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.

By RACHEL FEINTZEIG
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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