I've been writing my "leaving New York" essay for a while now. It used to be flowery then persuasive, in turns. It was also bloated and navel-gazing. I'm going to give it to you straight instead.
My departure from New York City has less to do with the city per se (pandemic-ravaged and precarious though it is) than it has to do with me personally.
I personally could not handle living in COVID New York, but I had to do it anyways. Somewhere in there, in April or May, it was like the clock struck midnight and my dreamboat chosen hometown turned back into a festering pumpkin.
For the same reason that I used to be sensitive to the city's incredibly energy, I am now disproportionately sensitive to its decline and malaise. And now I never want to see that wretched place again.
It's fair to say the past 10 years have been huge for me. To make a long story as short as possible: I arrived in New York for grad school in the middle of a divorce, then promptly got dumped - like the setup for a Lifetime movie or bad sitcom. I half-assed school for a while, dropped out on a whim, hustled at too many various part-time jobs to count, discovered online dating, drank a lot, went to Burning Man.
Everything changed (again) when I met my now-husband. I moved in with him and we spent a ridiculous year secretly engaged and enjoying a kind of reverse honeymoon - throwing parties, going to fancy dinners - before eloping at City Hall on our first dating anniversary.
Then, life got real. I fell pregnant the first month after the wedding, but miscarried immediately. We moved to San Francisco in pursuit of our startup fortunes, but that didn't quite materialize and we never settled in. The second pregnancy stuck, so we hightailed it back to New York in time for daughter 1 to be born 2 months after our first wedding anniversary. I swore I'd never leave again. I became a stay-at-home-mom semi-accidentally, and tried to make that my own.
Then, life got really real. Daughter 2 followed less than 2 years after daughter 1. That pregnancy caused me significant back pain, and then the baby had feeding problems and started shitting blood. Her minor issues seemed like a big deal to me... until I got a message one day that my 66-year old father had experienced a seizure out of the blue while driving to the grocery store and scored a trip straight to the ER and its MRI machine.
Within about 48 hours, I determined by Googling that dad was going to die of brain cancer. So, I was off to the bizarre races in a full-fledged attempt to be ~mindful~ and make the most of the time. I flew from New York to Georgia every 3 weeks for 10 months, visiting him in the hospital and the fucking creepy assisted living place and then two different hospices.
After the initial shock of his diagnosis dulled a bit, I stopped feeling like I was going to throw up all the time. So, in a perverse act of nihilism, I decided to move forward with long-standing plans for child 3 in the middle of all of this ("everyone's just going to die anyways, what are we waiting for?"). Before I had time to reconsider this truly excessive act of mortality-wallowing, the son (named for his grandfathers, naturally) was already growing in there.
My son was growing in there as I diapered my dying elderly dog Chip and stuffed 10 pills into him every day, he was growing as I carried Chip to the vet one last time.
My son was growing in there as I then pulled myself together and made one final trip to visit my dying father 2 weeks later. My son was growing in there as I noticed the hospice used my favorite brand of lip balm in futile attempts to keep the dyings' lips from peeling off their faces. My son was growing in there as I noticed that my dying father's gums were already turning black.
I carried my son back home to New York and waited for the inevitable news. 3 months later on a sunny June morning, my son emerged into the light of the world on the upper east side of Manhattan. I wish I could say things got better after that grueling year that ended with a birth. They only got worse.
Everyone called me "supermom" but I was really just an increasingly sensitive woman coming unglued in the chaos of too many kids and too many feelings and a too-small apartment. I started snapping when the kids were uncooperative - not once, not twice, but regularly. On the worst occasions, I'd yell and scream. Successful weeks were the ones when I merely burst into tears a few times, instead of yelling or throwing something at the wall.
I did what I'd had so much success at previously: I tried to improve myself to improve the situation. I went to the psychiatrist, I went to my philosophical counselor. I read books on anger and grief, I took up yoga. I became convinced that I couldn't thrive in that apartment, so we moved into a larger one - on March 2, 2020. I thought I saw a light at the end of my emotional tunnel. You know what happened next. We got locked in the tunnel.
The new apartment had been my dream home, a much larger space on a quiet block, but it quickly turned into a nightmare under lockdown conditions. 12 weeks I spent in that apartment with no outside childcare assistance, listening to ambulances around the clock much of the time and listening to screaming children even more of the time.
My baby son blossomed into a toddler and joined his sisters in their developmentally-appropriate yet utterly nerve-demolishing squabbles and tantrums. I had quit breastfeeding him to get him to sleep through the night because I knew I wouldn't survive lockdown on broken sleep, but the post-lactation hormone roller coaster didn't do me any favors either.
The only thing worse than staying home inside with them all day was trying to take them out: hauling the trio down a bunch of steps, to the empty dystopian streets (playground chained shut), where I'd have to watch like a hawk that no one tried to drink from an empty beer bottle or dive in front of a car. Because my husband had left a job pre-pandemic and become self-employed instead, every hour of childcare break time I got from him felt like I was stealing it directly out of our family's wallet. I was dead weight to the family: non-functional, irritable, confusing, but also not expendable.
In the depths of lockdown, everything just ached: back, ears, mind. I started crying and yelling again, but this time it wasn't just my own luxuriously solipsistic problem - the whole world seemed like it was falling apart. You hear a lot about people who missed leaving home during lockdown because they wanted to see others. But I missed leaving home because I needed to be alone. Instead, I was caught in 14 hours per day of death-march small-child parenting in the "epicenter" of an historical pandemic.
Now, I have a long history of obsessive-compulsive anxiety and I'm no stranger to intrusive thoughts. My brain serves up thoughts that are so bizarre I didn't think I could be surprised anymore: disgusting contamination scenarios that would boggle an ordinary mind. But, there in the perma-lockdown hole, I started thinking about stabbing myself or maybe slitting my wrists. Mother's Day approached. I couldn't imagine celebrating. I could at least imagine putting an end to it.
I didn't put an end to it. I didn't actually want to be dead. On the contrary, I had filled with anguish over being held back from living in a way that is appropriate for me, something that I very much want to do. Motherhood didn't break me. Neither did coming face-to-face with death. But I can't absorb every single thing life could lob at a person, right in a row. Who do I look like, Job?
Instead of killing myself on Mother's Day, I ordered barbecue and takeout cocktails from the restaurant where my dad had celebrated his last birthday pre-brain cancer. I cried as I assembled the rolling kitchen cart I'd chosen for my Mother's Day gift, I probably cried the next day too. I don't think I have the capacity for physical self-harm, and suicidal ideation is different from being actively suicidal. But once you're trying to split these hairs, something has already gone wrong, hasn't it.
Life became somewhat easier as summer unfolded - at least it was now clear that this wasn't ending anytime soon, that pre-COVID life was really over, freeing in its own way. I soon begged my nanny to come back to work. We established a tolerable mid-pandemic steady state. It wasn't good enough forever, or even for a year or "till the vaccine", but it was good enough to keep me from feeling like I literally wanted to die - so that counts for something.
Yet, the damage was done. New York has been the site of all the interesting things that have ever happened to me, it has been the site of much growth. But it has now been the site of my worst depths. Due to the nature of the urban, third-space-dependent lifestyle I'd arranged my life around, those depths were deeper than they might otherwise have been.
The pandemic is still happening here in Austin of course, but I am not reliant on $2500/month of childcare just to stay sane. Childborne messes and noise don't seem so oversized in a house. I can put the kids in the yard to get them out of my hair. I can hop in my car and drive around. There are no refrigerator truck morgues. There never were.
I thought this piece was going to be some meditation on the extractive nature of life in New York City as a transplant. Everyone hopes to be able to draw something valuable from that place faster than the city takes it back. If you don't want anything in the city anymore, or it bleeds you dry, then the jig's up. Alas, this is turning into a garden-variety mental health confessional instead.
If nothing else, please know that the horrifyingly large segment of people who have struggled this year to keep it together, the ones who report feeling as though life is no longer worth living - they are real, they were hurting, many are hurting still. You may not know who they are.
People are resilient. But there are limits to how much adaptation can happen and how quickly. Things like stopping by a coworking space, visiting a playground, or enjoying a meal out are not trivial. They are the stuff of people's lives, they are the rhythm in the din. Already worn down from life's many circumstances, these things were all that was keeping me from mental implosion, as I learned the hard way.
The spell that befell me a decade ago, when I landed in New York as a younger fresher adult, has been broken. For now, I'm done trying to change things by changing myself. I've been running on empty for years, and I've got nothing left to prove. The limits are real. It's time to respect them.
I don't feel like a natural mother, and I don't like organizing my life around my kids. In New York, we lived for ourselves, with the kids just along for the ride. That worked really well for all of us, until it didn't. The kids were alright, but I wasn't. And at the end of the day, the only non-negotiable feature of my life is not that I live in New York - it's that I must be able to parent sustainably somehow. As this mother, with these children, in this year: I couldn't do that in New York, and I stopped even wanting to try. So I'll do it somewhere else.
Pamela J. Hobart - Philosophical Life Coaching Newsletter
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