By KIRSTEN D. LEVINGSTON
For Montclair Local
Kirsten D. Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the
side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet.
Of the countless special moments coronavirus has denied us this year, let’s add to the list the official start of life as an empty-nester. When Montclair High School virtually graduated my girl and her 2020 classmates in July, before the ink dried on her diploma friends and family began asking: “How does it feel to be an empty-nester?”
I wish I knew.
I couldn’t wait to slurp the lumpy stew of feelings parents are served when their kids move away. After two decades of parenting I’d earned the right to enjoy my empty-nest moment even if it meant going through what online pregnancy and parenting resource Verywell Family calls “empty-nest syndrome” (ENS), the five signs of which are loss of purpose, lack of control, emotional distress, marital stress and anxiety about one’s children.
Current events stole that clarifying moment from me, muddying the cause of my psychic and emotional troubles. I’m exhibiting four of the five symptoms Verywell associates with ENS — I’m rethinking my purpose in life, am frustrated over my lack of control, jump from sad to mad to despairing (and that’s just while sipping my morning coffee), and constantly worry about my kids.
If only my husband and I didn’t continue to enjoy each other’s company, I’d be five for five.
But is ENS causing my woes? Might one of 2020’s other epic events, like our national reckoning with racial oppression or the global pandemic, be serving up my empty nest stew?
I am reimagining my life’s purpose. Why? Because of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others, and now the shooting of Jacob Blake seven times, point blank, in the back. Our town’s multiple summer protest marches and the proliferation of yard signs asserting that Black Lives Matter show that many of us are reflecting on racial injustice and taking action to do something, something, to make our community and country more just.
No doubt COVID-19 is contributing to my sense of lack of control. This year I had plans up the wazoo: Attend that conference in Berlin; vacation in London; make several college visits; move my daughter into her freshman dorm. Poof — plans gone — along with dreams of securing the perks of reaching United Airlines’ highest frequent-flier status! Day to day I can’t even control people from entering my 6-foot perimeter while I’m grocery shopping.
Anxiety about one’s children is so enduring it probably shouldn’t even be associated with empty-nest syndrome. “Parent” is spelled w-o-r-r-i-e-r. One winter, growing up, my husband observed this dynamic between his neighbors: Mrs. Smith (we will call her) and her son were preparing to leave their house. As the 100-year-old mother put on her coat, she sternly reminded her 80-year-old son to put on his gloves. There it is.
To be sure, those of us sending our kids out into the world today have some real worries, like whether they have ample supplies of hand sanitizer, face masks and disinfectant wipes. Sending off my imp involved me suiting up for a cross-country flight to California, looking like I was on my way to defuse a nuclear bomb. Had my mask (and a spare), face shield (and a spare), multiple bottles of hand sanitizer and four hours and 30 minutes of prayers. As already established we have no control, so … we continue to do what we’ve always asked our children to do — the best they can.
Knowing what’s causing my emotional turmoil will help me tailor my response to it. If it’s ENS, adopting that American Staffordshire terrier and Siberian husky mix from the local animal shelter might cure what ails me. If the root causes are COVID and racial unrest, the treatment will be more involved.
To my fellow members of the empty-nester class of 2020 — cheers to you! Our commencement may not be playing out as we pictured it would, but we will make the best of this situation, just as our kids are.