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Opinion | Empty Nest Syndrome 2.0 Wasn’t Something I Was Prepared For

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.

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