The Next Pandemic: Homesickness

With normal air travel now impossible, those who’ve made lives far from family are facing a painful reckoning.

Ripped-up airline ticket.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Nataly-Nete/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and AlxeyPnferov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

When will we be able to fly again, like we did in the Before Times? Earlier this month, James Fallows offered a grim answer to that question in the Atlantic, surveying experts who thought a return to normalcy might come anywhere between four years and “never.” And for a Slate roundtable, Andrés Martinez asked three experts the same question: One thought maybe 2022 or 2023, and another thought that in the course of the industry’s contractions, airlines might solve their many problems by raising prices, making safe air travel inaccessible to anyone but the wealthy.

To wonder about travel is to mourn lost pleasures—when will I ever see London again?—but also to contemplate matters much more intimate and heartbreaking. My immediate family lives in New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, and Alaska. My extended family is in Vermont, New Hampshire, California, Indiana, New York, Maryland, Connecticut, and Idaho. (Did I miss anyone?) We usually get together at least once a year, at a family camp on a lake in New Hampshire; this year’s outing has just been officially canceled. Will I get to see my longtime friends at our annual retreat in New York? I seriously doubt it. Will I even get to New Hampshire to see my parents—a trip I used to see as the bare minimum when it comes to summer travel? (We could possibly drive, but with a germ-spreading preschooler in tow, our uncertainty about the safety of hotels and rest stops feels acute.) The question fills me with a flood of nostalgia—for the loons on the lake, the crickets in the fields, and the lilies in my mom’s garden.

For those living across borders and oceans from their family, the situation is even worse. A friend who moved to Australia two years ago—and now has an 8-month-old baby—was planning to visit her family in the States multiple times this year; that will have to wait. “Hands down, the hardest part of having a baby right now is feeling so far away from my family,” she wrote to me. Another, stuck across the U.S.-Canada border from his elderly parents, is unsure whether and when he and his family can get across to see them, and feels “sadness and fear” when he thinks about the separation: “The future has become a zone of mystery, and it’s often easier to avoid talking about it.”

I asked readers in our Slate Parenting Facebook group about their own feelings on this question and got a flood of sadness. Children change fast, and older people have fewer years left than the rest of us have. For parents in the middle, trying to make sure that grandparents get to enjoy as much of their grandchildren’s lives as possible, the situation seems particularly cruel.

“Our trip to see my father in Spain in June was canceled, and his trip here for my son’s bar mitzvah in November may also be canceled,” one person wrote. “We normally see him twice a year, and it’s really hard. I can take a year, a year and a half, but I have to think we will be able to see him again regularly in the future.” Another admitted feeling new resentment toward a parent who had chosen, for reasons of joy, to live far away in a beautiful place, relatively inaccessible to family. (As the sibling of a dear someone who adopted Alaska as his home, I see you.) A third was contemplating leaving the Midwest to move to the East Coast, in order to be near family. “It is an extremely difficult decision,” she wrote, “to choose staying and not seeing family for the next year, or moving and risking long-term unemployment in the event we can’t find a job in the new state.”

Of course—as other respondents to my post reminded us—the world is full of people who have moved very far away from family and don’t get to see them for years due to a lack of money. American history is also replete with examples of people who, for various reasons, found themselves separated from family by huge distances. Many suffered for it. In Homesickness: An American History, Susan Matt found that homesickness and its companion, nostalgia, were omnipresent in American life before the 20th century. Despite any impression we might have that the pioneers sported stiff upper lips out there in their little houses on the prairie, the historical record is full of people weeping for the homes they left behind. During the Civil War, doctors for the Union Army diagnosed thousands of soldiers as suffering from “nostalgia”; some military bands were warned not to play the popular song “Home, Sweet Home,” lest their listeners reflect too much on what they were missing.

Perhaps we will look back at the decades before the pandemic as a historical aberration: a singular time, when a certain, privileged group of Americans could expect to use air travel to sustain their family ties and choose their homes accordingly. An analysis of data done by the New York Times’ Upshot blog in 2015 found that, overall, American mobility has declined in the past few decades. The median distance the Americans represented in that data lived from their mothers was only 18 miles, and only 20 percent had more than a couple hours’ drive between them and their parents. “The biggest determinants,” wrote Quoctrung Bui and Claire Cain Miller, “of how far people venture from home are education and income.” (In other words, if you had college or professional degrees, you were more likely to live farther away from your parents.) Social scientists asked about their findings predicted that Americans, singularly dependent on family for child care and elder care, would become even less mobile in the future.

Will the pandemic accelerate this trend? We, who found ourselves far from loved ones when the music stopped, turn out to have made vital arrangements based on a relationship between space, time, and money that wasn’t going to last. These choices were—I see now, more than ever—fundamentally unsustainable. Even if I had the sinking feeling that my reliance on airplanes to maintain my webs of far-flung friends and family was ill-advised (I see you too, Greta Thunberg), I’d always thought we’d have a few years to figure it out—that we’d see the big change coming and arrange our lives accordingly. Now, missing everyone so much, I wonder if we waited too long.