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It’s Sunday afternoon and my 22-year old daughter is moving into her newly rented apartment.  

All week long, I’ve felt the weight, the shift, the grief of this ending.  She returned home in mid-March 2020 when the pandemic forced her out of a house near campus, rented with five other college seniors.  Back then we thought it’d be a few weeks or a month and then life would return to normal. Obviously, we were wrong.

No one in my nuclear family got Covid-19. But the restrictions, the forced changes, the worry impacted us, like it did a lot of other humans.  In 2020 our son moved to the dorm for his first college semester. The reality of masks, social distancing, and forced time in his dorm without a roommate was no life at all, and he returned to live at home his second semester.  

So, for almost 17 months the four of us made it work, dividing chores, supporting work and school schedules, and spending a lot of time together.

As she packed, my daughter asked to take some of our coffee filters. When I reached for the package, I mused that soon after the four of us started hunkering down together, I ordered a 4-pack of 350 – that’s 1400 coffee filters. They are almost gone. “That’d be a good blog title,” she said.  

Fourteen hundred filters for fourteen hundred Aeropress coffees, for hundreds of coffee breaks together.  When we look back on this pandemic, I’m pretty sure all of us are going to fondly remember the late morning coffee gatherings if we can’t fondly recall a lot of other things.

Our young adult children didn’t need us in the same way younger kids needed parents during the pandemic.  But they did need the space our coffee breaks and meals provided to vigorously debate politics and other national and local issues. They needed the safe spaces of our living room, porch, and patio and the presence of me and their father to express fear, disappointment, grief, anger, and hope. They needed to process plans for their lives during Covid-19 and now as life is somewhat opening up.

Our children are both in transition. Our son is returning to college this month; our daughter starting a new job.  By the end of August, our home will be much, much quieter.  And fall is coming too.

I’ve had more trouble getting and staying asleep these past weeks. I know it’s my body and brain registering these shifts along with the worry about the Delta variant.  I tend to feel and process life deeply.  Years ago, when I was in steady therapy and fussing about recurrent insomnia, my therapist said, “Your body knows when something’s happening, even if you don’t.”  Decades later, I’ve learned to accept this tender, sensitive side of me that disturbs my sleep.  It’s my harbinger, telling me to listen to what’s going on and be with it, to feel whatever emotion is begging for attention, and to drop the old, old storylines that something is wrong just because I’m feeling a strong emotion or dealing with something challenging. 

My parenting role is changing as both our children leave home and that’s cause for a little sorrow and also some joy.  I’m confident our children will move into their next stages of life and figure them out.   

I’m also tired of the intensity of these past 17 months – the house that couldn’t stay clean; meal planning, grocery shopping, and food prep for whole-food eating that keeps us healthy; the coordination of cars and schedules, the lack of solitude and quiet. I’m weary.

And I am also grateful we got to know each other better as adults who belong to the same family.  We grew closer as a family; we became a true shelter for each other through a troubling time.  My worry about not being a good enough mother faded as I watched our engaged young adult children pitch in, make the most of it all, figure out challenges and show up for the warm togetherness of coffee over and over.  We bonded in a deep way that would not have been possible if the pandemic hadn’t forced our daughter home and if our son had stayed in the dorm.  I know we aren’t going to get this time we had back. I know that it was priceless.

So, yes to the sorrow of an era of intense togetherness ending. 

Yes, to the reality of uncertainty as the pandemic is far from over.  

Yes, to the possibilities for growth and new adventures for all of us. 

Yes to the life force in our children as they grow and change.  

Yes, to the changing slant of light with shorter days. 

Yes to 1400 coffee filters.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW-R

photo by Alex Chernenko, Unsplash

Transitions: Taking My “Baby” to College

In mid-July, my son receives his email from the Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Office outlining their complicated and lengthy protocols to safely bring new and returning students to this university campus in August 2020.  

Suddenly it’s real. After four months of shutting down, staying home, washing hands, wearing masks and being really careful, my 18-year-old is preparing to move into a dorm and start college with thousands of other students.

My heart lurches in my chest – this is my baby – heading off to college in a pandemic.  He’s had enough disappointments this year – cancelled high school musical, cancelled Spanish trip to New York City, cancelled theater workshop, cancelled prom, cancelled typical high school graduation. He’s philosophical but also cynical, the cynicism protecting future potential disappointments, and he muses, “ Isn’t it likely that just as I settle down into college life, this too will be cancelled by sending students home?”

It’s a bet he’s taking, after considering a gap year, and his father and I respect his choice.  And since he’s planning on going, our task is to help him shop for college necessities, to enjoy these last weeks together as a family under one roof, and to hold sorrow and excitement in some simmering stew in my heart.

I remember my dad and mom driving me to college in 1980.  I was the last of three daughters to go and the college I chose was 350 miles from home.  I remember being irritated and embarrassed that my mother cried; what was the big deal?  Now of course, I understand.  Boy do I understand.  Already, tears well up at odd times – tears of pride that he’s an honors student and going to the school of his choice. (And only one hour away!) Tears of sadness and fear.  I know how much we’ll miss him.

Transitions are hard.  Many of us like routine, predictability, and stability;  when those are shaken, we get shook up.  Add the current pandemic, the racial protests, the erratic and unpredictable leadership from our elected officials, and this transition has the potential to really rock the boat.

Here’s what I’m doing, to the best of my ability, in this transition:

  • Maintaining the routines and practices that help sustain and ground me – still rising early for meditation, exercising and working in the garden, then getting enough rest and connecting with friends.
  • Doing my best to prepare for the transition while also knowing that I won’t think of everything.  There will be bumps, emotions will swell.  I’ll figure it out.
  • Soliciting support from family and friends; we’re all in this together when it comes to transitions.
  • Giving myself time to process emotions – to feel joy, excitement, sadness, fear. Allow them to be, knowing they will ebb and flow and eventually quiet down.

Someone turned the calendar on the side of the fridge to August.  Viscerally and immediately, more anxiety kicks in.  I know that underneath is grief, joy, worry, hope – the whole lovely mix of emotion.  I remember this when my daughter left for college. 

Most of the “stuff” on the “what to bring to college lists” has been purchased.  We’ve got a move-in day and time and by 2 pm in two Sundays we’ll be driving away, leaving our 18-year old in his dorm, ready as he can be to start school in a pandemic.

He continues to go about his summer routine:  moving lawns and working at a local pool.  Lounging in the living room recliner as he plays a game on his iPad while also listening to something on his phone.  Vacuuming the house every week, washing up the supper dishes every night. Hanging out with friends, socially distanced, of course, and ordering takeout.  Drawing some.

I find that I cannot fathom how quiet and different the house will be without him here.  How weird it will be.

Greg does a few final fun activities with friends, transfers his mowing jobs to his dad, and buys a few last things.  Then he begins a week-long required quarantine before arriving on campus next Sunday.  We plan a final family evening with a take-out meal of his choice.  I refrain from telling him things that are my anxiety, not his,  “Don’t let your laundry sit in the washer, don’t forget to order your books, are you sure you don’t want to take a fan?”

Sleep, or rather, the paucity of it, tells me I’m grieving.  I’m more than grieving.  I’m happy, sad, scared, excited.  We’ve been planning for this for a long time. 

Courtney Martin, who writes a terrific blog called the examined family, says this in a recent post about sending her 3-year old back to pre-school following months of quarantine and social distancing:  “We’re just like that, us humans. We can have more than one emotion at a time. In fact, as my daughter was reminding me, we mostly have more than one emotion at a time. Especially during times of transition and trauma. We are grateful to be free and weirdly miss our confinement. We are in love and filled with loathing. We are generous and selfish, independent and so needy, wise and dumb as a box of rocks. Growing and regressing, empowered and resentful, so brave and so scared. All at once.”

Yup.  Even though he’ll come home on breaks, and this year it’s possible he’ll come home even earlier, I know from sending my daughter off four years ago, that it’s never the same.

But for now, the reality of my last child, my 18-year old son, leaving for college and next steps in his promising life, are registering in my body, my emotions, my mind, and in the daily tick tick tick of days as we march toward move-in day.

And now…

I already miss him, his essence, his presence, the way he flops down on the recliner with his phone and iPad, his intensity in philosophical conversations, his smile, his willingness to do the dishes every night without complaining.

Move-in went fine – first stop a Covid19 test, and then a quick unload/make your bed/snap a photo – parents were only allowed a half hour in the dorm.  And then we were driving away and we all started a new phase of life.

The Monday after drop-off I woke early, early – unable to sleep any longer, so aware that he wasn’t here, so pleased he gets to start college, so full of mama-emotions and also relief that we are freer now to do the next things in life.  I’ll be sad for awhile; I remember this with my daughter.  And the sadness will hang out with acceptance, and joy and hope and a bunch of other emotions I’m not sure how to identify yet.

He did it, and we accompanied him.  (And yes, he does need a fan!) Nothing is certain, and it wouldn’t be even if Covid19 were eradicated, but the virus heightens the uncertainty.  He’s taking it one day at a time and so are we.  In the meantime, our home feels diminished, it’s quieter, muted, and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, August 2020

Sheryl Paul, on her website Conscious Transitions, writes terrific blog posts about transitions.  

Human With a Full Heart

It’s Monday and I’m very tired. Exhausted is more accurate.  I’ve come off three days of high intensity. 

I  watched our son play the role of RP McMurphy in his high school’s fall play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  And not only watched but participated, rapt, for three performances, in that heartbreaking drama.   

He blew his role out of the water.  He embodied that crafty, law-breaking, but ultimately loving character.  He and the entire cast and crew pulled this difficult story off with aplomb. I rarely make statements like these about my children, but part of the intensity of this weekend was being forced to recognize his natural talent and to accept accolades from audience members when I am by nature modest and humble.

We hosted family members who came to see the play and enjoyed times of connection, eating, walking and just hanging out.

Our college-age daughter came home for the weekend and played the role of proud big sister – what a joy to have her here.

And we learned early Saturday morning that my sister, who has congestive heart failure, was rushed (again) to the hospital in the night’s wee hours, then eventually flown to a larger hospital with specialized expertise in heart disease.

Texts from her spouse smattered the weekend and I experienced sorrow, alarm, and helplessness.  I am so glad I went to visit her in her midwest home just two weeks ago, and I am so sorry that living so far away, there is little I can do but pray.

So, this morning, I’m outside walking my usual trails, full of joy, pride, grief, worry.   All of it, the whole shebang.  My stomach is churning.  And I finally settle on a phrase that partially calms me:  

My heart is so full.  I am human.  My heart is so full.  I am human.

Then I came home and had a good cry – a cry for my sister, and for her spouse and adult children and grandchildren, for the uncertainty that surrounds her health and future.   

And a cry for millions who have been treated poorly, even cruelly, at the hands of mental health professionals.  The trauma inflicted on patients in the 1970s (when “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” premiered) may not be happening in our country anymore . But we still stigmatize emotional challenges, mental illness, and quirks in behavior; we prevent humans from accessing acceptance, help, growth.  We forget that all people are to begin, human.

And now, I’m slowly caring for myself by following the kind of advice I might chart with a client.  I’m taking it slower than I usually do during the day.  And returning to old rhythms:  folding laundry, writing the grocery lists, going to the library, and then heading for my office where I will sit with other humans whose hearts are also full and who are facing loss, grief, change and are doing so with quiet courage.  Even on a Monday.  Even when they are exhausted.

Note: I wrote this on November 25. My sister, who is currently more stable, proofread this post and gave her okay for me to write about her.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, December 2019

Therapists In Therapy: A Green Flag

Thirty years ago, I applied to graduate school, convinced my main objectives for earning a master’s degree in social work were to increase my helping skills and earning potential. 

Halfway through the MSW program, however, the more compelling, underlying reason for going back to school emerged with painful clarity:  I needed to understand my own life, my symptoms of anxiety and insomnia, my relationship conundrums and the difficult patterns and issues in my family of origin.  I needed to help myself.

And so, desperate for understanding and relief, I found a therapist and began to work. 

Being in therapy as a graduate student and then as a fledgling therapist transformed me.  I learned ways I was caught in unhelpful relationship patterns.  I learned to pay attention to my symptoms and listen to their messages, rather than trying to suppress, kill or numb them.

And being in therapy made me a much better therapist.

I realized my “mess” or situation, was not another’s and if I was attending to my own, then I could better keep my own stuff out of therapy with clients.  And if I couldn’t, I could catch myself more quickly and get back to a grounded and centered way of accepting clients,  not absorbing their anxiety or blaming them for their pain.  I went from thinking I had to be an expert (who had it all together) who “treated” clients to increased awareness of what I had in common with each of them.

While I don’t regularly go to therapy now, I occasionally schedule an appointment.  This happened recently with a family situation that triggered high anxiety. My therapist helped me remember key system issues, my truth, and what I needed to do.

The bigger picture

Finding a therapist who lived and practiced family systems theory, was also something I lucked out on.

A family systems therapist changes the frame from broken, defective, ill, or diseased to something far bigger and less labeling.  A family systems therapist helps a client learn about and see the bigger picture –  at least three generations of family and the other systems they grew up in –  the way communication patterns, beliefs, hot issues, rules, rituals, tragedies, and positive events impacted them and others. 

Family systems therapists move conversations away from “Where am I broken or defective?” to “Where am I caught in my family, life or work situation?  How can learning more about my family history be a resource to me?  How do anxiety and pain get expressed or managed in my family and in me? What can I do differently? How I can take responsibility by working on myself, finding ways to care for and ground myself, work with painful or anxiety-provoking issues and trust the process?

For instance, my parents were born just before or during the Depression. While my grandparents were resourceful and made it through without terrible consequences, I inherited frugality and fears about financial scarcity that I believe are connected to the deprivation and hardship their families suffered.  This helps me not be so hard on myself when money fears surface, to separate their past from my present, and to observe without buying into my catastrophic money stories.

Being in therapy during my early years of learning to be a therapist was so foundational, I can scarcely imagine what kind of a therapist I’d be if I hadn’t taken the brave step to admit I was stuck and needed help. Now I enjoy being a therapist to therapists as part of my private practice because I know that therapists who have turned to understand and care for themselves will have more to offer their own clients.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW-R

Photo by Brenda Hartman-Souder

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