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An Empty Nester's Perspective on Cutting the Apron Strings

The author shares her touching first-hand experience of sending her children off to college with disarming candor, wit and wisdom.
BY Rakhi Bhandari |   11-02-2020

Rakhi Bhandari
Rakhi Bhandari

They say it takes a village to raise a child. This did not ring entirely true for my two boys unless you take into account the varied roles I was expected to assume as a single parent in North America. Mom, babysitter, chef, chauffeur, nurse, housekeeper, teacher, laundryman, disciplinarian, entertainer and vigilante were par for the course. At times, it seemed like an interminable and thankless job; one without instructions and without supervision, but look close enough and in the tangle of those messy and exhausting times are those precious, unpredictable moments that keeps us tethered to our children. Like most mothers, I was hardwired to take on any challenges that came my way while keeping my gaze steadily on the finish line, but I learnt that the line appears abruptly no matter how well one prepares for it and life as you know it is never the same again. It happened to me a few months ago when I dropped of my youngest at his dorm.

My sons are five years apart in age. When the older of the two went away to college I wept unabashedly on campus, much to his horror. It was evident that he was better at masking his own emotions or perhaps the excitement he felt in anticipation of campus life overshadowed his nostalgia. He reassured me that he would come home often and tried to highlight the positive aspects of life without him. Less cooking, less cleaning, less laundry.

I felt bereft and his words fell on deaf ears. My youngest attempted to cheer me up but I could see past that sunny façade. I sensed that somewhere deep down inside lurked the fear, now that his brother was away, of being the sole recipient of my attention.

Four years later, I found myself immersed knee deep in another round of college preparations; days and nights ran together in an infinite jumble with an onslaught of essays, campus tours, SAT’s and applications to conquer. The lists were endless and even as I checked them off, the nail-biting anticipation of the acceptance letters began.

At the end of this past summer, I was once again packing and loading my youngest son’s belongings into the car, a ritual that was now familiar, but not much easier. With my youngest going away to college, I was faced with the bitter-sweet sensation of dealing with the void while having less responsibility and more freedom to pursue my own interests. This time around the significance was far greater, the roller coaster of emotions more intense. I would experience first-hand the “empty nest syndrome,” a phrase I tended to throw around with ease until it was my turn. My sorrow turned to dread as the day of departure crept up. I had taken on the task of parenting with all the seriousness of a Weddell Seal, and now that it was time to set the last one free, I had no idea what to expect. I wept once more, albeit with more discretion as I dropped him off and drove away back to my empty apartment. I showered and went out to dinner — my friends knowing it would be a rough day had planned it ahead of time.

I laid low for a couple of days, going about my business, keeping busy and practicing my yoga with ferocity. By the third day, I began to experience a shift in perspective; I no longer had to cook or eat what someone else wanted and I ate when I wanted to. I no longer needed to clean up after another body and each time I lifted the lid of the laundry hamper I heard ‘The laundry song’ play in my head. My leisure time was mine to do what I saw fit. I began to see the upside of being an empty nester and to revel in all its glory. I continued to feel the vacuum that my sons had left but the gloom and doom had vanished. The paint on my fingernails remained intact and I had time to read the books that I had once bought with optimism, but had sat on the shelves collecting dust for months. I was enjoying this way too much and it became a moral dilemma. Was I a terrible parent for feeling this way? I called each of them once a week, sometimes they called me. They sounded well-adjusted and content.

With time, I found clarity. I disengaged with the self-inflicted guilt trips I was experiencing when I realized that I had been present without exception throughout my sons’ lives. I sent them into the world well equipped to deal with reality and with a strong sense of belonging. They know they are loved and that they can return to me when they want or need to and as if to prove it, the youngest was back at my doorstep with a massive suitcase in tow in early December. A month-long winter break stretched out before us and I received him with the same bitter-sweet emotions. I had anticipated his arrival with excitement while I braced myself for the extra workload. Gone was my me-time and successful weight loss program. A week into it and I had forgotten what it was like to be on my own and soon the oldest returned home too. They huddled around me, shouting over each other to be heard, cleaning out the fridge and filling up the laundry hamper with alarming speed. It was like they had never left, and I reveled in the confusion, in the messiness of living, and in the love and affection that was being heaped upon me by the two young men I had once cradled in the crook of my arm.

Rakhi Bhandari has been a contributor to Braingain magazine, India Abroad and Phillyfit magazine. A trained chef and entrepreneur, her writing career began with her passion for cooking.



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