Originally on Ebenezer Stories, 8/16/2007
I used to know things. When my children were younger, no not the very early years, but by the time my six children ranged in age from 12 to 1, I felt pretty confident. I’d had lots of experience by that point with birthing and raising little ones. I’d been through potty training several times, sorted out many sibling squabbles, and dealt with medical emergencies both major and minor. I had trained a small army of household helpers who could do anything from laundry to lawn mowing. I knew how to navigate restaurants, grocery store check out lines, airline security checks, and dental waiting rooms. My children were generally well behaved and respectful and I often basked in the glow of admiring glances and heard complementary words from complete strangers who were occasionally amazed and usually baffled by a mother with six children who seemed to be enjoying it.
Back then, I also felt pretty confident about my homeschooling decisions, and was mostly pleased with the progress of my young scholars. They learned to read with a minimum of fuss, practiced math facts with games, sat quietly during read aloud time, and put on plays in the basement. Various children sang in the choir, took piano, guitar and cello lessons, rode horseback, and had roles in church Christmas plays and community theatre. We cross-country skied, hiked and camped, organized a track program, and participated in Junior Olympics. Life with our gang of six was full.
Like any mother, I had moments of doubt about my abilities as a mom, but generally felt pretty settled in the routines of my life with kids. I had read lots of books on child rearing principles and it seemed that the practice flowing from those principles was resulting in a pretty good job of “training up my children.” My confidence was tinged with a bit of sinful pride, to be sure, but there was also just the confidence that comes with experience, of having gone around the block a time or two and having learned a few things.
In this looking back, the sharp edges of memory have, I’m sure, become fuzzy. Was I really as confident then as I make it sound now? Was I doing the right thing? Was I teaching what they needed to know? Was I disciplining well? How would they turn out? I asked all those questions and more. But still, by the time my oldest was almost a teen, I was enjoying the settledness of having done something for 12 years straight. Practice makes, well not perfect, but easier. Time and experience gave me a sense of knowing what I was doing.
Fast forward to now. My children range in age from 23 to 12. One has finished college and married, one will be a senior in college this year, one leaves tomorrow for his freshman year in college, and three will remain at home, still homeschooling. All are loving and respectful, hard working and helpful, kind to their mother. They have excelled in learning and have developed their own talents and gifts. They still do laundry and mow lawns and go on their own to restaurants, grocery stores, and dentist offices. They fly on airplanes to far away places and drive cars long distances. I do not generally worry about their safety and I don’t (usually) fret that they are doing things they should not be doing. They still have their share of sibling squabbles, which I mostly stay out of. They sometimes forget to do the dishes, give me phone messages, or feed the cat. On occasion, they are late getting home.
So, why is it that I sometimes feel as though I don’t know anything anymore? Why do I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and feel confused and bewildered? Why do I sometimes feel as though I am a complete novice, without a clue about how to be a mother to these grown and still growing children?
This lack of parenting confidence is humbling. I quake at the exhortation in Titus 2:3-5 given to older women to train the younger women to love their husbands and children. How can I possibly train anyone when I feel so weak myself, how give answers to others’ queries when I have so many of my own? Thankfully, as an older mother, I am not alone. Over coffee, I have talked with other experienced mothers who wrestle with doubt. Like me they feel, at times, so inadequate for this task of mothering older children. What has changed?
The issues these days, certainly, are quite different than the issues of younger days. Sharing toys, cleaning your room, coming when called, and eating your vegetables seem so simple when compared to relating to the opposite sex as a teen, choosing a college, choosing a spouse, battling depression. If your child messes up on sharing toys the consequences may include gentle coaxing, a firm reprimand, or the loss of a coveted toy for a while. But if he exercises poor judgment while driving or makes a foolish decision in a matter of the heart, the consequences are likely to be much more painful and long-lasting, more severe and possibly devastating. Is this what wakes me up at night - a fear that one of my children will have to endure terrible consequences and deep pain?
Or perhaps it is a sense of losing control. When your children are small, you pretty much call the shots. You’re bigger than they are and though they may test you to the limits, they really know that you’re the boss - or that you ought to be anyway. As your children get older, your control loosens. It can start with something as simple as no longer being able to read every book they read. Then you send them off to places without you and before long - in a blink really - they are making major life decisions. Though they may still seek your counsel, it’s their decision, not yours. You’re not in control anymore.
Or maybe it’s the prospect of loneliness. I remember the days when I couldn’t go to the bathroom without company. I have my privacy now. And I remember the days when going to the grocery store was a major outing requiring advance planning which, if successful, resulted in companionable perusing of the produce aisles and little hands cheerfully unloading cereal boxes and apples onto the check out conveyor. I can get through the grocery store faster now, but I no longer hear gales of laughter when the mischievous son successfully sneaks a bag of chips under the bottom of the cart and it gets all the way to the front before being discovered. When the phone rings and my far away daughter asks for a recipe, it is bittersweet. I am happy for the call, but wistfully remember the times we made meals together, mother teaching daughter, the two of us working in the kitchen, chopping onions, stirring soup, kneading bread. This fall three of mine will be away from home. The brood around me is shrinking. The prospect of all of them being gone from home, though still several years away fills me, at times, with a sense of dread. I already miss my two oldest terribly. I’m facing the next couple of days with a mix of excitement and trepidation as one more leaves. And then three more will spread wings and fly.
I watched a wren couple this past spring as they made their nest in the garage. When the eggs hatched, Mama and Papa wren flew in and out, bringing worms and insects to their babies. I stood still on the cool concrete and listened as the young ones chirped. I walked near to the shelf which held the cleaning bin that sheltered their intricately woven nest and they grew silent. A few days later, the young wrens fledged. I knew it was happening as soon as I approached the garage that day. Both Mama and Papa were in the Bradford pear at the end of the drive, calling to their young ones in a tone very unlike their usual lilting song. The notes of their raspy, rapid, insistent calling urged the little birds out of the nest, young wings unable to fly but a few feet across the garage, toward the door, and out, out, into the big world. I happened to walk into the garage just as one of the babies reached the door. Mama and Papa ignored me completely as they kept up their urging. I stood in the doorway and they landed on the fence rail a foot away, seemingly oblivious to me. Their sole concern was to get their fledgling baby out of the garage, out of harm’s way, safe from the prowling cat and into the brush on the other side of the fence where young wings could rest, hidden and safe.
I keep imagining those wrens when these clouds of parental anxiety overshadow and confidence is fleeting. If God so teaches the wrens to guide their young ones out of the nest and into the world, will he not guide me? And if he so teaches the fledgling wrens to travel in a few short hours from the safety of their concealed nest to the height of the pear tree, from the security of parents supplying predigested worms to the necessity of seeking their own sustenance, will he not also guide my fledgling children?
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” asked Jesus, “And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Indeed. At these words, I take heart. There are many things I do not know about mothering my older children, but this I do know - they are worth more to God than the sparrows or wrens. He knows and guides all that will happen to them, their successes and failures, the heights to which they will fly and the depths to which they will plummet. Though I would rather see them reach the heights, I know that He is in the depths, too, and I must learn, in my unknowing to trust the hand that holds fledgling wren…and child…in his loving grip.
Actually, I do still know a few things. I know that adult children need love and attention. They need parents who will listen to their music, read their books, and welcome their friends. They need support and encouragement. They need care packages and letters, emails and phone calls. I know that adult children still need parents who are always ready to listen and who will not condemn them for wrong turns or false steps, but who will be there to hold them in a warm embrace, helping them find their way back to the right path. They need parents who love each other and model strong, God-glorifying marriages. And they need parents, who though weak and fearful at times, yet know and trust God’s unfailing grip. I am exchanging confidence in my parenting these days for greater confidence in God. As I let go of my children, I hold tighter to Him and cry out for deeper trust. And this - I know - is the message from this sometimes fearful, often uncertain, aspiring Titus 2 older woman to a mother of any age – in order to love your children, whether babes in arms or young adults out the door, cling. Cling tight, trusting God who gave you these child gifts for He, the Lord of the sparrows and wrens, is faithful, always.