He is the culinary tough guy, known for getting as heated as the casserole he has just put into the oven and infamous for giving everyone around him a verbal roasting. But earlier this year, Gordon Ramsay revealed he is as soft as a souffle somewhere inside – at least when it comes to his children leaving home.

This revelation came courtesy of an appearance by the chef on James Corden’s Late Late Show, during which the host asked him how he was dealing with his 18-year-old son’s departure to the University of Exeter. The easy thing would have been to have laughed it off, with a few throwaway comments about how these days they are back before we know it – the boomerang generation are never gone for long.

But instead, Ramsay was refreshingly upfront: he was “gutted” at having to say goodbye to Jack, and revealed that he had recently gone into his boy’s bedroom, opened his drawers and put on a pair of pants he found there. At this point Corden, who a few seconds earlier had been admitting he could already feel the tears welling up at the thought of his baby leaving home, turned to good-natured mockery. Was Ramsay, he asked, sitting there all on his own in his kid’s underpants, listening to All By Myself by Celine Dion?

There was a slight sense of no one quite knowing what to make of Ramsay’s confession of pure anguish, but it is an anguish that every parent going through the stage of children leaving home will recognise.

My eldest daughter, 26, left for university eight years ago and now lives in the Netherlands. I still mooch around her room, looking at the books on her shelves and the photos on her wall, squirting perfume from the almost-finished bottle on her dressing table and occasionally trying on one of her outfits (they don’t fit me, alas). I am almost shocked by the realisation that it’s over: that period of intense, demanding, physical parenting that you once couldn’t see the end of. This is the moment of truth: it doesn’t last forever. Your children go, and you must carry on without them.

My second daughter, 24, is moving out soon to live with friends; my third is at university in Scotland; so I’m down to just my youngest, who is 16. Like Ramsay, I’m acutely aware of how precious the next couple of years with her at home will be. He too has a 16-year-old daughter, and told Corden he has suggested to her that she postpones leaving home until she’s 25.

[When the fledglings fly: how to overcome the pain of empty nest syndrome]

He is joking about that, of course, because searing though it is, the thing we all know inside is that we can’t hold our children back. It is the fundamental paradox of parenthood: we bring them up with one ambition, which is to let them go. The more able they are to cut the strings and have fun, live well and enjoy their lives, the better we’ve done – but the bigger the loss, because the less they need us now.

I remember dropping one of my daughters off at the airport at some unearthly hour for her first trip to join friends on a dubious-sounding beach holiday in the Med, and seeing her walk away from me at the security gates. She didn’t look back once. I took it as a good sign, but it still broke my heart.

In effect, we are making ourselves redundant from the most important, life-affirming and meaningful job we’ll ever do: raising the next generation of human beings. And it’s definitely a good thing that Ramsay is busting the myth that it is just homemaker mums who feel the sharpness of the pain when kids move out. Whether you are a celebrity with a busy schedule or a parent who has given up your career to care for your children, the fallout is the same.

Because children leaving home is a very big and poignant moment. It is a culmination of so many feelings, all of them pretty crucial to what your life story is all about. The overwhelming emotion, on the day you drop them off at university and the days and weeks that follow, is sheer sadness that they’re not around any more. After all, you’ve got through the bad bits of adolescence; they’ve come through and you’ve realised that you’ve got a pretty good kid after all. He or she is funny, wise, friendly and caring – and, suddenly, gone.

Once they’ve left home, they have to make their own mistakes: you can’t stop them and you shouldn’t even try (because we all learn from our mistakes and our children need to go on learning).

And although with our kids’ departure comes a kind of liberation, let’s be honest: if that was all we wanted, we wouldn’t have devoted the past 18 years to raising them. It is the end of an era and, like Ramsay, we are all the better for marking it honestly, and for being open and truthful about what it means – even if that does mean wallowing in their room, wearing their clothes.

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