When the majority of my children were young, I couldn’t imagine life without all the craziness of having littles. Our oldest 6 children were born in a 10 year span. And, when the youngest of that crew went to kindergarten, God blessed us with a bonus baby…that was followed 2 years later by a bonus, bonus baby! There were lots of years of babies and toddlers!
Parenting young children is physically exhausting because of their many needs all day and, at least with our lousy sleepers of which there were several(!), all night long.
When my older kids were young, I remember listening to other parents talk about how they couldn’t wait for their kids to start school and be more independent. (To which I would cringe a little on the inside because I couldn’t imagine my life without babies and little ones around!) In a way, they were right. When my kids started getting a little more independent and could play on their own for short amounts of time so that I could get a little housework done with, (gasp*) two hands and no child on my hip, that was a pretty amazing feeling. When you can go places without diaper bags, giant car seats, and without having to worry about nap time, that makes life easier! A little increase in our child’s independence gives parents a little more freedom and it feels pretty good for the most part.
And then they become teenagers and young adults….
The parenting of older children is emotionally and mentally exhausting. They grow and stretch you in ways you never imagined. The many stages of letting go can be really hard. Every small stretch and break of the family ties that we have grown so used to since the day they were born is painful.
One of the hardest parts about the growing and stretching is the completely polar views parents and teens/young adults have of the same situation. Our teens and young adults have so much enthusiasm for the future. They have an innocence of the crazy dangers this world can hold. They are living in one of those “ignorance is bliss” times of life, which can make them overconfident about all the new adventures they can’t wait to embark on.
Our teens and young adults’ desire for independence bangs up against the bond of mother and child that we have had up to this point. These teen and young adult years brings a subconscious pushing away from mom because we are the nurturers and, in order for them to feel independent and “grown up”, they need to separate from us emotionally in some ways. It’s their desire for independence pushing against my nurturing relationship with them…and sometimes they push way harder than they need to because they are trying to figure out who they are separate from us. Learning to navigate these “pushing away moments” without feeling hurt isn’t easy.
As a mom, my care, nurturing and emotional connection to my older child needs to grow and stretch and change. It needs to break to be reforged on a different level. It’s a kind of emotional childbirth, and in some ways, it’s as painful as the physical childbirth that disconnected both of us in the first place! (note: What I’m saying is not from any documented study. It is just my own experiences with our teens and young adults.:)
As a mom, there are so many conflicting emotions. There is grief over the end of their childhood. There is excitement as I watch my child start growing into the adult they are meant to be. There is fear..SO much fear…as they start to navigate the world more on their own. I can’t protect them like I used to. Their worlds become even bigger and my part in that world becomes noticeably smaller and it all happens so very quickly!
I’ve been through the process a few times, and I can honestly say it’s different with each child. It was easiest for me with my oldest two because they have stayed close to home. Even though Mike was the first to move out, it wasn’t a hard transition because he was so close by. It was a relatively painless “weaning” process for me, made easier because his habit of watching sporting events late into the night when he lived with us was challenging for all the family members that like to go to sleep at more reasonable bedtimes.
My second son, Andrew, graduated last spring and got his first professional job. He’s getting married this summer, (we LOVE his fiancé), and is living home until closer to the wedding to save money for the honeymoon and so he can pay down his student loans faster. It’s a responsible idea and totally ok with us. He plans on living close by when they get married, which I’m happy about. This has been another easy transition for me. (And whenever a big life change is easy on the emotional level I’m thrilled!)
My struggles began with son #3. Our third son, Jon, commuted locally to college and graduated last spring as well. He is currently in grad school a state away, also got engaged (we also LOVE his fiancé), and will be married next spring. The transition for me with Jon was much harder! In the months leading up to his graduation last year, I had to work through a lot of grief. I had so many moments of overwhelming sadness and loss since Jon was the first of our children to move farther away. When he graduates from grad school, he will be getting married right after, so I knew life would never go back to being the same. We miss having him around so much and really enjoy when he comes home every few weekends. I know it’s mostly to see his fiancé, but we get to enjoy his company, too!
And now, we are on the cusp of another big change as our daughter gets ready to graduate from college and go off to grad school. With Sarah, it’s different than with Jon. The feelings of loss and grief are not nearly as strong. My heart knows what to expect now in some ways. With Sarah, I’m having to work through a tremendous amount of fear. This might sound sexist, but I worry about a 5’6” girl living in a big city more than a 6′ guy living in a college town. All the “what if’s” and possible scary and tragic situations she could find herself in -and our inability to protect her- are always knocking on the door of my mind. (And keeping negative, scary thoughts out isn’t always easy!)
I’m pretty sure the feelings of fear are more intense because Sarah is our ‘rainbow baby’. She was born less than a year after the birth and death of her only older sister, Therese, who was born with a genetic disorder. After such a tragic loss and our own loss of ignorance…children can be born with/have things happen that doctors can’t fix…we learned that we are not in control; things that break your heart can happen quickly and suddenly and leave your life shattered in pieces. (I’ve also experienced firsthand how God can put it all back together, for which I am truly grateful, but the fear of going through that painful shattering again is always there.)
My prayer lately is, “God, please don’t give me more than I can handle.” Doing the hard job of working through emotions isn’t easy. I have to work more on letting go of my older kids emotionally. It doesn’t just happen overnight, and I need to do it in a healthy way. Putting up walls and shutting down emotionally to try and self-protect against feelings of hurt isn’t helpful and just causes more problems over time.
Sometimes I feel angry as I watch my older crew plan out all the moving away, moving on, trips and adventures. These are all just normal feelings..or at least that’s what I tell myself…as a mom learning to let go. I sacrificed so much of myself to have a large family and stay home and care for them. They were my adventure and now it hurts that they are pushing away and leaving. (Going through this stage of life certainly makes me much more sympathetic for what I put my parents through!)
All moms give up a lot for their children..it’s part of being a mom. Going through this letting go process has me pondering that, just maybe, I gave up too much at times. Moms give and give and give…and when they have nothing left they often manage to give just a little more. As a member of the mom club I have certainly neglected myself on many an occasion. Sometimes the sacrifice is warranted. But, sometimes, I can get sucked into playing the martyr, and that isn’t any way to have a healthy balance in life.
I realize that I need things to look forward to for myself in an emotionally healthy way. Not out of bitterness or anger-”Fine, if they don’t need me then I’m going to do something fun without them!” Not out of entitlement-”Fine, if they are going to move on and have fun then I’m doing fun things too!” Not out of trying to avoid or “stuff” away my feelings of fear and sadness that I need to work through. Anything done in those ways won’t bring me true peace.
I find myself frequently bringing my feelings of fear and sadness to God over this process of letting go. I know that He will give me consolation and help me work through all of my conflicting emotions. I know that He will give me the words to help me be a support to my children as they navigate their way to independence. I can honestly say that teens and young adults certainly help to grow your prayer life because there are so many situations to pray about!
Change certainly isn’t all bad! I’m trying to keep my eyes from just focusing on those feelings of loss and fear. Yes, my role as a mom is changing. Yes, change is hard. But this time of life can be an opportunity to broaden my own world in a different way. I’m trying to find my new focus. I’m trying to see what God has in store to fill the newly emptied areas of my heart. As my kids get older and grow up, (and out), my focus and time need to adjust. It’s not an end to my mission, there’s just a change in the mission.
And someday, God willing, there will be grandbabies!!
I was thinking about Mary with this topic of change in mind. Mary raised and loved on her Son for 30 years. Then, for three years she followed Him and stayed connected in a different way. The physical break with her Son was extraordinarily painful at the Crucifixion, but then the resurrection happened. Even though things never went back to the Nazareth years, their relationship was deepened and is unending.
Mary’s focus changed, but she still had a mission. So do I. And, if this is the stage of life you’re experiencing, you still have a mission, too! We can ask for Mary’s intercession to help us have eyes to see all that God still has in store with us.
“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for welfare and not for evil,
to give you a future and a hope.”
What has been your biggest struggle during these years of letting go?
How has God opened new paths and broadened your world?
Michelle Hamel is a cradle Catholic who tries to keep up with the chaos of raising eight kids with her high school sweetheart. She spends her days trying to make sure everyone feels loved and squeezing in adoration visits. She blogs about faith and family at Normal Chaos.