When the infamous culinary terror Gordon Ramsey was asked on live television how he was dealing with his 18-year-old son leaving home for university, no one expected him to confess that he was ‘gutted.’ ‘Empty nest syndrome’, a natural rite of passage that most parents have to deal with was for him, a deep, heart-wrenching experience that he candidly admitted to in public. And for a change, he did not deflect the query with a remark about the young adults. If a tough guy like Ramsey could turn into a mushy sentimental mess because his not-so-little boy left home, how do parents in general cope with one of the most telling aspects of parenting – letting your children go without cutting the ties that bind?
When empty nest becomes real
Bengaluru-based Paola Ravishankar saw both her daughters leave for Australia to study, work, find their feet and eventually their life partners. While her husband kept very busy with real estate development work, it was Paola, who felt the pangs of separation most keenly during the initial month after the girls left.
“At first I missed them terribly, but thanks to technology we kept our lines of communication open 24/7. In fact, we spent more time talking about things that really mattered, sharing every small inconsequential detail of our lives. Stuff that we took for granted in our daily routines suddenly became more significant. And most importantly, we began appreciating each other’s best qualities now that we didn’t live under the same roof.”
Paola admits it helps that her mother lives with her. Her mother who has always been very active is now in need of care as she moves into her mid-nineties; so Paola’s role as caregiver has stayed somewhat intact except that her focus has shifted from her children to her parent.
“I take pride in seeing them mature and appreciate the home they were raised in. I also love hearing about all their new experiences as they begin to form lasting adult bonds with their friends and siblings. It is one of the most satisfying aspects of parenting,” she explains.
“It is a painful experience for parents to suddenly not be a part of their children’s daily lives. Plus there is the constant stress about worrying about their safety, especially during the Covid-19 lockdown, and the perceived lack of ‘comforts of home’ that you spent decades providing,” says Dr Sandhya Rasquinha, a psychological counsellor from Bengaluru, who feels that the ‘empty nest experience’ (she prefers not to use the term, syndrome) is indeed a burgeoning problem in urban India. “As we are a collective society by nature, it is very common for adult children to live with their parents until they pass on, unlike the West. So children leaving home becomes a very big and poignant moment, a culmination of mixed feelings that pretty much determine what your life story as a parent is all about. The sheer sadness that they’re not around anymore can be overwhelming,” she says.
Coping mechanisms for empty nest syndrome
Bengaluru-based jewellery designer and manufacturer Chitra Pathi was also ‘gutted’ when her bright and vivacious daughter Krithika, raised in a semi-joint family amidst loads of relatives decided to move to England to study at age 16. After finishing her master’s at Columbia University, Krithika is now a successful journalist, something that may not have happened if she hadn’t left home when she did.
“I was devastated when she left, but my husband Sanjay and I were determined not to stand in her way. I chose to embrace her new lifestyle away from home by flying to England with her, settling her in, checking out her neighbourhood and making life as easy for her as I possibly could. I came back to Bengaluru with a list of contacts of grocery stores, hospitals, restaurants etc so that I could remotely order Indian food and supplies for her kitchen. When we talked, I could picture her room, her gym, her school and at least some of her hang-out spots. That gave me reassurance and comfort. Luckily I was already working at my jewellery brand, Valanda, which I started while she was still in school. Immersing myself in work certainly helped.”
Just like one prepares to retire from an active career, one must prepare to let children leave home to follow the path they choose without feeling bereft or depressed, opines Dr Rasquinha. “The good news is that many parents choose to eschew sentiment for practical solutions once their children leave home. Think of travelling to all those places you wanted to visit but didn’t because of the children’s schedule. Turn the newly vacant bedroom into a home office or gym. Rekindle the intimacy you once shared with your partner before the kids took over. Try out a variety of new activities in your area – join a book, yoga or laughter club. A new physical activity is a great way to expand your social circle and improve your physical health.”
Tony Chang, a long-time restaurateur and businessman based in Bengaluru agrees. “It was pretty depressing looking at all those empty rooms that used to be filled with the kids and their friends, but we learned to deal with it. I started going to the gym, we started travelling spontaneously to places that caught our fancy, reconnected with old friends only to discover that many of them were in the same situation and our children were in contact with each other too. It was very reassuring as we swapped stories and even helped each other out by forming parental networks that could provide a quick safety net when needed,” says Chang.
Take the credit – you’ve earned it
If you are experiencing empty nest syndrome, remember that you are not alone but don’t feel pressured to compare your journey to someone else’s or to force yourself to ‘snap out of it,’ cautions Dr Rasquinha. She explains that adopting a positive approach is important. “It could inspire you to change careers, promote a healthy sense of perspective and revisit a part of you that you neglected. It does not come easily to everyone. You are entitled to feel sad when your child leaves home. But it is a normal and positive change and there are plenty of opportunities and life experiences awaiting them for you to share in, since a lot of that credit goes to you. And you deserve a huge pat on the back for getting them to that much-awaited point of independence,” she says.