It was 4am on a wintry Johannesburg morning. I was, once again, waving goodbye to my eldest son as he left to drive back to University, 1200km away – a familiar ritual over the last 6 years. My husband’s prayer for travelling mercies and me making him promise to update me two hourly en route, completed the practice. This was followed by my hug which contained 1000 unsaid words. All I did say was, ‘I love you. Please drive carefully.’
A week later, this ritual was repeated as I waved goodbye to my second son as he returned to his studies, 500 km away. (For those moms who have stood in my shoes/ slippers – a moment please and a tissue.)
‘It is always sad when someone leaves home, unless they are simply going around the corner and will return in a few minutes with ice-cream sandwiches.’ [Lemony Snicket]
Saying goodbye to your adult children changes a mother’s game plan.
Your role has changed. It has had to. You can no longer play the role you have faithfully played in the years leading up their 18th birthdays. That role was clearly defined – carer, nurturer, provider, teacher, supporter, equipper, defender and discipler.
Then, in the blink of an eye, they are grown and you are pushing them out the nest. You have taught them to fly (albeit imperfectly) and now they need to test out their wings. Part of your job description as a mom is now redundant and needs to be redefined.
It is the natural way of things, no matter how unnatural it feels.
Although it is beautiful and exciting to watch your adult children flap their wings, it is also scary and difficult to stand on the side-lines and watch them begin to fly on their own.
A new stage of motherhood has been ushered in; one that a mom is actually unprepared for. Your kids are ready to leave home but when the time comes, you are not ready. There is no red carpet and no applause. You have to graciously move aside into the wings backstage.
From childhood through the tweens and teens, you are slowly loosening the apron strings. But now they are untied.
For years you have warned them not to fall, caught them when they did fall and comforted their tears after they fell. Your instincts are still to warn, catch and comfort, but that now needs to look different. That is what is so hard.
These lines from Cecil Day-Lewis’ poem, ‘Walking away,’ capture the essence of this leaving so poignantly:
‘That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem…
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.’
No matter how much I had ‘prepared’ myself for this inevitable reality, it still took me by surprise and blindsided me.
Lillian Little says: ‘I thought I would never suffer from empty nest syndrome – I'm a college professor with a PhD – I thought only pathetic women with no life beyond their kids had a problem with this. But I was afflicted by a sense of “life-altering loss.” Having a job outside of the house can provide structure and distraction, but by no means immunisation.’
Trying to get a healthy perspective amid this life reality has been a struggle for me.
Two have flown the nest. One remains, perched on the edge of the nest. Holding on to her more tightly is apparently not an option as that just stifles and makes me pathetically needy.
Trying to understand my role as my house empties has completely thrown me.
I have raged, cried, withdrawn and packed a red suitcase (I had no idea where I was planning on going). I have retreated to my comfortable pit of self-pity where reason hides behind the shadows of despair, seemingly out of reach, and truth is elusive and silent to ears deafened by irrational, self-absorbed emotion.
Finally I am forced to my knees.
I realise that prayer will not change the reality - that is the problem with reality - but it will be a start to changing my perspective and the lens through which I view reality.
Being on my knees reminds me to treasure Christ as my first love and the Holy Spirit takes my feeble utterances and stuttering groanings and enables me to see things with new eyes. As the lyrics of the chorus state, ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of the earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.’
‘You play the hand you're dealt. I think the game's worthwhile.’ [C.S. Lewis]
This is the narrative of motherhood which I am learning and it is the Biblical account of Paul and young Timothy which has provided some encouragement.
When you view reality from a new and different perspective, you see a whole new world.
Timothy’s mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, were both commended by Paul for their faithful and godly input into his life while he was growing up. His father was Greek. Timothy, as a young adult, leaves home and joins Paul on his second missionary journey as a young Christian. He not only accompanies Paul, but assists and serves as an apprentice under him. Paul fills the shoes of a spiritual father to Timothy, fondly referring to him as ‘my true son in the faith.’
As she struggled with her tears, I can imagine the joy in the heart of Timothy’s mother as she released her son into the care, mentorship and influence of Paul.
She knew Paul would be faithful in teaching Timothy, encouraging him and helping him to grow in his Christian walk and journey into adulthood.
We see a similar principle played out with Priscilla and Aquila, who took Apollos into their home to disciple him and spiritually mentor him. They willingly invested the time necessary to take one young man under their spiritual care and pour into his life the things of Christ. Apollos absorbed the truth they taught him and made it a part of his life and ministry. As a result of this relational discipling by Aquila and Priscilla in their home, he became an effective servant of God.
The OT narrative of Ruth and Naomi plays out similarly. Naomi became more than just a mother-in-law to Ruth. Ruth, the Moabitess, came to serve Naomi’s God because of Naomi’s testimony and witness and together they enriched one another’s lives and built a unique friendship.
In God's sovereign kindness, Ruth filled a gap in Naomi’s life of loss.
God’s providential timeline in the seasons of life is beautiful and surprising.
He never leaves us without an opportunity to be involved in kingdom work.
We just have to climb out of the pit and look at the reality differently.
This is where I have seen God graciously surprise me.
He has brought young adults across my path and into our home. Some have been ‘spiritual’ orphans, others just have left home for studies or work. These young people have filled my home and my life, listening to counsel and allowing me to challenge them, care for them and hold them accountable as they test out their wings.
They have played the roles of ‘siblings’ to my daughter and built into her life as she is slowly and reluctantly nudged towards the edge of the nest.
They have all become spiritual sons and daughters, enriching our home and filling our spare bedrooms.
They have allowed me to be their ‘spiritual mom’ and ‘mom away from home.’ I am so grateful for that role I can play in their lives and the special bonds and friendships that have formed.
God always fills the gaps in ways that meet our needs.
What I am even more grateful for are those mentors, and disciplers who have willingly and sacrificially taken my boys into their homes to encourage them and hold them accountable and enrich their lives. Some I know, others are strangers to me.
When they return home in the holidays, I hear and see your valuable input into their lives, building on the life lessons and values they learnt from a young age. I see their growth as you have loved, laboured and built on the foundations they grew up with.
They have learnt from you.
You are helping to make their wings stronger, and I thank you for that.
I thank you for playing that role in their lives, standing in their corner and being bold enough to challenge them and kind enough to serve them.
When they return to the nest to visit, our conversations are richer and deeper. They encourage me and challenge me. All our roles have metamorphosized and all for the better.
‘It takes a village’ and this is the unique beauty and grace of a broader Church community.
When your children leave home, you don’t lose a role, you gain a new one, like a stacked bar graph, where a new part of the whole gets added and motherhood is still at the heart.
I am not going to deny that the process has been painful and uncomfortable, but it has built a more beautiful friendship with my adult children and I am learning to trust God the Father’s ways as He covers us all with His wings.
‘He will cover you with His feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.’ [Psalm 91:4]
I am striving to hold onto this promise as I navigate new expressions of motherhood and as I slowly start to embrace my new role.