of trekking around with the kids yourself.
As those golden years of family outings waned, our former adventurous selves (“we’re a NYC family doing NYC things!”) turned into serious homebodies. We became so comfortable staying home on weekends that it’s possible we were just returning to our natural state. This new parenting phase also exposed that I didn’t really have as many local friends to do stuff with as I thought. I also didn’t anticipate many of my mom friendships not surviving when our kids moved on to different neighborhood schools. I foolishly and mistakenly thought that these friendships were forged not just for the sake of convenient playdates, but also from real connections. Perhaps I overestimated. Coming off the years of “doing stuff as a family” and “doing stuff with other families” forced me to face the shortcomings of my social life and awkwardly seek new friends, joining my kids each time they embarked on a quest to find their people in a new school landscape. My kids were no longer available to fill the void of companionship, which was never their job to begin with anyway.
If you’re a parent of young children reading this, I know it’s hard to see the forest through the clingy grips of your toddlers, but it will happen and you may wonder just as I did, who am I supposed to do stuff with now? The irony of desperately wanting some alone time those early parenting years was that by the time I got it, I wasn’t quite ready for so much of it. There does come a point where you may miss spending time with your kids even if they are still living under your roof.
But then a pandemic happened
The high school years coincided with the Covid years in our household, and so much of my kids’ adolescence was defined by the time spent inside this apartment. Every day, the kids and I would engage in a waltz of revolving classes, meetings, and assignments that had each of us shut inside our respective rooms in front of our computer for hours, only emerging to forage for food from the fridge. We would sometimes eat together if our schedules allowed, but mostly ate breakfast and lunch in shifts. I know when you’re deep in something, it’s difficult to see how utterly bizarre the circumstance are, but looking back, I think we can all agree that life was truly bizarre back then.
But we were together at least, and despite how surreal and painful the Covid years were, there was also this inexplicable feeling of being safely cocooned together that, dare I say it, I kind of miss, particularly since we have one less kid in the house now. We didn’t build memories in the way that we had planned those high school years with travel and communal celebrations before we sent our oldest off to college, but we did make memories, just not in the way we envisioned. That is the upside of that time. But those 18 months of remote school were time stolen away from their formative teenage years where they’re supposed to tear themselves away from family in preparation for college and independence, and while the extra time I got with them was a gift, it was time together that we weren’t supposed to have. It wasn’t normal.
Out of synch
When both kids went back to school in-person, I found myself alone for the first time in over a year. It seems trivial in the scheme of things and I recognize that WFH is a privilege (Mark has always worked onsite since the very beginning of the pandemic), but to have the rest of the family return to the outside world engaging with people in the flesh while I was still talking to squares on Zoom felt a little like I was getting left behind in that first big step towards normalcy. It was a bigger transition than I thought, learning how to be alone in the house again. It was a rehearsal for when the kids leave for college, an act that will be complete when our youngest goes off next year.
That year, 2021, was dark and in many ways harder than the year before. We were moving on from the collective experience of the pandemic that had us clapping out our windows every night at 7pm and tuning into daily Covid updates from local political leaders because no one really knew what the hell was going on. The thing about grief that always strikes me is how out of sync you become with the rest of the world. The people in your sphere whose support you leaned on eventually move on, but you stay suspended in time, frozen, still processing, still entwined by the grips of grief. Time in that stage can feel like it’s moving incredibly slow as you wait to get pulled out of the fog in search of any kind of clarity. Being alive is to also feel the pain of loss, but life doesn’t stop moving or changing for anyone and this is what can feel so at odds, so out of sync.
I’m not afraid to admit that for the first time in my life, I was fearful of going outside that year. Aside from dealing with a long recovery from an unexpected illness that nearly broke me down (it’s not fun waking up to half your face paralyzed), the rash of attacks on Asians made me not want to leave the house at all. In the first half of that year, I didn’t go beyond a certain vicinity of my neighborhood unless I was accompanied by my very tall, half-white family and when I did venture out, I covered myself in sunglasses, a hat, and a mask. I think many of us wore that “I’m not an Asian target” disguise back then. I wear some version of it still.
This will be the spring of all springs
Every once in awhile in the dead of winter, a 60 degree day will suddenly appear out of nowhere to jolt the city back to life. The sun starts to set in later increments and the light that lingers at 5:30 pm is a marvel. You can almost measure the expanse of daylight grow, as each day gets ticked off on the calendar and we revel in every additional minute of light gained. We had a string of those sunny 60 degree days this month. Just as soon as the calendar flipped from the last day of January to the first of February, I felt myself fall out of a slumber. After a slow and gray start to the year, I met some friends, saw some art. Started to walk inside some stores and restaurants without a mask. Progress.
I look forward to Spring with immense anticipation. It feels like an emergence from a 3 year-long hibernation from these strange Covid times. Maybe you’ve reached that point earlier—we’ve all been acclimating to pre-pandemic life in various degrees of readiness. It’s taken me a long time to shake the last remnants of paralysis and apathy. There’s a lot to look forward to this year and I’m ready. Am I doing it for content now that I’m writing again? Maybe, but if that’s an excuse to start living life again, I’ll take it.
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Wow, Jenna. We are certainly in similar places, both as parents and as COVID-cautious folks wondering about the change in social landscapes. I think about the energy in our house now that the kids have moved out, and I feel both relief/possibility/excitement and longing/lethargy/"now what?" I'm convinced that going through this transition in community will help us all. Glad to be connected here.
I really appreciate how honest and relatable you write. Zero pretension. How refreshing.
We're in the tween/ teenage stage now, and I see all that you've written about here in subtle forms. I know they're going to get more pronounced over the high school years. Trying to navigate it all with as much sense of being present for the kids in whatever ways they need as you seem to have been /are for your kids.
I'm so happy that you're finding a groove in this strange new world we're living in. We're all forever changed by covid.
Thank you Jenna. ❤️