The Tribune - Spectrum

, July 14, 2002
Lead Article

Coping with the empty nest
Juhi Bakhshi

SHE had been rather reluctant to move beyond the confines of her watery world. The doctors had forcibly pulled out this unwilling infant choking over her own chord. Her brother was a more willing entrant a year -and- a- half later. Together, the siblings made a roller-coaster out of their parents’ smooth lives for the next 24 years. Sleep, solitude, reading, movies, parties and friends were the immediate casualties. Their life became replete with hair- raising experiences that kept the young parents’ adrenaline and blood pressure on a continuous high. Coping with the empty nest

It could be a little finger that nearly entered the electric socket, a wrestling match that nearly lead to a broken spine, the house that was nearly burnt to cinders, after a failed chemistry experiment and children who were almost entirely covered with bandages and plasters after the collapse of their Phantom-style tree house.


School time brought the young parents face to face with demons they had thought they had left in the past — the logarithms, vectors, mutinies and wars. Late night sweet nothings were replaced by tackling monsters like homework, examination fevers, acne blues, broken hearts and the like. The dreaded teenage had its own blues. Weird music, dresses, attitudes, lingo of the children seemed too mild a problem as compared to the other possible teen-tragedies like AIDS, pre-marital sex, unwanted pregnancies, alcohol and drugs.

And just as suddenly as the teens had started, they were over. Barely had the parents got time to rejoice over safe passage of the terrible times, that their little girl merrily left the house to find herself a job, a husband and a new home. The son too ventured out immediately afterward to search for his golden future.

And suddenly, the nest was empty ... the house seemed too big, too empty and too quite and the work too little. The rooms remained clean. There were no magazines littered around, no frantic calls for help to search important documents buried under loads of week-old dirty laundry, no demands for special dinners, no dirty feet pock marking the rooms, no arguments on TV channels. The phone was mostly quite and easily available. Bathrooms remained dry and clean.

The parents were lost ... Quite, mindless hours spent in her children’s rooms tiding up the already tidy rooms betrayed the mother’s loneliness while the father lingered near the phone on the days their children were to call.

This is a fairly common story in many a family. For nearly twenty-odd years the parents nudge, nag, cajole, hug, and love the little ones to make them ‘decent’ beings.For years, they sweat and slog to fulfill the children’s demands. They rejoice and worry for their children as they get them ready to enter the real world. But once the goal is reached, many parents suffer rather than rejoice. They suffer from what is often called the empty nest syndrome.

Children set up their own worlds, meet their own demands, make their own decisions and move towards new horizons. For parents, who somewhere along the way have forgotten to separate their lives, dreams and ambitions from that of their children, life suddenly appears meaningless as they no longer feel ‘needed’ and old age seems a lonely and scary prospect.

No doubt there are happy empty nests too, for whom the freedom from child rearing becomes a rewarding experience. But there are many parents, especially in our child-centered Indian society, who make this stage a negative turning point in their lives.

Regrets come easy as retired Army officer Col Rajdeep Singh realised. "As my children went out of the house, I realised how few of their memories I had with me. I was not present during their birth, missed much of their childhood, courtesy the fauj, and post-retirement got too busy attaining material success," the Colonel ruefully recalls.

Regrets are easy to garner. There always will be things that could have been done better and things that were left undone. But dwelling on regrets transforms them into guilt which leads to a feeling of failure. Avoid regrets. For any genuine failings, now is the time to make amends. Take that family vacation; plan annual family get together. If you have missed on your child’s childhood, work to establish an adult rapport him/her. As adults, you might prove more of a company to each other than you ever imagined.

When children leave the home, most parents bid goodbye to late nights and early mornings. They let life slip into a comfortable routine, and can come fairly close to being called lazy. A lonely, lazy life is a short, sad life.

A good idea is to get involved with nurturing something new, something that motivates you every day to rise and shine. Life then moves on a much happier track as it did for Nilam, a 49-year-old businesswoman, who always wanted to do "something meaningful" with her life. When her child left home, she realised she could take time off from home and work to get down to that "something meaningful." She is now happily engaged in working for a human rights organisation, motivating women to stand up against sexual exploitation.

Selfishness is a strange malady that inflicts several empty nesters. After devoting prime years of life to the young, it is easy to say; "Now it is my turn." Many parents become grumpy grouches by forever dwelling on what their children are not doing for them. Thus, a single professional mother, who refused to move out of Delhi with her children to smaller cities, to safeguard her independent lifestyle, forever grumbled how her children did not call her enough on the phone, or visit her as often as she desired.

Too many expectations and demands lead to disappointments and strained relationships. Keep expectations down to realistic levels. Remember we give back to the circle of life only what we have taken from it. Our parents gave us the prime of their lives and we have given ours to our children. A life of meaning and joy comes from devoting ourselves to others. We should give to others just as we give in our kids. Volunteer for the local spastic society, or visit the nearby senior citizens’ home to spread cheer to the neglected. You will find that you rarely dwell on what others did not do for you.

The children’s leaving the homes is not the only issue that rankles the 50-something parents. It also happens to be the time when many parents are forced to confront certain uncomfortable facts about their mutual relationship. The fact is that the parents have been mom and dad for so long that they have forgotten to be lovers, friends and even individuals.

A realisation of how far apart the two partners have drifted can hit the couple rather painfully, as Piyasha, a home-maker, and Pradeep, a retired civil servant, realised when they went on long-awaited second honeymoon to the romantic deserts of Rajasthan. To their horror, they realised they had diametrically opposite views on what they wanted out of their holiday. She wanted to visit ancient sites and ruins while he wanted to do nothing more than read a magazine and sip gin and tonic by the pool. Evenings were no better as the couple sat opposite each other over exquisite candle-lit dinners staring into the night, finding nothing to discuss.

Taking the focus away from the children almost means turning the focus to each other. Sometimes, it might mean an establishment of a meaningful and fruitful relationship in which partners rekindle their romance and befriend each other anew to provide companionship and love to each other in those twilight years of life.

But sometimes, in more tragic situations, it means that after the children have left, the parents may find no common threads to bring them closer to each other and may decide to part ways forever. In Indian society, it may often mean that the spouses continue to reside under the same roof though more like strangers. If this is a mutual decision, then it is essential for the couple to seek support systems in the form of say, a cards-playing group, a religious-philosophical society, golf, birdies, a local volunteer group and the like.

The day you planned your first-born you made a commitment spanning 20-odd years of your life. When that commitment is over, it is time to begin anew with plans for the next 20 years. Now is the time to do things that you always wanted to but never found the time for. Go get yourself into shape at the local gym. Feel young. Go for that mountain trek you always desired. Give up that poorly paid job that you clung to solely because of domestic compulsions. Get that neglected garden of yours into shape. Meditate, rekindle your romance. Dare to follow your dream. Treat each day as a new opportunity to live life king size and see what happiness you will bring into your own life and that of your little birdies.