Instead of seeing the college bound Co-Ed rushing around her room, throwing all of her favorite sweaters and framed pictures into her suitcase, I see a mother on the other side of the door, holding back tears as she stares at a picture on the wall of her now grown daughter as a five year old, splashing in the waves during a day spent at the beach. Instead of the Dixie Chicks, I hear Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” playing from the tape deck of an old mini-van as a Mom recalls the countless hours spent listening to her daughters singing in the backseat on the way to school or sports practices or sleepovers. Instead of feeling excitement for the future, I feel the distinct sensation of sadness and loss with a heavy dose of teary-eyed nostalgia. Sure, the sadness is mixed with pride, at the person this young girl is and will become, but the sadness is still there nonetheless. They don’t call it an empty nest for nothing; our children hold our hearts and when they leave us, either to head off to kindergarten or to college, we feel an emptiness in our homes as well as our chests.
A few years ago my friend Becky, whose kids are older than mine, told me that she felt like the years sped up as soon as her children entered school. She said, “It’s like the time goes to warp speed as soon as kindergarten hits and, the next thing you know, your oldest is entering high school.” To be honest, I was in the haze of having two young children, so I didn’t really believe her when she said that time was going to progress at anything faster than a snails pace. If you’ve spent any time at home with two babies under two, you know how one hour can feel like five. But now I know. Now I believe her. Because I swear I was just teaching my little man his letters but, somehow, he will walk through the first grade classroom doors as a reader of chapter books. And that sweet dimpled baby that I rocked to sleep every night (wasn’t that just yesterday?) will be starting kindergarten in nine days.
It’s funny how the realization that our children are growing up can strike at the most unexpected times. The other night I let the kids fall asleep in my bed. My husband was working late and I just wanted to snuggle with them for a little bit longer. As I picked up my daughter to carry her to her own bed, I was shocked by how long her legs were and how they dangled from my arms as I navigated the stairs and doorways. When did she get so big? How did I not notice this before? I actually cried as I looked at her face and realized that those chubby baby cheeks had been replaced by the thinned out version of a young girl. I didn’t cry because she was getting bigger and growing at a normal and healthy pace, those are good things and should be celebrated. I cried because I didn’t notice it everyday. I cried because it snuck up on me. I cried because I could only vaguely remember the way her little mouth stayed partially open when she slept as a baby. I cried because as much as I wanted her legs to grow, I equally wanted to go back to a time where I could cradle her entire body in my arms. The dichotomous nature of a parent is almost too much to bear sometimes.
I know that we shouldn’t say these things out loud. That we want our children to stay little forever. That we want them to stay safe within the four walls of our home. That we don’t want them to venture out into the real world; a place that can be cruel and cold and unforgiving. We think these things, every parent does. As we lie awake in the stillness of the night, we think about all of the ways that we can build a wall to protect our babies from the pain and heartbreak they will inevitably face throughout their lives. Sure, we think these thoughts. But, do you know why we shouldn’t say them out loud? Because we know that, in our heart of hearts, they are statements made out of fear and selfishness and not grounded in reality. They will grow up. They will leave our homes to build their own. They will get their hearts broken. They will experience loss. But it will be beautiful. It will be life. And, God willing, we will get to watch it all and be right there to cheer them on.
My dear friend Renee is sending her youngest child off to her freshman year of college today. You would be hard-pressed to find a warmer, kinder, more nurturing mother than my friend, so you can imagine the turmoil her heart has undergone during the lead up to this big day. She’s done all she could to prepare her daughter for this next step and, by all measures, she’s succeeded. She and her husband have raised a poised, confident, and incredibly talented young woman who will surely exceed all expectations. Yet, my heart aches for Renee because I can only imagine the dueling feelings of pain and pride that will tug at her heart as she watches her baby girl climb the stairs to her dorm room. It is hard to let go of something you love more than yourself. But it is even harder to try to hang on to the winds of change. Best just to hug them tight, tell them you love them, and hold back the tears until you get back to the car.
I’m beginning to realize that it doesn’t matter which phase our children are entering, all new steps in life will result in a crying mother behind the steering wheel of her parked car or a misty eyed father whose voice will crack just a little bit as he’s giving last minute advice. I was that mother last year as I watched my oldest walk confidently into his kindergarten classroom on his first day and I’ll be that mother again when my daughter does the same next week. I will be that mother when my baby, the last to leave my nest, throws her high school graduation cap high into the air. I will definitely be that mother who cries in the front row while she watches her husband walk their daughters down the aisle. And I will proudly be that Grandma who takes her son’s newborn baby into her arms for the first time.
Time marches on. We can either drag our feet, kicking and screaming, hoping that our persistence will slow its passage, or we can march right along with it—enjoying the view and the changing scenery along the way. Just remember to tuck a few tissues into your hiking shorts, and keep putting left in front of right, and right in front of wrong.