Our family calendar is peculiar these days, marked by the sort of events that blur the present and practically obliterate the future. Right now we are necessarily all about plans and anticipation that will result in an empty nest, and we therefore can’t really conceive of anything beyond these major celebrations. Our middle child gets married in May; our youngest graduates from high school in June. If there is going to be a July this year, I’m only vaguely aware of it.
We are decidedly in what some refer to as the “launching phase.” It’s a season that’s easier to track when your children are relatively close together, as are ours. We have three children, and they are in total four and a half years apart. So between the high school graduation of the first, in 2014, and the high school graduation of the third, all three of them will have flown the coop, so to speak, before mid-2019. Throw in two weddings and we’ve sealed the deal—on two counts, anyway.
People tell me I’m young for this, and maybe that’s the case—but it makes little difference to the experience itself. The experience itself is the thing. As mother-of-the-groom, I am far less busy than my counterpart on the bride’s side, but there is nonetheless planning to do. And the graduation, coupled with all the end-of-senior-year things, is a multi-layered project.
But when my peers—almost all of whom have children younger than mine—ask me about how and what I’m doing, they don’t want to see my planner. They want to know how I’m doing it. They want to know how to let go.
When Will was a baby waking from his nap, I would hear his cheerful babbles coming through the monitor. I was always happy to see him but sometimes didn’t go get him right away: the priceless naptime often found me racing to accomplish things I wanted to finish before getting him from his crib.
If I waited long enough, he would often make his way to his music box. It was easy to work, and soon enough his happy sounds were joined by the music box melody.
We still have that music box, and once in a long while I play it just to listen again to a long-lost sound of baby William waking up.
Parenting is a process of letting go, of course—one that some grieve more than others. But we have our children in order to let them go, to see them grow into a thriving adulthood. Any other way is an aberration. The trick, then, is knowing how to participate rather than blocking the way—and this is especially true when our children are actually getting ready to leave.
I think it is grace and careful observation that taught me this, because my tendency is tenacity: I’m prone to holding on a bit too hard. I’m the grieving kind of mother, the one noting the growth and changes with delight and sadness, sorry to see that last stage go. And while this bent has its gifts, it also has its hazards: this propensity to treasure can be treasuring too much. It can mean turning a blind eye to the joys of a child’s potential; it can mean making my child a means to my own ends. It can mean preferring what I want over the magnificence of God’s plan for my child in his kingdom.
It can mean selfishness.
I have seen the effects of this in others, I’m sorry to say: mothers who begrudge their son’s wife, who become bitter over necessary and newfound independence. Mothers who envy their daughter’s success, who eclipse their child’s joy with their own resentment.
I’m not claiming that the former—the tendency to treasure one’s children—automatically leads to the latter. But it certainly can.
When he was a baby, Everett (the one about to get married) found sleeping a challenge. I remember laying him down for a nap and then peering in at him, hoping he was asleep. So often he lay still but staring, and I would watch and wait, willing him to close his eyes.
The trouble was worse at night. No matter how much nursing or rocking, he couldn’t seem to settle in but would fuss and cry for hours. For the first three months of his life, neither of us slept much at all. I would pace with him, cradle him, gently bounce him. I would sing to him, talk to him, and beg God to let him sleep. Those days and nights seemed desperate at the time, but happily he sleeps just fine now.
So often, when one is planning a wedding, I have heard this excellent wisdom: that the couple is planning a marriage more than they are a wedding. This is so wise—and difficult.
After all, the wedding seems to be the thing: the dress, the guests, the food, the venue. It asks a lot of us; it’s necessarily an Event. It requires so much time and focus that what comes after—the years and years of commitment and faithfulness—can seem like an afterthought.
In light of this, a couple’s focus on the marriage itself in the midst of wedding planning is a saving grace.
The same is true of parenting. As I said above, we have our children in order to let them go. But in the case of parenting, that preparatory stage—the infancy, childhood, adolescence—takes so long and requires so much investment that it begins to feel like the thing itself. It is an enormous Event. It takes years (and years) of our lives to get them ready to go. It feels, in truth, like the sum of our lives.
No wonder letting them go is so… well, difficult.
We forget that letting go is also natural. Release is our natural state. To grip something— anything—requires at least some effort: tension in fingers, palm, wrist, even forearm. Release, by contrast, is relaxation; the opening of the hands is a kind of rest.
And yet, when it comes to our children… Well. I’ve said it already: it’s difficult.
Interesting then—and sweet—that our Father calls us to rest. Our Shepherd creates for us a space in which we are without need; he makes us lie down where the pastures are soft and green, he leads us along waters that are quiet and peaceful (Psalm 23:1-2). He invites us to share his yoke and says that, in doing so, we will find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:29).
Scripture tells us that his relentless desire is our rest and peace, which might mean, among other things, the release of our death-grip on the things we think we need, the opening of our hands so that we can accept what he offers us. The delivery of our children into his will and desire for them—all of which mean, of course, that we trust his wisdom, his plan, his mercy. And we trust his watchful care over our children, whom he loves far more than we do.
When we hold onto things, we can’t simultaneously see and enjoy them. Sure, we have that thing enclosed in our proverbial palm, but caught up in that tightly wrapped fist, how can we enjoy it? That shell, that pebble, that feather you found on your walk is locked away in your hand.
So too that child you love so dearly that you are squeezing him in your grip. He can’t be enjoyed—indeed, can’t breathe—when you’re holding on like that. At the first sign of relaxing your fingers, he’ll be gone and, recalling his imprisonment, might not want to come back.
Emma is our only girl. As last to arrive, she was the one whose lesser needs were often fitted around what her older brothers were doing. Thus the naps in the stroller on the soccer sidelines or in the car during errands.
She was also a very happy and easy-going baby, a fact of her nature that all of us appreciated.
One afternoon, napping at home, she awoke in tears. When I reached her room, she lay on her stomach in her crib, pushing her head and torso off her mattress with chubby hands and fists. Her face was red and round tears were flowing down her face.
But as soon as she saw me, her crying stopped and she grinned. The tears were still rolling, but she seemed to forget her sadness instantly.
Releasing my children, I tell my friends, is an act of love for both them and for God. I want to see them thrive and grow, to find out who they are, to foster and use their gifts, to build other relationships, to serve in this kingdom we see growing invisibly around us. And I want to yield to what the Father is doing, to trust that his plan is far bigger and more beautiful than mine. To trust that his Son’s death paid for a bride that my children are a part of. When I am fully honest with myself about my sadness in my children’s going, I must also be honest with God: he is all my hope—for myself, for my husband, for my children. My children’s departure is part of his work in the world. I have to trust him with that.
So when my oldest—in the weeks before he graduated from high school, and then in the weeks before he departed for his gap year to serve in Madagascar, and then in the weeks before his wedding—kindly asked me how I was feeling about these changes, I didn’t share my sadness with him. That sadness isn’t his: it belongs to me, my husband, and God; to share it with Will, I thought, might in some way make him regret what he had chosen. Instead, I answered always with what is also true: “I’m so excited for you.”
Turns out I was right to be excited. His life now is beautiful—and it is just beginning.
Not that this is easy. While I’ve argued that release is our natural state, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Our children are priceless. Those years with them at home were just their beginnings, but for my husband and me, they were prime.
I have long said that rearing my children was my magnum opus. I will never again do something—outside of building my marriage—that is so important.
In light of that, their going is a very real grief. When I do look ahead to the rumored July or even September, to the days when my husband and I will be living alone (well, with the pets) in this house where we reared our children, I imagine some terrible loneliness. Strange that God would ask such investment in people who would matter so much, only to (necessarily) take them away.
Or is it? Here is where I am (again and again) helped by the realization that it was his Son he gave, his Son he lost.
And here is where I am helped by his compassion, because the God we serve, the living God, wastes nothing. While he is building a kingdom and completing a plan for the world’s salvation, the little things are nonetheless precious to him too.
Jesus told us how the Father watches the sparrow, and so I believe he treasures the memory of William’s music box and Emma’s grin. And he remembers my sleepless vigils with Everett. He recalls the infant hair that curled like a baby bird’s feathers and how, when I rocked him and wished for sleep, I also loved how soft it was and the way it brushed against my cheek.