Saturday, June 29, 2013

Post #4: Empty Nest: A Lament of Loss of Motherhood

(This is a 5-part series on the fallen state of motherhood based on the Book of Lamentations, written as a project for a class at Moody Bible Theological Seminary. For more information, see previous posts). 

Within two days during a warm sunny June of 2011, both of my sons left home, never to live under my roof again.

The searing pain was unbearable as I watched my youngest, the last to leave, pull away from the curb, driving his Dad’s VW Beetle. He would work at a camp all summer and then return for literally three days at the end of summer before flying out to Washington state to attend college. My other son, having also left for a summer job, would marry within months, beginning his life under a roof of his own.

What to do, how to respond for a mother who chose to be at home with her children as her part and parcel in life? As the days following their leaving grew longer with my longing for my sons, images of the past flooded my quiet moments: sledding in the park at twilight, running through sprinklers in the yard on hot afternoons, eating popsicles on the front porch, painting and creating art on the Little Tykes table in the yard, and hours and hours spent snuggling with books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Richard Scary’s BusyTown, Carl the Dog and Blueberries for Sal.

I could not go into my son’s bedrooms; I closed the doors. I could not eat, understanding for the first time the Biblical accounts of fasting. If I could have torn my clothes I would have. If it would have been acceptable to throw dust on my person I would have done that too. Every place I used to spend time with my children was now desolate with their absence.

My husband was a rock. I cleaved to him, thanking God for our strong marriage that would now be re-made in its new position of post-parenting. We would make it. I would make it. But it would take time.

I walked into church that first Sunday after my son’s leaving, and when my pastor, who also was a recent “empty-nester,” asked how I was doing, I said, “Not good.” His face turned ashen and tired as he leaned closer, whispering, “It’s like a death, isn’t it?”

A wash of gratitude came over me: this man knew exactly how I felt, putting my exact feelings into words. We both were ashamed to admit it, because we hadn’t experienced the trauma of a child’s death as so many have. But we grieved nonetheless, and it was a balm to know that I didn’t grieve alone.

In the coming months, the words “empty-nest” seemed to be the topic of every conversation. I met many women, who, unlike my pastor, were downright jubilant in their freedom from their kids and expected me to be also.

“Now you can do whatever you want!” was the common refrain.

I replied, “I was doing what I wanted. Being a mom was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done!”

These same people would never tell a person who just got fired from a job, “Yay! Now you can do whatever you want!” They would console and listen. Somehow an at-home mom who suddenly has no children at home is supposed to go off galavanting into the sunset as if she hadn’t just spent the last 20 years of her life raising children full time.

But then, like my pastor, there were others whose eyes teared up at the mention of “empty nest.” They became my instant new best friends! It wasn’t just moms who struggled; I found dads, too, who were having a hard time of it.

One of my friends said, “I knew you’d have a difficult time of it,” the implication being that I’d invested too heavily in my choice to stay at home and raise kids (again, would this same implication--of having invested too heavily in their work or career—been made for someone who just lost their job or retired?)

I know of a mom who took the opposite route of staying home: she was a highly successful corporate executive living in a 5 million dollar house in the Hollywood Hills. When her son was about to graduate high school and leave home for college, she soberly pondered on her career and how it had taken her away from her son for much of his life.

“I wonder if it was worth it,” she asked.

At that moment, my heart broke more for her than for myself.

My children are missed not because our 20 years together were a breeze, or perfect, or filled with Kodachrome moments every second of the day. Some years were hard and long, and I prayed fervently for God’s intervention into my children’s lives, and especially into my own life, praying to be a more Christ-like mother.

Part of the sadness of my children’s leaving is the wanting to do it all over again, only this time with the foreknowledge of the wisdom I’ve gained. I am tempted to focus on the mistakes and think, “I would do it all perfectly if I had it to do over again.” Yet I know this isn’t true. Their pride and mine, my bad moods and theirs, my preoccupation with worries and cares as well as theirs all combine for turbulence, even in the strongest of families. So I try to focus on Philippians 3:14, “...Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

I do this to focus on the joys and accomplishments that lie ahead, trying not to compare the future with the incomparable satisfaction, fulfillment and contentment of the days spent full time raising kids.

Michael David Elam writes, in a review of Tolkien’s Ainulindale in volume twenty-eight of the Anglo-American Literary Review, “Looking to the divine for comfort should not be misconstrued as looking for the return of what was lost...”

He goes on to say, “The assurance is in the fact that comfort will be received, not in the comfort itself. Loss is not the focal point of this sorrow. God becomes the central focus amidst such sorrow, and, in a sense, this focus on God frames the sorrow so that it may give rise to beauty.”

Beau Harris, in his essay The Silent God in Lamentations in the April, 2013 journal Interpretation, writes how the Israelites were to use their extreme time of trial to “stay in right relationship with God by trusting in the new place toward which God was leading them rather than longing for that which was behind them.”

This is where I am today, almost two years later. I’m coming to grips with the fact that from now on it will be as a short-term visitor that my son’s feet will cross the homestead’s threshold. Leavings will never be easy. But at least attached to them are the arrivings. I hold on to that.

Yes, my sons are grown, and yet they continue to be my sons. And I continue to be their mom. There will be other nests. They will not remain empty.

Lament for the Leaving of Children

How the white-blonde hair of you,
the oldest,
flashes in memory,
as you run down sun-filtered paths
and climb low branches,
believing you have scaled the world!

And you,
the younger,
rummaging in the garage for trinkets,
bringing imaginations to fruition;
your brown hair
sweaty at the neck;
your mind absorbed.

The two of you—
gifts of the Almighty,
leading our family to Christ;
Him leading us to Himself through you.
There is no regret, no remorse,
no angst in the time spent with you.
There is only life itself.

The days now gone
are golden.
They will not expire nor fade.
Fresh they remain in every season,
the days of joy
at home with you.
                             Barb Harwood

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