The Excitement And Anxiety Of A New Start
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The Excitement And Anxiety Of A New Start

Transitions can be tough—here’s how to embrace them in this moment of change.

Tue, Aug 23, 2022 9:17amGrey Clock 4 min

Bill Holdar, a father of two in San Antonio, is starting a new chapter this month—this time for real.

He’s going back to work, after three years as a stay-at-home dad and one ill-fated attempt to return to his job as a teacher right before the pandemic hit. His 2-year-old daughter, Nora, recently wrapped up a year of chemotherapy treatment. She and her brother got vaccinated against Covid-19 this summer. The whole family is heading back into the world: school, daycare, a prekindergarten program.

“It’s all starting to get really different, really fast,” Mr. Holdar told me after watching Nora settle in next to her new classmates during circle time. He felt relief that normal life seemed to have arrived, and trepidation about the possibility of the kids getting sick or having trouble adjusting to an unfamiliar rhythm.

“I’ll definitely miss those other days,” he said of time spent at home doing arts and crafts or catching bugs with the kids on the trails out back. “But it’ll also be freeing.”

After some false starts, this fall is a moment of transition for many Americans. The halting, tenuous shifts of the last couple of years—half-empty offices and halfhearted return plans, kids home again thanks to another mandatory quarantine—are dwindling. We’re returning to our uninhibited lives, whether that means restarting old routines or taking the plunge on big life changes, with all the accompanying excitement and terror.

Lissa Jean Ferrell says she feels like she’s starting a second life. After two years in which school was disrupted for millions of American students, the lawyer and divorced mom finally saw all three of her daughters graduate this spring—the youngest from high school, the middle from college, and the oldest, a law student, belatedly celebrating her 2020 commencement with a rescheduled Georgetown University ceremony. Now Ms. Ferrell is selling her longtime home in New Jersey and moving. Where is up in the air. (Top contenders include Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and California.)

“The world is open to me,” she says. “I feel like I’ve done my job and now I’ve earned the right to sit back and live for myself.”

Our modern lives have been filled with more and more transitions over the years, says Bruce Feiler, the author of a book on the topic. We have more autonomy and options than the generations that came before us, he says. People are seizing on this moment to swap jobs, partners, regions and religions.

“Nobody can cope with this much change,” he notes. Some of us launch into multi-item to-do lists, determined to ace the transformation in a weekend. Others “lie under the covers in a fetal position with their cat and they say, ‘I’m never going to get through it.’ ”

Both paths are wrong, he says. Instead, take time to mark the transition. Commemorate it with a ceremony, a trip, a special meal. Talk about your feelings, instead of blocking them out.

Then try something new. Things were upside down for so long anyway. Now is the moment to embrace your creativity, he says, launching a personal project like woodworking or poetry-writing. Shed things you don’t like about yourself, from extra pounds to your people-pleasing tendencies. Finding a community to go through it with you can help.

Of course, it’s almost never easy. Ms. Ferrell, the new empty-nester, says she wakes in the middle of the night sometimes, heart heavy with the surreal realization that her girls will soon be strewn from Los Angeles to London. Will Pryor, who moved to Raleigh, N.C., last month for his first job as an attending physician, worries about how welcoming his new community will be to his same-sex relationship.

“We go where we have to, where we’re needed,” says the 35-year-old, who finds it thrilling and strange to be done with a decade of medical training.

A few hours away in Charlotte, N.C., Christine Schmid is marking the days until her Sept. 17 wedding with an iPhone countdown and daily love notes from her soon-to-be husband. Forty-five years old, she never thought she’d marry, opting instead to focus on her career in human resources.

She can’t wait to wear the off-white gown that makes her feel like Cinderella and be reunited with extended family coming in for the occasion. But grief is ever-present too. The dear friend who helped set her up with her fiancé passed away from cancer last year, as did Ms. Schmid’s beloved dog. The friend had been set to perform the wedding ceremony; the pup was going to walk down the aisle.

Now both are gone, and Ms. Schmid is reckoning with losing a part of herself, too. She’s changing her name, becoming a stepmother, losing the ability to do what she likes without asking or informing anyone else.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving up ‘me’ to become ‘us,’ ” she says. Taking some time for herself each workday—an hourlong break, no interruptions allowed—has helped, along with supporting causes she cares about, like animal rights.

Even the happiest of changes can come with some stress, says psychologist Joshua Coleman, as we grapple with the future and all its unknowns. Plus, many of us were promised prior fresh starts that didn’t materialize. We had to reschedule the bat mitzvah again because of a new Covid-19 variant; we had job offers rescinded due to a swinging economy. Holding our breath through the uncertainty, exhausted after so much back and forth, can make transitions even harder, says Dr. Coleman, who is a senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families.

Examine your anxieties up close, he recommends. Are they rational? Parse what you’re afraid of and figure out which problems are solvable. Then solve them. Talk back to the worries that are irrational, reminding yourself of past transitions that worked out well.

Emily Hulthen’s transition to parenthood earlier in the pandemic was so trying she considered not having any more children. Working until 1 a.m. while watching her son during the day, she felt exhausted and irrationally angry, she says.

“I thought I would be a natural at this,” the 32-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, remembers thinking.

Eventually, she was diagnosed with postpartum depression, and found relief with therapy.

She still feels guilt and sadness over her son’s babyhood. But pregnant with a daughter, she told me she was grateful for the chance to try again. Watching her son get vaccinated recently, thinking about the pumpkin picking and tailgating to come this fall as a family of four, she cried.

“It felt like it was a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

Her daughter, Nora Lynne Birnbrich, was born on Friday.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: August 22, 2022


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What’s still keeping American workers out of the office?

At a time when restaurants, planes and concert arenas are packed to the rafters, office buildings remain half full. Thinly populated cubicles and hallways are straining downtown economies and, bosses say, fragmenting corporate cultures as workers lose a sense of engagement.

Yet workers say high costs, caregiving duties, long commutes and days still scheduled full of Zooms are keeping them at home at least part of the time, along with a lingering sense that they’re able to do their jobs competently from anywhere. More than a dozen workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say they can’t envision returning to a five-day office routine, even if they’re missing career development or winding up on the company layoff list.

Managers say they will renew the push to get employees back into offices later this year. The share of companies planning to keep office attendance voluntary, rather than mandatory, is dropping, according to a survey released in May of more than 200 corporate real-estate executives conducted by property-services firm CBRE, one of the largest managers of U.S. office space.

A battle of wills could be ahead. The gap between what employees and bosses want remains wide, with bosses expecting in-person collaboration and workers loath to forgo flexibility, according to monthly surveys of worker sentiment maintained by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who studies remote work.

Escalating expenses

One reason workers say they’re reluctant to return is money. Some who have lost remote-work privileges said they are spending hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of dollars each month on meals, commutes and child care.

One supercommuter who treks to her Manhattan job from her home in Philadelphia negotiated a two-day-a-week limit to her New York office time this year. Otherwise, she said she could easily spend $10,000 a year on Amtrak tickets if she commuted five days a week.

Christos Berger, a 25-year-old mortgage-loan assistant who lives outside Washington, D.C., estimates she spends $2,100 on child care and $450 on gas monthly now that she is working up to three days a week in the office.

Berger and her husband juggled parenting duties when they were fully remote. The cost of office life has her contemplating a big ask: clearance to work from home full time.

“Companies are pushing you to be available at night, be available on weekends,” she said, adding that she feels employers aren’t taking into account parents’ need for family time.

Rachel Cottam, a 31-year-old head of content for a tech company, works full time from her home near Salt Lake City, making the occasional out-of-town trip to headquarters. She used to be a high-school teacher, spending weekdays in the classroom. Back then, she and her husband spent $100 a week on child care and $70 a week on gas. Now they save that money. She even let her car insurance company know she no longer commutes and they knocked $5 a month off the bill.

Friends who have been recalled to offices tell Cottam about the added cost of coffee, lunch and beauty supplies. They also talk about the emotional cost they feel from losing work flexibility.

“For them, it feels like this great ‘future of work’ they’ve been gifted is suddenly ripped away,” she said.

Parent trade-offs

If pandemic-era flexible schedules go away, a huge number of parents will drop out of the workforce, workers say.

When Meghan Skornia, a 36-year-old urban planner and married mother of an 18-month-old son, was looking for a new job last year, she weeded out job openings with strict in-office policies. Were she given such mandates, she said, she would consider becoming an independent consultant.

The firm in Portland, Ore., where Skornia now works requests one day a week in the office, but doesn’t dictate which day. The arrangement lets her spend time with her son and juggle her job duties, she said. “If I were in the office five days a week, I wouldn’t really ever see my son, except for weekends.”

Emotional labor

For some, coming into the office means donning a mask to fit in.

Kenneth Thomas, 42, said he left his investment-firm job in the summer of 2021 when the company insisted that workers return to the office full time. Thomas, who describes himself as a 6-foot-2 Black man, said managing how he was perceived—not slipping into slang or inadvertently appearing threatening through body language—made the office workday exhausting. He said that other professionals of colour have told him they feel similarly isolated at work.

“When I was working from home, it freed up so much of my mental bandwidth,” he said. His current job, treasurer of a green-energy company, allows him to work remotely two or three days a week.

Lost productivity

The longer the commute, the less likely workers are to return to offices.

Ryan Koch, a Berkeley, Calif., resident, went to his San Francisco office two days a week as required late last year, but then he let his attendance slide, because commuting to an office felt pointless. “I’m doing the same video calls that I can be doing at home,” he said.

Koch, who works in sales, said his nonattendance wasn’t noted so long as his numbers were good. When Koch and other colleagues were unable to meet sales quotas in recent weeks, they were laid off. Ignoring the in-office requirement probably didn’t help, he said, adding he hopes to land a new hybrid role where he goes in one or two days.

Jess Goodwin, a 36-year-old media-marketing professional, turned down an offer to go from freelance to full time earlier this year because the role required office time and no change in pay.

Goodwin said a manager “made it really clear that this is what they’re mandating right now and it could change in the future to ‘you have to be back in five days a week.’”

Goodwin, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., calculated that subway commutes to Midtown Manhattan would consume more than 150 hours annually, in addition to time spent getting ready for work.

Goodwin’s holding out for a better offer. She said she would consider a hybrid position if it came with a generous package and good commute, adding: “And I would also probably need something in my contract being like, ‘We’re not going to increase the number of days you have to come in.’”


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