I have spent the majority of the last twenty years either pregnant or nursing. And raising children.
Now, half my children are mostly raised. One daughter is married, one taking a gap year between high school and beyond, a third is a senior finishing her AA through a dual-enrollment program, and a fourth is an accomplished freshman athlete. My parenting responsibilities with them are basically done. And that is difficult…more difficult than I imagined.
Obviously, I am not the first to face this transition. Nor will I be the last. To be honest, though, I wasn’t prepared. Time has gone too quickly. Even though I’ve treasured as many moments as I could, even though many told me the years were short, even though they aren’t all gone yet, time has gone far too quickly. I wish I could get it back.
That realization, however, doesn’t prevent me from wasting time with my other children. My youngest isn’t even five years old yet. And stretched out before me are too many choices, too many obligations, too many opportunities to miss out, on something.
When I started my parenting career, nobody told me how painful this journey would be…how I would, at some point, no longer be able to control every aspect of my children’s lives, and how badly that loss of control would hurt. Nobody warmed me that being a mother was like wearing my heart on the outside of my body, with little protection from damage.
Nobody warned me.
That I remember…
Honestly, even if they had, I don’t know that I would have been able to understand. It’s like trying to explain flying to someone whose never been on a plane, or trying to explain snow to someone in the Amazon Rain Forest, or trying to explain giving birth to someone whose never been pregnant. It is very difficult to do.
So, I will pass on to other mothers the warning I wish I’d received…that parenting is painful, if you’re doing it right. And that pain is a sign that you’re doing a good job, you’re “fully vested” in the process. You see, if you were parenting and your heart wasn’t involved, that would be a problem. Can you really parent well when your decisions are based on how to protect yourself from pain? Probably not…
And, in the end, that shouldn’t be the goal. Not if we truly love our children.
There is an old poem, the author of which I can’t remember. Nor do I recall the context in which I first heard it, but the concept has stuck with me for years. The basic gist is, the real test of love is for me to give someone the freedom to reject me. That is what we do with our children; we pour our hearts into them, investing countless hours, incredible passion, and unimaginable amounts of money, only to watch them walk away. Whether they embrace the values we so diligently tried to instill, or practice the lifestyle we modeled, or engage in the endeavors we invested in is totally up to them. What they do with what we’ve given is, in many regards, a test of our parenting…and regardless of the outcome, there is a level of pain.
The question is how to respond to the pain?
How we answer that question will, to a large degree, determine what kind of relationship we enjoy with our adult children. If we withdraw and guard against further heartache or disappointment, our children may interpret that behavior as rejection and respond in kind, ultimately ending any hope for a health relationship. If we stay engaged, give freedom, and keep our hearts open, a whole new relationship can develop, a beautiful relationship built on mutual trust and vulnerability.
We’re still in the building stage. I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that I want to stay engaged with my children, in spite of the pain, because the pain of no relationship is far greater than the pain of a different one.