The Empty Nesters, The Pandemic, and Mia

During the pandemic, this psychiatrist is only able to connect to his beloved grandchild through FaceTime. He considers it a blessing.

COMMENTARY

My wife and I sat down to watch the news on a pleasant summer evening in 2020. That day’s contents included reports about multiple deadly hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, wildfires in California, and racial riots in big and small cities across the United States. Simultaneously, the world dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic that had killed 1.3 million individiuals worldwide and 230,000 in the United States, as of November 2020.

Signs of the devastation wrought by the pandemic were ubiquitous. Hospitals were overflowing with severely ill patients, and the staff had to use temporary morgues in huge, refrigerated trucks. Consequently, there was a higher incidence of physical and psychiatric illnesses, even in those not infected by the virus. Millions lost their jobs, and there was no end in sight to this agony. Quite fortuitously, our 20-month-old granddaughter came to our rescue with her intelligence, loveliness, curiosity, and guilelessness.

Before describing how a toddler living 1000 miles away can salvage her grandparents’ sagging spirits, let me provide the context. My wife, a computer professional, and I, a psychiatrist, became empty-nesters when our daughter left home to study medicine this past summer. In choosing medicine as her career, our daughter followed her physician brother’s footsteps. Our son is married to his classmate in college, also a physician, and the couple has a lovely 20-month-old daughter, Mia. Mia is a beautiful baby with chubby cheeks, large eyes, an expressive face, and a full head covered with unruly, curly, dark hair. She is very curious about the world around her. Mia loves the outdoors and often asks her parents to take her to their backyard, where she runs around with boundless energy. Nothing escapes her attention, whether it be an airplane flying in the distant sky, a helicopter hovering low nearby, or beautiful birds sitting on tree branches.

Mia is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak current environment. Her parents call us several times a week. Our son and daughter-in-law live in Nashville, TN, and we live on Long Island, NY, making video chats via phone/computer the only link between us. We are grateful for these video chats in our lives because they offer us such an enriching experience.

While watching the news on that late summer evening, the phone rang with FaceTime’s familiar sound. Momentarily, we saw Mia seated in a highchair waiting for her dinner and looking particularly for her grandmother, whom she calls “Ammanna.”

What happened next profoundly touched me. Mia turned towards her father and said, “Tata has an Ouchy!” Clouds of worry eclipsed the joy on her face. She started to suck on her fingers, which is what she does when she is anxious, and stopped being playful. She extended her little hand as though she wanted to touch my face through the phone to reassure herself that I was okay. The band-aid that I had on my face—remnants of a shaving accident on my chin that morning—caused her alarm. I told her I was okay.

Mia had finished with me and turned her attention back to her Ammanna while removing her fingers from her mouth. She began her chant of “fflauwer, fflauwer, and chimes” (flower and windchime). My wife apologized to Mia for the delay, and armed with her phone, set out for a walk around our garden to show the colorful flowers. Mooch, our miniature poodle, marched behind.

We have a beautiful flower garden, a moderate-sized deck, and a pergola with a wind chime. By now, Mia had learned to accurately identify each plant’s location in the garden and its flowers’ color. She would exclaim llellow (yellow), red, purple, pink, white, and orange—naming flowers of various varieties as her grandma went around the garden. If her Ammanna missed any color, Mia would demand to see that flower again. While the tour of our garden is in progress, Mia is making sure that her Appa in their kitchen by her side did not miss any of the action by quizzing him, “Did you see that?” Her father answers, “Yes, I did. Did you see that? Isn’t that beautiful?” Mia nods her head to express her appreciation of her father’s attentiveness by saying, “What a guy!”

Mia, her Ammanna, and Mooch finished seeing the flowers to Mia’s satisfaction; her grandmother walked up to the pergola where the wind chime hung. The rods’ continuous chiming made her ecstatic.

As Mia began to eat, somewhat reluctantly, she yawned, looking sleepy and tired. My son said, “Say good night to Tata and Ammanna.” She looked at my son as though she was imploring him to let her stay with us for a few more minutes while fighting a second yawn. My son was firm in his instruction, and Mia said reluctantly good night to us. Also, my ouchy was cured due to the caring and love I saw in her eyes. My wife and I felt sad and turned off the phone with the knowledge that in another 24 hours, Mia would be back again, bringing more joy to her Ammanna and Tata.

Given the past few months’ experience, one could say life is full of tragedies, famines, fires, pandemics, and illnesses. However, it also has beautiful moments. As per Donald Winnicott, MD, the British psychoanalyst, who used the term holding to refer to the supportive environment that a therapist creates for a client, one can liken holding to the nurturing and caring behavior a mother engages in with her child, which results in the sense of trust and safety in the child.1

Due to the advanced modern technology like Facetime, changing lifestyles, and the stresses of contemporary life, the caretaker’s circle can include extended family and friends. Such loving individuals’ involvement will enhance the baby’s self-esteem, diminish her stranger anxiety, and improve her communicational and empathic skills.

In India, where we come from, the elderly and retirees’ lives can be quite hectic because of their active involvement in raising their grandchildren. There’s a cultural acknowledgment that the elderly are repositories of wisdom and life experiences, and 80% of the elderly live with their children.2 For Indians, empty nesting is not a familiar life experience. Grandparents spend their time on family, social, and spiritual activities. The grandchildren learn about living in a complex society through multiple interactions with their elders more than they would in school.

My wife and I came to the United States 42 years ago. As we look into the future, we miss the wise presence of the family elders. We miss the absence of the noise and chaos of India. The silence in empty-nester homes like ours is deafening. The opportunity to witness the development of Mia’s personality is a gift to us from our children. One more day has passed in this endless march of events in the pandemic, but we were able to live our lives without the madness on the streets touching us. Thank you, Mia!

Dr Rao is professor of psychiatry and the Former Von Tauber Chair, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Nassau University Medical Center.

References

1. Winnicott DW. The Child, the Family, and the Outside World. Perseus Publishing; 1992:17-44.

2. Biswas S. Why Indians continue to live in joint families. September 14, 2020. Accessed June 22, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-54053091