growing pains, parenting, Teens

Grieving Their Childhood

I was headed home on my morning walk when the white feathers against the green grass caught my eye. Two baby birds lay still near the sidewalk, just a few feet under the nest carefully resting on the branches above. I noticed the mama bird immediately. Flitting from branch to branch, she was unable to sit still, but also unable to do anything about her situation. My heart broke and I silently felt such a maternal connection to that mama bird. I wanted to softly whisper to her, “I’m so sorry. It’s my biggest fear, too.”

We are approaching the last five years before becoming empty nesters ourselves, and I’m becoming keenly aware of the passing of time – and my role in it – as I prepare for the inevitable launch of my babies. I suddenly feel compelled to teach them all the things and say all the words before it’s too late. I, too, feel unable to sit still, but also unsure of what to do to about it. As a result, fear often gets the better of me, which will shock exactly no one. To imagine the day will soon come where our girls will leave the shelter of our home and be out on their own…I will very likely need to be medicated.

I don’t think about it every day, though. We get in a groove and we go about our routine and days turn into weeks, and the months secretly march on. One particular morning in July, we had some appointments and errands to run. I forgot to have my girls to set their alarms the night before, and realizing how late in the morning it was, I rushed upstairs to wake them up. I pushed each of their bedroom doors open and tossed a quick “time to get up!” into the darkness of their rooms as I hurried back to my bathroom to finish getting ready.

How Did it Happen So Fast?

As I went back to applying my concealer, a wave of emotion rose from somewhere deep inside me and I couldn’t stop it. My brain held me hostage as I stood there, alone in my bathroom, with images from the past flashing through my mind. I began to remember my now teenaged girls as babies. I thought about our mornings, way back in the early years, and how they were a stark contrast to the mornings of our current lifestyle. In those days, I would gently turn the knob on her bedroom door so as not to startle her. Peeking around the half opened door, secretly hoping she was already awake because I missed her so much during the night and I wanted to see her. Our eyes would lock, and she would flash a gummy grin. Pulling herself up with her chubby dimpled baby hands, and gripping the sides of the crib, she would bounce up and down on her squishy marshmallow legs and lift her soft arms above her head for me to pick her up because she’s happy to see me, too.

Just the thought of it absolutely wrecks me.

How has it become so different? How did we move between these stages so quickly? How is it that one day my girls’ bathroom was filled with naked Barbies and Pull-Ups, and has now transformed into what appears to be an episode of Hoarders: Makeup and Hair Product Edition.

At what point in time did we draw the line between the anticipated eagerness of that first morning greeting to waking them up with a quick shout into a dark room?

The thought crushed me. How did all the years in between toddler and teen go by so quickly? Those in-between years feel like they’re hidden away, floating around in a dream that my memory can’t quite pin down. I want a do-over. I want to go back and experience them as babies and toddlers and preschoolers and elementary kids. I wasn’t holding on tight enough back then! I want to go back and really soak it all in this time! Why didn’t I savor every minute and enjoy-it-now-because-it-goes-so-fast like everyone (annoyingly) always told me to!?

It’s Ok to Mourn for Their Childhood

When I shared these feelings out loud recently, a great mentor gifted me with some life-giving advice. She told me to let myself feel the loss of each stage. It’s ok to mourn for their childhood. The thought never occurred to me.

My husband and I work diligently to ensure they are growing up independently, always second guessing if we are being too strict or too lenient. At times it feels as if I’m subconsciously pushing them to grow up too quickly, and then I want to pull back a little because they’re still kids after all, and it’s all a very exhausting struggle.

We’ve reached a point in time where when I look at my oldest, nearly fully grown, I can see the outline of her adult face starting to emerge. But if I really look at her, she’s still my three year old with a lisp and baby fine hair that I tried for years (in vain) to get to stay in a braid. I can still see my youngest, struggling to string a sentence together because her big sister did all the talking for her. But in the same moment, she’s a teenager with impeccable comedic timing, making us choke on our drinks at the dinner table. I can still remember them young, but I can also cherish this particular window of time, watching them grow into themselves.

And this is the way it should be. Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us that “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”. This is the way of things. The passing of time is part of God’s design for our lives. Every stage, every milestone, every event in our lives. There’s a season and a purpose. And it’s not meant to stay stagnant, as much as I’d like to freeze time.

Time marches on. As evidenced by my sagging eyelids and inability to go from a sitting to standing position without something cracking.

We can mourn for their childhood and press into the grief of not getting to hold their tiny hand in ours again. It’s ok. Own those feelings, don’t brush them off. We grieve their childhood because it was a time of safety and security. Things were predictable and constant. I was relatively confident that I knew what to do to prepare for the school play or the field trip or the next grade level.

I don’t know what to do to prepare for the day when the world takes my baby by the hand. When she looks back at me over her shoulder as she journeys off to live a new life I’m not necessarily a part of. I don’t know what that looks like. So I mourn for the days when I just felt like I had some control.

Always Be My Baby

In spite of all that, this three-quarters grown, gangly person will still be your baby. The very same one who grinned at you from their crib. They’re still the chubby 3 year old in the toddler bed. The six year old with morning breath climbing down from the top bunk. The tween hibernating under the comforter until noon. The nearly grown teen who is up at dawn for morning soccer practice and silently sips coffee with you at the table. They’re still yours. You’ve just been blessed – so very blessed – to get to love the many versions of them. And that’s what we’ll hold onto as we enter the final stretch before launch.

Let yourself mourn their childhood. Grieve what once was, as messy and loud and amazing and sticky and squishy as it was, and welcome each new phase as you tuck those memories close to your heart. Each moment, each step in the journey of their childhood, is preparing them to step out of the nest. We don’t have to be afraid and we don’t have to be worried. We’re equipping them to fly.

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