Emptiness of an empty nest

How parents adapt to a sense of loss, grief and anxiety as their children fly abroad to pursue higher studies after the pandemic-induced disruption

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Sat 30 Jul 2022, 10:06 PM

Last updated: Sat 30 Jul 2022, 10:08 PM

“I used to laugh at the very idea of the empty nest syndrome but now I live it. I walk past the door of what used to be a chaotic room with lights on, towels on the floor, and recoil at the tidiness and order that now sits in the quietness of a once-rocking space,” Heather Harries, an educator and mother of three eloquently describes the vacuum she feels after her middle child and “best friend”, Michael, 18, left Dubai in early July to pursue a degree at Swansea University, Wales.

Elsewhere in the city, Haya Mashood, a banker, points to a stuffed toy placed on a couch that her husband has poignantly dedicated to daughter Sara, who is in London. “It is his way of expressing how much he misses her,” says Haya, who herself is sentimental about the dining chair her younger child, Asad used while he was in Dubai. Asad is in the UK, studying in Bristol. “Long after he left, I could not bear to have anyone else seated on it,” she says.

In the Menon household, Sapna and her husband Mohan, are busy helping their children, Devika and Abhijeet, with last-minute packing as they prepare to fly off to Australia and France, respectively, for higher studies. “It has not hit me yet but once they board their flights, I don’t know how I will react,” says Sapna.

Meanwhile, Manju Ramanan, a journalist, is experiencing mixed emotions as she awaits her 19-year-old son Shashwat’s first visit home after he left last year to study mathematics and computer science at the University of California at Davis. “I’m curious to see if he has changed. Has he developed an accent? How has the university shaped his thoughts? Has he retained the values I brought him up with?” Manju wonders.

With schools and universities opening their gates to welcome students in the upcoming academic session after the Covid-19- pandemic-induced disruption of the last two years, these myriad experiences and feelings are probably being replayed at millions of homes. The empty nest syndrome has been a reality across cultures since generations but despite the technological advances that have bridged communication gaps, parents continue to experience that familiar sense of loss, grief and anxiety once their children fly off the nest.

New reasons to worry

This year, though, a new layer of complexity has been added — the fear of the pandemic, the global geo-political tensions, and the fact that children must go back to on-campus studies or jobs after nearly two years of working and studying from home during which families collectively battled the insecurities around.

Heather speaks for a lot of parents when she says, “We don’t live in a world where one can just hop and fly to any place where our children are. The worry about infection is still high and the global uncertainty, a war on the border of Europe and the high inflation often makes me wonder if this is the right time for my child to spread his wings,” she says.

According to a Pew Research Centre report, 52 per cent of American young adults were living with one or both of their parents in 2021, exceeding the numbers recorded during the Great Depression between 1929 and 1939.

Corresponding numbers for the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) aren’t available but the exodus is there for all to see, making the physical distances even more apparent for parents.

For instance, Sapna recollects how the family bonded when the kids returned home during peak Covid-19 in 2020-21 after they had already moved out a few years ago for their undergraduate degrees. “It suddenly felt like school days again. We watched movies, cooked, and had fun while Devika and Abhijeet continued their studies from home. Their departure after the university opened was inevitable yet it’s difficult to accept,” she says.

Acceptance was what Haya struggled with as well, facing a double whammy of an empty nest when both her children left home to study in the UK in 2020. Her own job had ended during the pandemic, so the emptiness was stark.

Fortunately, since the UAE had opened by September, Haya decided to fly to the UK to settle Sara and Asad in but the fluctuating Covid-19 situation in the UK resulted in the children, especially Sara, completing her studies from her room. “It was bizarre, I wondered if it was worth them going all the way to the UK to study if they could not experience the beauty of university life. But it could not be avoided. When I returned to Dubai, their absence hit me hard. I was coming back to a new home since we had decided to downsize, my children were away, Covid-19 rates were still high, and I was trying to figure out where I wanted to be in life!” she recalls.

Luckily, she found her mojo once she decided to look inwards and focus on herself. So, from joining a pottery class to going for pyjama parties and sleepovers with friends and binge-watching Narcos on Netflix with her husband, Haya did it all. And today, as she prepares to welcome Sara for a few days during the summer break, the experience has left her wiser than before. “Maybe this is my time to do things I didn’t do before,” she smiles.

Unfortunately, no amount of rationalisation can help as parents battle conflicting emotions of pride at seeing their children become more independent while realising their own role in their kids’ lives may have diminished.

Heather candidly admits, “Michael and I are on a video call every morning and he asks all his usual questions. But the meaning is gone, I see some sadness in his face as he misses things we did together, and I try to keep it together too. Also, I can already see greater self-reliance and resilience creeping in, I can see him taking responsibility for decisions he would have shared with me. I am so proud even if I feel a little shut out.”

The single-parent dilemma

All these challenges can take on a whole new dimension for single parents. Smita Nair, a real estate professional and single mom, says she realises the need to reevaluate her relationship with her UK-based son. “I can’t just have a mother-son relationship, I need to have adult discussions and be more of a friend,” she says.

Smita started preparing for her only son’s departure early on when she admitted him in a boarding school in India a few years ago. The pandemic and the subsequent restrictions resulted in the teenager having had to fly out directly to the UK, but the youngster coped remarkably well and is now back in Dubai for his summer break and an internship. He will fly out in a couple of months, leaving the nest empty again for Smita for whom the separation impacted in a big way. Primarily because, as a single parent, the decisions and emotions had to be hers alone, there was no one to share it with. “Even friends who may be going through something similar get busy with their lives,” she shrugs.

If Smita, as a mother, felt the need to recalibrate her dynamics with her son, single-dad Atul Dhawan tried a similar approach with his two sons, Arjun and Akshat. Atul was left alone when both his sons moved out at different points of time, but the businessman says he never held them back. “Was it easy? No, emptiness is never easy. It is how one copes with it that matters. I drowned more and more into my work and kept myself sane and happy.”

The key, he says, is to allow them to soar as high as they want without boundaries. “The pandemic or any other blockages never stopped me or my sons from doing anything. Both have their own personalities, but our connections continued without hitches. Today, I’m proud of my children and the way they have shaped up in life.” Atul says being a single parent made the transition easier. “The advantage is that I could make all my decisions about the children without having to consult anyone, it just made things smoother,” he says.

How to adjust

Coping mechanisms certainly are different for different people, but a lot depends on the relationship of proximity that parents and children share.

Dr Tara Wyne, a clinical psychologist at Lighthouse Arabia, says, “When a child leaves home and perhaps country or continent, we must redefine how our attachment works. We may suddenly hold different roles in each other’s lives which leaves us with our own adjustment process.”

Interestingly, children, with their remarkable ability to adapt to a new phase and country, play a key factor in this adjustment. As Manju observes, kids today are far more resilient than what parents give them credit for. She describes how she herself felt assured seeing son Shashwat thrive in his new surroundings. “He had become independent, had learnt cycling, was cleaning his own room… far from being the pampered child at home. He even coped with the strict University Covid protocols well,” she says. “I guess children have to be taught to enjoy their studies and the whole process of living alone.”

A lot of students are doing a neat balancing act of being sensitive to their parents’ needs and worries while enjoying a new phase in their lives.

Elysa Sales, an accountant, left her family in Sharjah to pursue studies in the Philippines for many years but while the decision allowed her to be more independent, she was acutely aware of what her parents were going through. Recently, her three siblings too moved out leaving her folks alone once again.

“My advice to children like me is to never stop contacting our parents for at least the first six months! It’s hard enough that they are adjusting without their kids but not talking to them might lead to depression and anxiety. So at least help them with the adjustment stage. It makes them feel that we still need them.”

Rediscover life and love

The best way of course, is to rediscover the joy of leading a carefree, child-free life again. Children moving out, even in trying circumstances, can be chances to re-explore a couple’s relationship with their spouse or do the things they could never do because they were too busy being responsible parents.

Smita and Haya advise to look at the brighter side — no school runs, no pick-ups and drops, no pressure to ensure only nutritious food is served and not having to wake up early to prepare kids for school! Then comes the important step of taking care of oneself.

“The first thing I did when I started feeling lonely after my son left was to hit the gym and work out. I focused on my health and devoted a lot of time to myself,” says Smita.

Going on holidays, catching up with friends and movies, rekindling a relationship with oneself and one’s spouse – there are enough and more reasons to be happy even if the current situation gives you reasons to worry. Manju has a tip for parents who oscillate between feelings of pride and despair. “Think about it from another angle — when children grow up and do well, don’t you feel gratified as a parent to give the world a responsible adult?”

And the stressful times we live in, could certainly do with more conscious young adults.

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