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Betsy Kneepkens: Dealing with Post Joy Stress Disorder

Only four of our six children made it home for Christmas. In all fairness, our entire family was together for a family vacation during Thanksgiving. We didn’t do anything Christmassy, but everyone understood that it was our family celebration for the Holidays.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

I am learning that having all your adult children in the same room and at meals is the best family celebration you could have. It seemed to me that my family genuinely enjoyed each other. They dished out some teasing and laughed at a series of childhood memories, like when I made them wear lifejackets in hot tubs. The kids took a sincere interest in each other and were good about ensuring the activities could include Mom and Dad. Not every moment was perfect, but it was dang near close. With no children at home full-time, this family vacation has helped me and my husband cope with this new lifestyle without children.

My husband and I enjoy activities we used to do before kids, and we are amused working together on the household chores that we dished out to the children for so many years. On occasion, some of the boys have come home to help us with projects we can’t do alone. Or maybe we could do them alone, but it is a great excuse to have a visitor for a day or two. We are finding ourselves purchasing recreational items or creating space that we might not use ourselves but would be attractive to children so that home isn’t such a boring place to be.

My husband and I are about six months into this life alteration. I am adjusting but discovering an interesting phenomenon I am labeling as PJSD, Post Joy Stress Disorder. (PJSD is not a real syndrome like PTSD, and I do not want my inference to make light of the serious condition PTSD causes trauma victims. My situation is nowhere near traumatic, but I am dealing with sentiments I haven’t had before, nor expected.)

PJSD is the feeling experienced when I encounter events I have done multiple times before, but this time without my children. My reaction includes but is not limited to moist eyes, heart palpitations, situational avoidance, and flashbacks. As I go through the motions, I feel my throat in my stomach and at times, the moment that would have otherwise been joyful lacks the past feelings. I assumed, which was a terrible idea, that when I finished raising my kids, my husband and I would have grandchildren to fill that void. Well, I was wrong about that.

The first time I encountered these feelings was the Sunday Mass after my last left for college. Sunday Mass was a huge deal for our family, as I have written before. Ninety-five percent of the time we went as a family, and if it was impossible to figure out how to go together, at least one of us would attend Mass twice, so no one in the family ever went alone. Our child-filled pew was part of our prayer to God, “In our full lives, God, you are always our priority!”

My husband and I still attend Mass together and take time to praise God. However, the energy and orchestration necessary to make this happen each week is no longer there. When I glance past my husband, I see the empty pew. Even after six months, it does not feel right. I experience a sense of loss at not needing to tame an unruly bunch of toddlers or teenagers (equally challenging) while doing all I can to be present to our Lord. Our attendance these days is so uncomplicated and straightforward that the graces we did receive for all the hard work do not seem possible any more. I found joy in this church orchestration and now I miss that joy.

All of our children played sports their whole lives. The one sport every child played was basketball. This activity was a family affair. Even the youngest would watch from the stroller. In early December, I had reason to enter a gym where a basketball tournament was happening. Parents, grandparents, and hundreds of young players with uniforms on were running around the gym. I heard the sounds of basketball pounding the floor, little voices saying, “Mommy can I have some money to buy a treat,” and scoreboard buzzers going off. Parents were chattering about how that was a bad call or if those refs don’t signal a foul, someone will get hurt — watching some coaches yelling at their players for underachieving and others praising their kids for trying their best. Although I savored the experience last month, my throat was in my stomach. It seemed like I was watching from the outside in, and I wanted to yell to the parents, “Enjoy this, it ends.” Instead of thinking that my reaction was irrational, I realized that this was just PJSD and accepted that life was different now.

Typically, we get the Christmas tree out shortly after Thanksgiving, and we work as a family team to put it up, the boys begrudgingly, and my daughter with tremendous enthusiasm while being a tad frustrated at her brothers for not being more eager. Without kids at home, it took us weeks to get the boxes from the garage. We finally moved on to it because we realized it would be Christmas if we waited for the kids to help. My husband and I put up the tree and decorations together, which was fun. However, if you think I am the only one suffering from PJSD, my husband could not get himself to put the angel on top of the tree. He knows that has always been our daughter’s job. So, the angel sat until our daughter, returning home, was able to put the angel on the top of the tree.

Because of PJSD, I seem to be more attentive to observing young parents with small children as they struggle with the chaos that comes with parenting. Most parents have heard the saying that times go by really fast, and before you know it your children are grown. I want to say to parents of young children that this joy you get to experience will end before you know it. Try to forget the craziness and be present in this moment of happiness because you will do similar events someday without your kids, and the best part of that experience will have grown up and moved away.

Most importantly, don’t avoid activities or situations because your kiddos make them complex and chaotic. Instead, embrace that condition, because you can’t recreate it when they are grown. PJSD is real for me, and the Feast of the Holy Family reminds parents, especially those parents with young children, that God has planted joy in every situation with our children, and sadly we might not realize it until that time has passed.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.