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Introspective Emanuel reflects on becoming an empty-nester

Rahm Emanuel and family

Rahm Emanuel and his family watch results on election night back in 2011, when he won his first term as Chicago mayor. He and his family — (from left) Zach, Leah, Emanuel, wife, Amy Rule and daughter Ilana — awaited returns at the Chicago Plumbers Local 130 UA, 1340 W. Washington St., Tuesday in Chicago. | Sun-Times file photo

On the seventh anniversary of his inauguration as mayor of Chicago, a surprisingly introspective Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday looked ahead to an emotional moment coming up: becoming an empty-nester when his youngest child goes off to college.

“How do I celebrate [the seventh anniversary]? You get your kids home, and you actually look at them and start crying,” the mayor said.

“When I first ran for Congress, Zach was 4, Ilana was 3, and Leah was a year-and-a-half. [Now] Zach is a rising senior. Ilana is a rising sophomore, and Leah is gonna be a freshman. You look at where they’re going to school, what they’re doing, what they’re interested in [and] you look at their friends. If I start talking about it, I might start crying. I really will because I’m so proud of them.”

The normally hard-edged Emanuel was in a cheerful but reflective mood because his two older kids — Zach and Ilana — were coming home from college Wednesday to spend their summers in Chicago.

Rahm Emanuel in 2002, on his way to vote in the Illinois primary during his first run for Congress. Walking with him to the Courtenay School gym, 1726 W. Berteau, were his wife, Amy Rule, with son Zach, then age 5, and Ilana, 3. Emanuel is carrying 22-month-old Leah. | Sun-Times file photo

In fact, Ilana called from the airport as the mayor chatted with reporters on the walk back to City Hall from a news conference along the downtown Riverwalk on a glorious Chicago morning.

The transition to empty-nester is one of the most difficult and emotional a parent can go through.

It requires trust, losing control, letting go and taking pride in watching your children grow and flourish to the point where they become more like adult friends instead of children.

Asked how the transition is going in the Emanuel household, the mayor called it “literally the first hours of a whole new experience.”

“Before, the kids were everything. Now that they’re gone, all we do is talk about the kids,” he said.

“Everything you work on for 18 years is for this moment — for them to be who they are and to grow up like this. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say there’s one part of you that feels a tad sad, but I have more joy than I do sadness.”

Rahm Emanuel votes in the 2002 Illinois primary election at Courtenay School Gym, 1726 W. Berteau, joined by son Zach and Leah, age 22 months. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago’s first Jewish mayor then used a Yiddish word that best describes a parent’s bursting pride in their children: nachas.

“Five percent is sadness. Ninety-five percent is total, pure joy that they are becoming the young adults you always hoped and exceeding that in every level. Most importantly, their values,” the mayor said.

“Our kids are at the point in their lives that, everything you worked towards, they’re accomplishing. They’re not only going to good schools, but they have good friends and more importantly, they have good values and they’re exploring their interests. And I’m incredibly proud of the young adults and the values that they’re showing. But that doesn’t mean I won’t yell at them tonight at dinner.”

Rahm Emanuel Amy Rule Leah Emanuel

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel (left) kisses the hand of his daughter, Leah, as his wife Amy Rule sits between them during his 2015 inauguration to a second term. | Associated Press

As for that seventh anniversary of his inauguration as mayor, Emanuel said he hadn’t even thought about it until a reporter bothered to ask.

Facing the fight of his political life against nine challengers in a mayoral election now just nine months away, Emanuel chose to use the question as a transition from the emotional to his mechanical political talking points.

“The question isn’t where am I? The question is, where is the city? And I think the city is headed in the right direction finally fixing things that were actually beginning to build up and becoming real weights on us. And also doubling down on our strengths,” the mayor said.

“Our fiscal position is stronger — which means companies and jobs, rather than fleeing the city, are coming back. Chicago is now seen as the gold standard for urban education. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Don’t get me wrong. But if you ask, where was it in 2011 and where is it today,” there’s been major progress.