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You've Got Mom Grief
But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.
— LUKE 2:51-52
It had been the last summer vacation with everyone home. Jenna was now settled in Mexico for her first week as a missionary. Mark was back on campus for his senior year of college. Our college freshman, Drew, was settling into his first week at the university, and Ethan's year as a high school sophomore was well underway.
I stood in my kitchen that was awkwardly quiet on the first day with everyone gone. It was just me, my cup of coffee, and a lot of tears.
I let the tears fall. I had anticipated this moment for months, facing the fact that three of my four children were fledging and the end of the childrearing years was upon me. I gave myself permission to feel, to remember, and to cry. It was full-blown mom grief.
Mom grief is a term I coined during the last couple of years as my world quickly changed. Grief is where I was stuck, teetering back and forth between holding on and letting go, between looking back and not wanting to look forward. Grief is your natural response to the loss of a person or something important to you. For a mom fledging her kids, there's a lot of loss.
How each of us respond to mom grief is a little different, depending on our personalities and circumstances. Yet, no matter whether we have one child or six, some feelings are the same.
Standing in the kitchen that day, I was overwhelmed by memories. In my mind I went back to the days when the kids were babies, when my love for them was so big and deep I thought I'd explode. Life was simple, but the moments were significant — reading them a story, rocking them to sleep, feeling their breath on my shoulder.
Many of us, like Jesus' mother, Mary, have pondered these moments in our hearts. I grieved because my job rearing these kids was almost finished. I ached for the days when the kids were young. Though they still needed me, it wasn't the same.
Other memories came. Summer days when all three boys played Wiffle ball in the front yard. Christmas vacations when Jenna directed her brothers in their own rendition of a Christmas story production. I missed tripping over Thomas the Tank Engine cars and looking for deals in the Scholastic book orders. I missed the one-on-one car rides with teens before they could drive, when the car was the place they would talk to you about school, relationships, and questions too hard to discuss face-to-face.
I longed to pray with each them at bedtime just one more time.
Then I remembered God's goodness during the hard years. The days of postpartum depression, when feelings of being overwhelmed never ended. The days my family was falling apart because of excessive busyness, conflict with teenagers, and a reactionary mom who was out of control. The days I knew I had failed, and the days that God's faithfulness answered my cries.
There in my kitchen on that late August morning, I gave in to the mom grief and wept. This crazy, exhausting, and exhilarating time of life was almost over.
THIS IS WHERE YOU ARE "That's what I need!" a mom said when I told her the subject of this book. It's a similar response I've heard from other women; from the woman whose firstborn was about to graduate, from the mom ready for her last one to leave, and from women in various stages in between. It's a season in which emotions, changes, and experiences just can't be understood except by those who are or have been at a similar place.
It's the best of times and the worst of times all rolled into one. And some days you're just holding on.
There's no better description than fledging to describe the process parents go through to nurture, strengthen, and prepare their children before releasing them: birds developing wing feathers large enough for flight; a warrior who adds feathers to an arrow before launch. Yet with all the focus and preparation on the fledgling, no one really checks on Mama Bird and all the changes that happen when your quiver starts emptying — changes for you, your child, and your family.
We're left on the sideline, unsure of what's next.
If you're like me, you sometimes feel like you're losing your mind and your emotional composure while you're watching it all happen. I'm a strong tower one moment — like on the day of my son's wedding. Yet I fight to hold myself together the day he and his bride pack up their cars and drive away to their new home.
The night that Mark and Samantha left for their new home after returning from their honeymoon, another mom of married boys asked me how I was doing. I was embarrassed to say what I was feeling out loud. My friend, however, just knew. So we sat on her porch and talked about the grief, the changes, and how releasing your kids is one of the hardest things you do.
Letting go of them is a string of lasts and big moments. The last day of elementary school, middle school, and high school. Graduations and weddings, some of them in the same year. Time moves toward these milestones at breakneck speed, and you can't stop it. You experience these events with an ache in your heart, wondering where your babies went and who you will be when the last one leaves.
You and I aren't empty nesters yet. Often, when I've lamented the "lasts," well-meaning friends in the season ahead say how great it is with kids out of the house. I've heard the infamous line: "Just wait until grandkids!" But inside, I say, Wait! I don't want to be consoled about how great life is going to be! This is where I'm at. I don't want anyone to take away one minute of my family life now.
I feel like a weird species some days, chasing my teens with the camera because every moment is a last. As my teenagers roll their eyes with every snapshot, I feel stupid and out-of-date. I also feel vulnerable, because my emotions come out of nowhere. Yet other days there's contentment, loving the moments with adult-like kids, celebrating their victories and savoring the occasions in which they treat you like a real person.
Soon after my oldest two children went to college, it seemed I was in a time warp, caught between the past and the future. I was looking back too much, longing for what was. I was also fearful of what was to come. Our life was suddenly different. I felt as if I were living someone else's life and I didn't know how to navigate it. I felt vulnerable and emotional like I did in junior high, during that awkward transition between two big phases of life.
If you've felt this way at all, you're not alone. You've got permission to just be here, no matter how it looks.
GOD'S BLUEPRINT FOR THE FAMILY | I'm what you'd call a "seasoned" mom. I'm not young, but I'm not old. My house isn't full of four kids anymore, but it's not yet empty. As I mentioned in the introduction, we currently have a child in high school, one in college, one who's married, and one who's a full-time missionary. With each child who's left for college, our family has changed and my life has changed. While the day-to-day chaos has lessened, there are new challenges and responsibilities, and a lot of unknowns.
Just when you think you have something figured out, circumstances change.
Though I'm a counselor, I've learned nothing quite prepares you for your journey of releasing your kids — each one — whether it's one, two, four, or more.
Nothing, that is, except for Christ and his Word.
Nestled in the Bible is God's blueprint for the family. Throughout this book, we'll dive into Psalm 127 while also looking at other Scripture specific to the fledging experience. We'll talk about the growing pains of your children, your family, and you. In Psalm 127, God uses arrows as the metaphor for the releasing of children. Our children are in God's hands like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. Their Creator aims their arrows at something we can't see. Our responsibility is to put the feathers on that arrow, let go of the string, and let it fly.
But letting go, and the preparation to do so, isn't easy. Modern media would have you believe family life is made up of iconic moments and simple 1-2-3 parenting. Scripture says something different. Psalm 127 contains powerful words regarding the family: Builders. Guards. Toiling. Warrior. Love. Heritage. Reward. Blessed.
These words depict both positive and negative feelings and processes. The descriptions are intense, strong, and difficult. They are also beautiful, safe, and satisfying.
Doesn't that describe the parenting journey? The season of raising and releasing has both highs and lows, blessings and hardships, ease and adversity, love and grief.
TYPES OF GRIEF | Parent grief includes both tangible and intangible losses. You miss your child or children who go to college, move out, or get married. You miss their laughter, activities, unique personalities, and what they bring to the family. There's a lingering sadness you don't expect. A box of elementary school papers might make you cry. You share less on social media because your Bigs don't want their stuff out there, but you linger at photos of other, younger families, wondering where the time has gone.
Such sadness is just one aspect of grief as your family changes. Another kind of grief is missing the family you've known up to this point. That family has been your "normal" for almost two decades. Kids' activities and day-to-day happenings bring a comfortable, familiar routine. I miss the preadolescent and elementary years, though they were hectic. I miss the wonder of childhood and things that only happen with little ones.
And then there are the physical changes and losses that happen during midlife. If you're a mom who loved pregnancy, babies, and toddlers, you may grieve the physical loss of childbearing or what it represents, regardless of whether you want more children. A fertile womb represents youth and life: the end of childbearing represents a permanent ending to something very personal. The irony, however, is that a woman's body experiences similar hormones and emotions in both pregnancy and midlife. A fellow fledging mom said it well: we shed tears when we carry a baby and give birth, and we have similar emotions when it's time to release. Other experiences in a mother's life are outside of her body; a child leaving is intricately tied to a mother's body, soul, and spirit.
There's grief of another kind--the grief of regret. As a particular child walks out the door, you may regret the mistakes you made with them, some of which may be significant. We each do the best parenting we can, given what we know at the time. We learn from those mistakes and often are better parents with our younger kids. Fortunately, God is the Lord of grace. He is the redeemer of the years the locusts have eaten, as described in Joel 2:25. This verse has become a significant promise to me as a parent who knows the grief of regret. It's also a promise I have seen God fulfill in my life and others.
We may also feel regret for our kids whose childhood experiences have been painful because of their own choices, the behavior of others, developmental challenges, or circumstances that prevented natural child development. You regret your children didn't experience the happy, carefree childhood you wanted for them or that they didn't experience success according to the world's standards. Though we hate to admit it, society's norms influence our parenting hopes and dreams.
Regret is a pain that's etched on your heart. It's something you often don't talk about. We'll talk more about these hurts later in the book. For now, just know you're in good company.
Then there's the grief of disappointment in the young adults you've raised. Some may not be flying very well or might be living a life you never thought a child of yours would live. Or perhaps you're disappointed when your young adult children don't call, come around, or even acknowledge your birthday or Mother's Day. Disappointment grief reminds you of all the things you've done for your kids and reinforces the hurt of disregard and disrespect.
Yet there's another kind of grief for those who have lost communication or relationships with their children due to divorce or addiction or estrangement. These losses, too, are rarely talked about in the Christian community, yet they're real. The hurt is deep: a gaping wound you bury so no one sees, but its dull, sharp pain reminds you of your suffering and your child's absence from your life.
And then there's, perhaps, the deepest grief a parent can experience: the loss of a child by death, whether by miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion, or a childhood tragedy. As other kids reach milestones, the reminder of what your child would be doing or who they would be brings fresh promptings of the grief and emptiness that nothing can replace. The death of a child is a deep loss only those with similar experiences can fully understand.
For women, all of this grief is compounded by hormones, emotions, and loss of identity as Mom. There's uncertainty and insecurity as your role and relationships with your kids change. Until you're more accustomed to parenting adult children, you're in uncharted territory. It can feel scary and often lonely, because your spouse can't fully identify with your experience of motherhood. Kids are embedded in our lives differently than they are in their fathers' lives. A father's identity and role are different from ours, and they may not have the same emotional attachment to the memories of our children's childhoods. Neither is more or less significant than the other; it's just that mothers and fathers may experience this season differently.
My husband, Ron, and I have experienced this several times. The day we dropped Jenna, our firstborn, off at college, his tears fell for an hour as we began the long, quiet drive home.
My cheeks were dry after a few minutes. "I've been crying all year and you thought I was crazy!" I told him. He had often gently teased me when I cried at milestones throughout her senior year. I had felt the loss over several months, while it suddenly crept up on him on drop-off day. The same has been true as we've experienced our first wedding and an emptier house. Many times I simply have to tell him, "I really miss our kids."
It can feel lonely when your spouse doesn't share your emotional responses to milestone moments, of which there are plenty during this season. It is lonely, too, when you're parenting alone due to death, divorce, a disengaged spouse, or a father who has been absent from your child's life.
That's when we need other women who are walking through similar mom grief, like the ones who reached out to me on Mark's wedding day. Two texts came from mothers of adult boys who understood, before I did, the awkward feelings I would have realizing the role in my son's life was forever changed. Their comforting words helped me in moments when I felt those familiar feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty.
Those friends extended grace when I needed it, letting me know my feelings were normal. I hope you, similarly, are encouraged by the different topics in this book. Some experiences might be new to you, some might be where you are at right now, and some information might prepare you for a future you don't yet know.
And some of you might check off the "been there, done that" box. Either way, we are here, together.
GRIEF AND GRACE | We moms need to help each other accept this season with grace. Grace can mean a couple of things: the undeserved favor of God, and simple elegance of movement. I like those descriptions because most days I desperately need them both.
As you and I move from full house to empty nest, we need God's unmerited favor because many of us may feel exhausted or worn out. We've given everything we have to our kids; our time, energy, worry, and love. We've made meals, wiped bottoms, dried tears, and have done a million things no one has ever noticed.
We haven't done it for the applause. We've done it because we love our kids with an affection so deep we can't explain it. It's the love that makes sense every day of life until it separates from you, and you realize love has a name---the name of each of your children. They may never know that while they separate from you and live their own lives, they're still part of you.
This ripping away hurts. And undeserved favor is just what we need.
Excerpted from "Fledge"
Copyright © 2017 Herald Press.
Excerpted by permission of Herald Press.
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Table of Contents
1 You've Got Mom Grief 25
2 Let God Build Your Family 35
3 Cast the Vision 43
4 Define Your Strategy 51
5 A Place Called Home 59
6 Build Family Ties 69
7 Growing Pains 77
8 One and All 87
9 The Way They Should Go 97
10 Give Up Control 107
11 Don't Steal the Struggle 115
12 Set Boundaries 125
13 Beyond the Picture-Perfect Image 135
14 The Family That Prays Together 147
15 Take Care of You 159
16 Shut the Door on Your Way Out 169
17 Cultivate Your Identity 179
18 Accept Midlife with Grace 187
19 Friendships and Loneliness 195
20 Love, Marriage, and Mom and Dad 203
21 Don't Miss this Life 213
22 Mama's Growing Up 223
Appendix: Families of Children with Special Needs 235
The Author 239