This week, my son is attending overnight camp for the first time. He packed his bag, and then I re-packed it for him (i.e. folded up the crumpled clothes that had been stuffed in). I did a mock set-up of his camp bed with him on the basement floor, because I was worried he wouldn’t know what to do with his sleeping bag once he got there. I reminded him about sunscreen, and to drink plenty of water. He just finished another level of swimming lessons, so if he falls in the river by accident without a life jacket, he should know what to do.
As he boarded the bus, I wondered what had gotten into me: allowing a stranger to drive my child all that way. Were there even seatbelts in there?
I followed him onto the bus to make sure he’d found a place and looked comfortable. There he was, smiling and bright-eyed, sitting beside one of his cabin leaders (another stranger…he seems like a stand-up guy, but still).
Truth is, I do believe that he’ll be fine. But there’s another question afoot, underneath all of the careful preparations, and the making-sure-he’s-ok’s: What about…me?
It has gotten me to thinking about an empty nest. Somewhere down the road, the day is coming. I do look forward to, hopefully, having more time for myself. Pursuing ambitions and leisure activities. Hanging out with my husband the way we used to (if we will still know how). Maybe, I’ll even keep a clean house.
But, along with the sacrifices I made when I became a parent, I also received something that has been extremely fulfilling. I became a little child’s favorite. There’s just nothing like it! Teachers, babysitters, and even grandparents don’t necessarily receive that distinguished place in a child’s heart. I may not acknowledge it every day, but being a parent has given me a great sense of purpose.
About a year ago, I remember walking back to our car after a day at the beach with my two boys. I hung on to a circular floatation toy and fought the wind to keep it, while carrying life jackets and a bag of gear in my other hand. My youngest, who was one, toddled away and I attempted to reign him back in. My oldest, who was seven, cried and screamed to stay longer, and I tried to appease him by saying we could come back another time.
A middle-aged couple eyed me, chuckling, and the man commented, “Oh, I remember that.”
“Ah, yes,” I replied with a sigh, “I suppose, when it’s done, I’ll miss it.” I was anticipating the usual “this is the best time of your life”/ “enjoy it while it lasts, they grow up so fast” commentary. (Which is mildly guilt-provoking, no? Because honestly, this doesn’t always feel like the best time of my life.)
To my surprise, the man shook his head and said assuredly, “No.” And they went on to say something about their grandchildren, whom they obviously loved and enjoyed. But there was no guilt-ridden speech. They loved their kids, and remembered when they were little. But on that particular day, they were quite simply enjoying the fact that they didn’t have to take care of anyone but themselves.
I found this encounter refreshing, and encouraging. Because when I’m told that this is the best time of my life, and in the meantime I’m exhausted, frustrated, frazzled, living in a mess that doesn’t seem to stop, and can’t even remember who I was before this all started…it seems a hopeless thing to say that this is as good as it gets.
Every season, I suppose, has its joys and aggravations. Thank God that the blessing of children is so indescribably beautiful to a human heart, because otherwise, how would we put up with the perpetual discomfort and inconvenience that they cause? And when the season of raising them is over, we gain back some of our old freedoms and luxuries. But we lose something, too. Something that sparkles brighter, in our memories, than all of the things we gave up: We were their favorite. Taking care of their needs, and sharing thousands of moments with them, infused our lives with greater meaning.
And perhaps that is why, when the season ends, empty nesters may watch frazzled young parents with a degree of envy. And sigh, and say those ridiculous things.
Who knows? Maybe, one day, I’ll say them too.
“Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” Ecclesiastes 7:10
What’s your favorite thing about being a parent? Are you an empty-nester? (What’s that like?) I would love to hear your perspective in the comments section below.