What's Mary up to these days?
Excelling academically, as always. She just placed second in her school's short story contest. What about Sean?
Oh, he's having a blast on the junior varsity basketball team this year. He's hoping to make varsity next season, since it will be his last year and all. How's your girl, Jordan, doing?
Jordan's packing her bags for college. She's registered for Freshman Biology and Intro to World Religions. She's charged a credit card limit's worth of books to your Visa. She's robbed the house of all duplicate appliances and electronics – the downstairs DVD player and the kitchen's spare toaster.
You've enjoyed taking her shopping to pick out dorm-life necessities: corrugated bookshelves, a lamp, a decorative pillow to remind her of home. Sure, she's sad about leaving home, but Jordan is about to start a new chapter in her life and couldn't be more thrilled about her impending freedom.
A better question might be: How are you doing?
After all, it's a new start for you, too, and you can't help but feel like your parenting years are behind you. You wonder if you're losing your mind as your emotions vacillate from overjoyed and proud, to frustrated and dismal.
Your child is undergoing the metamorphosis better known as "leaving home." After high school, most teens move out of the house and into a new life and environment—be it an apartment on the other side of town or to a mission field on the other side of the globe. Some go to four-year colleges, others to two. Some attend a trade school, others enlist in the military. The situations may differ, but the consequences are the same: The walls are bare. The house is hauntingly quieter. You may find yourself with a few more potato chips in the bag or a few more dollars in your checking account, but for once you wish it wasn't so. Your child has found her wings and left the nest. You feel like she's up and flown the coop.
You may not have a 21-credit-hour semester scheduled, but you, too, are in for some major life lessons—in coping, parenting from afar and rediscovering your purpose in Christ. Fortunately, these are lessons you can complete successfully with a good support network and, most importantly, God. And chances are you'll find these lessons much more enduring and fulfilling than Math for Liberal Arts Majors.
It doesn't matter how many times you longed for "just a minute" to yourself, free of the clutter, business and stress that often accompany parenting. Now your child is moving on, and you don't want them to go. Sure, there's the upside of your new stage of life: You likely have a little extra time and money on your hands; but then there's the downside: dealing with a host of new emotions you've never experienced before.
If your son or daughter is leaving for college, trade school or just venturing out into her own, a number of questions might be stifling your level of contentment. If so, consider these suggestions to fend off the "my child is leaving home" blahs.
What if I feel old? Until I dropped him off at college, it seemed like "just yesterday" I was a college kid myself. Now, I'm the parent of one. Yikes!
Answer: Rejuvenate. You may (or may not) be cash-strapped after sending the kids to college, but remember, they also bear a responsibility for financing their education. Set aside a few minutes (and a few dollars) and treat yourself to something that makes you feel youthful and carefree. Check out the latest trendy coffee shop with your spouse. Rent a motor home and spend a few days exploring the countryside. Buy a canvas to create the next masterpiece. Who knows, you just may discover a new interest—or a second career.
What if I feel nostalgic? Looking back, ramen noodles and all-night study marathons weren't so awful after all. I'm wishing I could relive my university days! Still, I want to avoid pushing this bittersweet nostalgia onto my freshman son or daughter.
Answer: Connect. Does sending your son or daughter to college cause great campus memories to surface? If so, write them down! Find a method to document and share them with your child. Scrapbooks, series of letters or a photo slide-show are great ways to give your kid a glimpse into college life.
What if I feel guilty? It has been 18 years since I've been able to say, "my time", rather than "my kids' time." But I still feel guilty about sleeping in. Or working in the garden. Or picking up that novel that's been calling my name. Or ….
Answer: Invest in yourself. While selfishness certainly isn't a fruit of the spirit, there isn't anything wrong with enjoying yourself, especially after 18 years of experiencing the parenting gamut—from dirty diapers to driver's licenses. Instead of fretting, dive into that that Great American Novel you've always wanted to write, volunteer at church, start a new business. You just may find yourself a more refreshed parent, spouse and coworker!
What if I feel anxious? Faced with rampant temptation, will my kid make wise choices? And will she be safe? With keg parties, sexual enticement and an increase in campus violence, I'm uneasy.
Answer: Reflect. Danger and temptation surround us all in this fallen world. Think back to some of the dangers and temptations you faced in your younger years. How has God brought you through them? Reflect on His faithfulness, and be open with your children about past struggles.
Why do I feel a loss? All of the sudden, my house is empty. The walls are bare, and so is my heart. Will things ever be the same?
Answer: Survey. Your child may have moved half-way across the country, but he's still your child. Take inventory of the great moments and opportunities God provided you through parenting. And anticipate what you have to look forward to in the coming years – Christmases home from college, trips to see the kids—maybe even grandbabies!
What if I feel frustrated? I worked for 18 years to keep this family protected and together. Now, I'm relocating a part of it hundreds of miles away. This isn't what I had in mind.
Answer: Vent. Don't keep all of your feelings bottled up inside, and remember that these feelings you're experiencing are quite common. View this as an opportunity to reconnect with God, as well as your spouse. Find a group of parents – from your kid's high school, youth group, etcetera – who are experiencing similar feelings.
What if I feel purposeless? When I first married, I found my identity as a spouse. When I had a child, I found my identity as a parent. What do I do now?
Answer: Pray and seek to grow in Christ. Ask God to give you a new-found sense of purpose in life, and seek out opportunities to serve others – at a local youth shelter, retirement home or your church. Mentoring other kids, visiting shut-ins or becoming a student of your spouse can help you feel refreshed and unleash a rediscovered zest for life. Opportunities may abound right in front of you!
For Phil and Cheri Straw, the end-goal of parenting was to raise Godly, independent children. But seeing their plan come to fruition didn't make letting go any easier.
Their daughter, Lindsey, spent her senior year pursuing her passions—dancing, singing and acting—as she had for many years. Responsible and respectful, her parents' main concern during her last year of high school was teaching their daughter to budget. They had her write down her anticipated daily expenses, including lunches, gasoline, birthday gifts for friends and entertainment, and allotted her a set, bimonthly amount of money. It was up to her to make it last.
"It was certainly trial and error," says Cheri of the process. "We often wish we had done a better job and started earlier, but it proved to be a learning experience for her and for us."
The Straw's concern for their daughter's financial situation extended beyond high school. They wanted her to graduate college with as little debt as possible, prepared to enter a career that would pay the bills.
But even deeper, they wanted her to follow God's calling for her life. This desire was tested when Lindsey informed them that she was turning down a virtual full-ride scholarship to a local college for a much smaller scholarship elsewhere. She had also decided to pursue a vocal performance major instead of her previous plan to become a teacher after double-majoring in English and Music.
Cheri remembers the day Lindsey attempted to verbalize this to her parents while visiting a campus. "We could tell she was very nervous about telling us because, obviously, it is harder for mom and dad to see a 'marketable income' for a performance major than it is to see it for an educator," she says. While the revelation surprised the couple, they both agreed that they didn't want Lindsey to look back on her college days with regret. "We encouraged her to continue earnestly seeking God's direction, and to follow the path and dream He pointed her to."
"Obviously it would have been better financially for her to attend college in her hometown," Phil says. "But I felt it would be good for her to go away to college. It would allow her to grow up, and become more responsible."
Lindsey spent the summer after graduation working at a local gas station. As she prepared to leave for college, it was a summer of mixed emotions for the two parents.
"We were sad, yet happy," Phil says, "Sad that a part of our life had concluded, yet happy to see her go through a new stage of life and maturity. We were very proud too, being that there weren't a lot of people in my family who had gone off to college."
Lindsey had been very close to her mom, even through the turbulent teenage years. The two became especially close during her last years of high school. "We shared a lot," Cheri says. "In some ways I felt like I was losing one of my best friends when she moved out. It is literally like a piece of you is missing."
During her last week at home, Lindsey called her mom.
"I'm picking you up at 4 p.m.," she said. "Wear something comfortable, and flip flops."
"I couldn't quite figure out what she was up to," Cheri says, "but she picked me up and took me for my first manicure and pedicure. She insisted on paying for it herself. I think it was her lovely way of wanting to do something special for me, her way of saying goodbye."
Mom and daughter spent the last few days of her time at home eating ice cream, watching chick-flicks and shopping for last-minute dorm-room needs.
When the day came for Lindsey to move into her dorm room three hours away, the family (little brother in tow) made the trip together. The hardest part of that day?
"Driving away," Cheri says. "It hurt. A lot. But we also felt that God would truly protect her."
Since their daughter's departure for college, the couple has enjoyed more time to focus on their relationship, as well as more time to spend with their son, Tyler, who is in his early high school years.
They've also learned how to "be there" for their daughter long-distance through visits, cell phone calls, text messages, e-cards and prayer.
"I let her know that if she needs something, to let me know," Phil says. "Her car battery went dead a few weeks ago. She knew she could just call and I'd come up to help her through it."
The couple has high hopes for their daughter, who will soon spend her first summer away from home living in her own apartment.
"Lindsey is very gifted," Cheri says. "She has a lovely voice; is an accomplished dancer and actress; and has a beautiful spirit that shines through on stage. We have had to let go and trust that the God who gave her these gifts will guide her to use them in a way that honors Him. I believe He will."
Some titles are temporary. Others – such as "child of God," or "parent," are life-long, even eternal. Realizing the full meaning of this statement doesn't come automatically.
Hopefully you've taken time to mourn, not the loss of your child, but the completion of one stage in life. During this time you might have felt like your job as a parent was through, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
By now, you've realized that you're not done being a parent, even in the active sense. Your ministry to your child has changed. You've caught your second wind, and hopefully taken some time for yourself in the process. Way to go!
Here are some ways to come along side your child, even from afar.
During the early years, you changed a lot of dirty diapers, picked up a lot of messes and sacrificially stomached mashed peas in an attempt to set a good example. Seemingly overnight, job duties evolved from potty training and bandaging boo-boo's, to helping with homework, baking cupcakes for the class party and giving driving lessons. While you certainly struggled with how to parent in some situations, at least your child was nearby while the task was at hand.
Now, she's left home, and the term "parenting" may seem more abstract. How do you parent a child who's largely grown? How do you parent from afar? And most dauntingly, how do you parent in the face of some interesting (and possibly foolish) decisions on the part of your child?
In Luke 15, we find a father facing the same dilemma. He had two sons, both old enough to go-it on their own, or at least old enough to believe they could. The younger demanded his inheritance pre-mortem (talk about a slap in the face!) and, soon after, "set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living" (v. 13).
Maybe this is a story you can relate to, at least in part. While you might not have given your child his inheritance, considering the college bills you're footing, you may feel like you have. Maybe you preferred that your child attend an in-state college, only to have him announce at dinner that he will be attending the furthest institution away from home. Or maybe you were pleased with your child's choice of educational institutions, but later disappointed to learn that he had squandered your wealth, his wealth or the borrowed-wealth of a major credit card company. Maybe this story is your worst fears put to paper.
Most of us know the ending to Christ's parable. The son realizes the error of his ways, returns home expecting slavery but is greeted by an elated, gracious, generous father who welcomes him home with favor and open arms.
What did this father do right, and how can you continue to parent your almost-grown kid who has ventured out on his own?
Accept the fact that your ministry to your child has changed. For you, this is a difficult time of transition from teacher to advisor. We don't know exactly what conversation ensued after the younger son prematurely (and senselessly) demanded his inheritance. But the father realized that some lessons can only truly be learned by experience. He let his son make a mistake, then sat back and waited. I'm sure he did a lot of praying as well.
Welcome your child back with open arms. After going broke, selling himself into slavery and even longing to fill his stomach with pig grub, it dawned on the son that even his dad's hired men had more than enough to survive on. It would have been a knee-jerk reaction for the father to yell, "Duh! I've been telling you this all along! And it took you all this time, and all this money, to figure it out?"
But verse 20 tells us that, "while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him."
Whether or not your child has made a grave mistake (or a whole heap of them!), welcome him back with grace. Applaud the wise decisions he made, even if the only one was asking for help.
Acknowledge your own status as a "prodigal son." It may be easy to become so wrapped up in this story (and how strikingly familiar it sounds to our children's stories) that we forget each of us has also been a prodigal son – all figuratively, and some literally.
"While we were still sinners, Christ died for us," (Romans 5:8b). He didn't cease to love us, or prepare good things for us, until we had come to our senses. Rather, He anticipated our homecoming and made preparations so that, like the father in the parable, He could welcome us home with all the best.
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