Friends keep asking me how I’m doing. It’s an understandable question, I suppose, given this is the summer Everything Changes. And maybe I’m misreading all those furrowed brows and sympathetic nods, but I’d swear it seems like they imagine me to be curled into the fetal position when I’m home alone, quivering in the corner of my closet sucking my thumb.
Except I’m not. I’m fan.tas.tic.
My oldest graduated college a month ago; my youngest graduated from high school two weeks later. My husband and I are official Empty Nesters but we won’t feel its full impact until my daughter heads west for a two-year Fellows Program in September and my son leaves for his freshman year in college. Then, their absence will fill canyons.
Would you like to know why I’m doing so well?
Because this is the way things ought to be.
Really, it’s that simple.
For 18 years a parent is obligated and privileged to steward their children’s lives. We’re on 24 hours a day for about 6,570 days, give or take. We teach and train and guide and direct and coach and carry and challenge and charge and request and command and demand. Just when you have a grasp of one season, things change. Imperceptibly sometimes, when you don’t even see it coming. Other times it’s a sledgehammer to the head…or worse, heart.
One summer you’re slathering them in sunscreen, the next you’ll be handing them the bottle to do it themselves…and the next you won’t even have to remind them. That one lesson they learned the hard way was a grand teacher–who knew you could get sunburned there?
Physical needs in those early years gradually inch toward emotional demand.
When my youngest was born, the oldest of my three was just four. It was exhausting. I remember some days feeling like the breath of life was sucked out of me. Babies are a sweet sort of dementor* who’ll drain every drop of energy you’ve got. You wonder how in the world people with “more children” can do it; more children is just one more than you have.
Children are handed a set of keys as they learn to read; and once they start reading to learn, you’ll thrill when they open new doors. You’ll hold your breath when they master two wheels, but the first time they drive off in four, you might stop breathing altogether. The hurt you feel with each skinned knee and stubbed toe will give way to an inextinguishable ache when feelings are wounded. Mamas become bears when injustice knocks.
The days are long, so very long.
But then one day, they’re not.
I started praying for my children before they were born, and I suppose that will never stop. They sure give you plenty of reasons.
I had a rude awakening when my oldest was eight, when a friend made a declaration that rattled my soul on his son’s 10th birthday–
“I’ve already had him longer than I will.”
It took a few seconds to absorb what he meant, but once I understood, I hated the thought.
But it was transformative in my parenting in a good sense, a means of preparing me for where I am now. It takes about this long to get ready, but I’m not sure you ever truly are.
But, like I said, this is the way things out to be, at least in our culture. You’re raising them to be independent, responsible, compassionate adults who’ll contribute to society through meaningful work and service; and because we follow Jesus, our hope and prayer is that they would follow Him, too (and mine are, despite their parents’ shortcomings).
You and I are not raising our children to be dependent, irresponsible adults, indefinitely living under our respective roofs. If they’re without physical limitations or special needs, it is right and good they leave one day.
Look at this picture. Can you tell me what’s dreadfully wrong?
The nest is sitting on my brick stairs, not in the shrub where it was built.
Upon discovering it after uprooting that shrub, we tried to woo the mama back by sticking the nest in an adjacent bush. The mama was frantic in those initial hours, and she even flew into the bush where we relocated her home and I thought we had saved their little bird family. But it was short lived…day after day I watched over that nest, realizing after a week, she wasn’t coming back.
Those precious little eggs were never going to grow up and leave that nest like they were supposed to. They were going to stay there forever, unhealthy and never reaching their potential.
That nest preached a powerful word over me. Baby birds are created to grow up and fly away. They’ll never reach their destiny if they’re tethered to their home.
In other words, what may feel like loss is not loss at all.
For your children to step over the threshold of high school graduation and to move on to the next season in their lives – be it college or job or military service, or even an intentional gap year – is cause for celebration! You’ve done well, mama or daddy!
Your role is changing and your children will begin seeing you with different eyes. No longer are you walking in front of your children with them trailing in your wake; now, let them stand by your side. Maybe not as equals – they still want and need you as their parent more than they need you as their friend – but conversation will become more even if you let it, welcome it, invite it.
I’m finding already, having two in college and beyond, that those 18 years of having my children under my roof, through consistent, intentional (albeit imperfect) parenting has earned trust. My children want to hear our counsel; not as the boss of their decisions, but to provide them sound advice. They’ve arrived at the conclusion that we love them without condition and more than anyone else, and that our previous counsel has proven wise. They’re seeing us with new eyes, yes, but they’re also listening with open ears. It doesn’t mean they follow everything we say, but they care about our opinion. Your children care about yours.
It’s important to note that just because I’m doing well, doesn’t mean I’m not sad sometimes. Random things will make me cry — walking past my youngest’s room and seeing his ancient, filthy Pillow Pet sprawled on his neatly made bed, cooking a dish my daughter taught me how to make, my middle son’s empty room — but it would be a disservice to all of us if that was where I lived.
I understand how many fall into a pit during this transition, I do…. You’ve invested time, energy, love and attention into your children; no doubt you’ve sacrificed much in the process. In many ways you surrender your own dreams to make way for your children’s…for a while, anyway.
But if you’re like me one day, when your children are launching and it’s awfully quiet in your home, you have a choice to make: to celebrate or mourn.
There is a right answer.
I want to tell you right now, this is a new day.
All this life you’ve been living to get you where you are, serves purpose. You know things.
You know things that those coming behind you do not know, cannot know, because they haven’t lived it. This is not a season of loss but great gain. You have time you have not had, you have capacity and margin that for a long, long while didn’t exist. Whether you realize it or not, you have been accumulating a wealth of knowledge of immense value through experience and life.
You can not move forward if you’re only looking back.
In recent years if there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it is “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” In many ways, what I’ve thought I’ve wanted has eluded me, and what I’ve received I could never have anticipated. While I don’t know with surety what my future holds, I’m standing on the edge of something new, and I’m eager and expectant.
I believe that if God is who he says he is, what awaits is ultimately for my good and his glory.
Don’t dread this season. Prepare as best you can, consider the alternatives, and celebrate the precious milestones in not only your children’s lives, but also your own. And I hope with all my heart when I ask you how you’re doing, you’ll be able to say in all honesty…