Expert Speak

Here’s why you shouldn’t let your children be your only identity

Dr Rima Mukherjee speaks to Team Bonobology about an extreme case of empty nest syndrome and how she helped the lady get past it.
single mom and son

(As told to Aarti Pathak)

Dr.Rima Mukherji Dr. Rima Mukherji MBBS, DPM, MRCPsych (London) , After gaining 7 years of experience in the UK, Dr. Mukherji set up the renowned Crystal Minds, a mental wellness centre (with a multidisciplinary team offering a wide range of psychiatric and psychological services for all age groups) in Kolkata.

A woman from the Calcutta suburbs was brought to me by her family one day and I was told that she was suffering from acute depression ever since her son left for college. It was a regular middle-class family.

Once her sessions began, the roots of her problem became clear. She had two children, one son and daughter. The gender bias was more than apparent. The mother had not cut the boy’s umbilical cord and she thrived on the knowledge that her son needed her. She got her validation through it, it was her identity, and this made the relationship co-dependent.

A mutual dependence

The daughter had figured out soon that if she wanted to get anywhere in life she’d have to fend for herself. No maternal care was coming her way beyond the very basic of food and shelter provided by the family. All the affections were reserved for the son. Which in turn left him more dependent on his mother.

The boy would sleep each night in the parents’ room. It worked out fine when he was a schoolboy but when he grew up and the regular double bed was not enough for three people, even then, the parents did not ask him to move out. Instead, the father would move to a guest bed to make space for the son. A child will never say I want to sleep in my room. This change has to be brought about by the parents. And most parents will agree that one has to kick the kids out night after night till it gets into their heads that they must sleep in their own room, on their own bed. When the parents here did not do so, the grown up son carried on as before. It suited the mother just fine.

Related reading: My husband and I are about to divorce because of his mother

Then the son left home

Fortunately, the boy was intelligent and made it to IIT, but that did not bring any joy to the mother who began to feel that she would be losing her reason to live, her son, and the problem worsened when he left.

The mother went into depression, stopped eating and began to blackmail the son. She blamed him for abandoning her, being selfish and putting his career before his mother. She lost all purpose in her life. Often she would call up her son who was at college and cry and blame him. The boy began to lead a life of guilt and also was constantly worried for his mother. The husband, who was thrilled at his son’s selection to IIT, was furious with his wife’s irrational behaviour and this led to a rift in their marriage. That is when she was brought to me.

Related reading: All married couples pass through these 5 stages. Which stage of marriage are you in?

How we treated her

First things first. We started by treating her depression. Next we had sessions with the husband and explained to him to not have such a severe stance with his wife and that his emotional support could help her heal faster. Next we moved to the root cause of her problem. She didn’t have a concept of her own identity. That had to be changed. We told her, you should be happy for your son and not think that he has abandoned you.

Second, she had to be taught that she ‘has’ the right to enjoy her life and do the things that ‘she’ likes to do. She used to learn Rabindra Sangeet before marriage. After a few sessions with us, she resumed her music lessons and that began her healing process. She began to feel again that her life has meaning. Her husband too was not as resentful of her as before.

Enjoy her life
Image source

And how could we forget the daughter? We asked the mother, are you aware that you have another child at home, who may also need your love? Do you think the bias is not apparent to her? She is coping well now, but if you continue to ignore her existence and don’t give her the love and care that she deserves, she is bound to develop life long psychology issues as well. In time, she began to think about her daughter, too.

expert natve

Today she and the family are doing much better and the process of healing still continues for all of them. They took the sound decision of seeking counselling and saved their family in the nick of time.

Coping with the empty nest once the children have moved on is definitely possible. If nothing works, seek professional counselling. That will definitely help you cope with the pain.

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