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By Helen Schulman
Ms. Schulman’s novel “Lucky Dogs” will be published by Knopf next summer.
Last week, when it had been more than two days since I’d heard from my young adult children — Zoë, 26, and Isaac, 23 — I sent a text to our family chat: “Smoke signals, please.”
My request, which the kids have grown used to receiving, was met this time with a reassuring emoji of a puff of smoke from my son and a picture of Taco Bell’s new oversized Cheez-It tostada from my daughter.
I know full well that in 21st-century America I am not the only parent tearing her hair out. I am anxious on the best of days, and, well, these are simply not the best of days in our country or, sadly, the world.
Fortunately, my children understand that I need flares shot into the digital night that say, “We’re all OK.” Oftentimes our chats are about silly stuff — TV shows we’re watching or the family cats’ weird eating habits (a preference for our side salads). A quick text, it has been made perfectly clear to me, is considered less intrusive than a phone call, a painless way for my progeny to settle my racing heart, so they compassionately comply. We’re not under your roof anymore, but we’re fine. Really.
When my husband and I first encountered empty-nest syndrome, all I could do was mope around. But after a while, there was also a palpable excitement — we were able once again to live as we pleased, just as we had before we invited our children into our home as penniless strangers who could neither speak our language nor do anything for themselves. Now, as before, we could make full use of living in New York City — go out to jazz clubs or the ballet — walk around the apartment naked and come home late and plastered. For a while both generations were busy enjoying unrestricted liberties and adventures, which we shared with each other during holidays and family vacations.
Covid, of course, changed all that. First Zoë came home from Washington, D.C., where she lived and had a job in politics. We assumed she’d stay for several weeks. But instead of returning to her own apartment and empty office, she ended up working remotely from our living room couch for 14 months while her dad wrote magazine articles on his blue easy chair, directly across the carpet. Isaac was forcibly returned by his college in the Midwest with 36 hours’ notice and finished his junior year online, behind the closed doors of his childhood bedroom, still filled with sports paraphernalia, trophies and World War II volumes.
I’m sure any New Yorker who stayed in the city remembers the sirens day and night, stores closed, nervous people carefully venturing out into a ghost town, masked and gloved, to find food and supplies, hospitals with refrigerated morgue trucks parked outside, friends and acquaintances sick and dying. Every day felt like 9/11.
But weirdly, for our fortunate family — or to be specific, for this neurotic mother — there was some pleasure in our new form of house arrest. (Pajamas all day were a family fave.) Yes, we were stuck together in a small space, Zoë and Isaac really missed their lives and growing independence, and we definitely drove one another crazy. But unlike when these grown-up kids were kid kids living at home, when we all had school and office commitments — I taught in a graduate M.F.A. program in the evenings — we now had cocktails and family dinner every night. No longer were meals a catch-as-catch-can of who was home at whatever time, a hodgepodge of takeout, pastas and salads and the guilty, over-the-top spreads I spent hours on when shame took hold.
Now, in this compulsory reiteration of our nuclear family, my daughter became an accomplished chef; through tears over being separated from her boyfriend, she even insisted that cooking for the family was a form of therapy. Her dad and I were happy to hand over the reins, until we both put on the pandemic 15 and told her she had to stop baking bread and cake on the same day. My son taught me the world history I’d skipped out on in high school, unwittingly helping me with the book I was attempting to write.
Sometimes the four of us had wonderful conversations and interesting arguments; other times we were all escaping into our devices or sitting together in our own private Idahos, each reading a different book (my idea of heaven). We learned all the lyrics to the theme song from our new favorite show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” singing it manically. We sometimes slammed the front door to escape all this intimacy, even if that meant only a quick, face-covered walk in the park.
It was a rare privilege for us parents to have that kind of family time again when we’d thought it was completely over. I’d always worried about the hours I missed with my offspring because of my various jobs. Yes, we were scared about the present and the future, but every once in a while my husband would whisper “bonus time” in my ear. At least we felt lucky to be with them again.
But now that my two are vaccinated and boosted and back out in the world — as they should be! — I’m realizing that part of what I felt when they were home was maybe less pleasure than relief. For the first time since they were little, I felt like I could keep them safe. (Note: While they were home, they rarely went outside!) I didn’t need to ask them for digital hugs. It wasn’t like now, when I worry that they could stop to buy groceries at the wrong moment or that the charter school where Isaac teaches could be the site of the next mass shooting. In June, I had to listen to Zoë’s voice tremble over the phone after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. When she was living with us, I could comfort her in the flesh about whatever was upsetting her, personal or political.
Believe me, I know in real life we can’t protect our kids forever, and in profound ways we never really could — it just felt like that, and I personally liked the feeling, deluded or not. The reality of what empty-nester 2.0 is all about is a mixture of denial and endless hope. It’s called letting go. I’m trying to.
Ms. Schulman’s novel “Lucky Dogs” will be published by Knopf next summer. She is the fiction chair of the M.F.A. program at The New School.
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