A Sudden Loss for Words

Why reading is so difficult in my newly empty nest.

A Sudden Loss for Words

My son left home for college recently. I suspected the experience wouldn’t be smooth and anticipated a short period of intense sorrow. But I also thought there’d be a silver lining. I’ve been a single mother since he was small, and now that my days of active parenting were coming to an end, I could focus on myself. I could go to bed early (or late) and wake up early (or late), take yoga classes or go on hikes, eat what (and when) I wanted, attend happy hours, socialize with friends — and, most of all, read.  

But instead of a mixture of sorrow and relief, I experienced a different combination of feelings. First, I was excited to see my son’s foray into college life. It reminded me of my own entry into young adulthood, when the possibilities seemed endless. Already, he’s making new friends, starting to play volleyball, doing laundry, keeping his side of the dorm room tidy (a skill I didn’t know he possessed), and thinking about his future.

But alongside my sense of elation at his “The world is my oyster” chapter was a distinct feeling of discomfort at my own “Well, what now?” chapter. This uneasiness wasn’t intense, but it seemed always present. 

I was an introverted only child, my isolation compounded by growing up in a remote hill town in India. But what taught me to survive, even thrive, in solitude was reading. When I was very little, my parents would read in bed at night, and I’d lie between them holding a book upside-down. After I learned to read, my mother made sure I had a constant supply of books. It felt exhilarating to leave behind my idyllic but sleepy Himalayan town and enter fictional worlds where steady streams of drama unfolded constantly.

Every stage of my childhood was marked by the books I read: my earliest years by those of British children’s author Enid Blyton; then Indian mythological comics, Nancy Drew, and Hardy Boys mysteries; later, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse; and finally, eclectic novels ranging from Gone with the Wind to Crime and Punishment.

I became a single parent when my son was a toddler, and reading quickly took a back seat. There was so much to do — work, childcare, household chores — and so little time. I read when I could but was no longer voracious. I looked back at my childhood wistfully and told myself I’d get lost again in books someday.

Then, someday arrived.

But now that my son is gone and I have more time than I know what to do with, I somehow can’t read beyond a few paragraphs. Instead, I instantly turn to my laptop and watch a YouTube video or stream a show. Or five shows. Audiobooks are no better. I’ll listen for a few minutes and then hit pause.

I realize that I’m operating at a just-about-functional level. I work, cook dinner, do the dishes, go for walks, and visit friends. But I also spend hour after empty hour watching TV. Not only do I watch a constant stream of shows, I frequently re-watch especially captivating ones two or three times back-to-back.

Yes, I know: This is unhealthy. But what I realize hasn’t changed amid my “new normal” is that I still crave stories — the more intense, the better. It’s just that reading them requires too much effort right now, which isn’t surprising. Studies show that while reading is active, watching TV is gloriously passive. Spending hours in front of the TV is also bad for your health, whereas hours of reading is the opposite. Reading leads to reduced anxiety and better sleep, and one study found that it even reduces mortality. Binge-watching TV, on the other hand, can increase a person’s chance of dying from a pulmonary embolism (at least according to one particularly alarming study). 

The aphorism “Knowledge is power” should actually be “Knowledge can be power.” It’s not always easy to choose what’s better for you over what’s worse, especially when you’re in a vulnerable state. No wonder some of us overeat or drink too much when we’re stressed or stop exercising when we’re sad. Or watch too much TV when we’re at loose ends.

For me, it’s harder to be an adult when there’s no one to be an adult for. 

Friends tell me what I’m going through is understandable. And when I look within myself, I feel sympathy for my predicament. I’ve moved from a place of togetherness to one of separateness. After so many years as part of a family, I’ve forgotten how to be alone. In fact, being alone has become so uncomfortable that I feel compelled to distract myself — constantly. Existing peacefully on my own is a skill I need to relearn, and my identity is something I need to redefine. It’s not that I’m no longer a mother, it’s that I’m no longer primarily one.  

All I know is that my identity — like my healing — has something to do with the stack of books piling up at home. It’s a comfort knowing they’ll be there when I’m ready for them.

Ananya Bhattacharyya is a Washington-based editor and writer. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Guardian, Lit Hub, Baltimore Sun, Al Jazeera America, Reuters, Vice, Washingtonian, and other publications.

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