As I shopped for school supplies for my soon-to-be sixth grade grandson at Target last week, I passed by a mom and her daughter doing what looked to be the “stocking the dorm room” shopping trip. The young woman was eagerly scanning the aisles for just the right towels. The mom was pushing the overflowing cart behind her, watching every move her daughter made as she readied for her big launch.
There are lots of nostalgic articles and reflections at this time of year written by parents who are preparing to send their child off to college. Some report hopefulness, as they look forward with anticipation at the adventure and discovery that awaits their child. Others express concern. Will their baby be safe? Will he or she make good choices? Will they flourish? But almost every parent expresses wistfulness, if not high-octane grief, at the way in which this passage marks the end of their years of day-in, day-out parenting. Though we never stop being parents, and may see our launched Millennial need to return to the nest at some point beyond college vacations, we can’t know what the future will hold for our children or ourselves. This is a transition as dramatic for most of us as the day we brought that child home from the hospital a couple of decades earlier.
Embedded in the grieving of this transition for many parents is regret. Life in the day-to-day trenches of parenting doesn’t always afford much time for reflection. But as that phase comes to an end, there is a bit of spiritual space in some parents that’s just waiting to be filled with unfinished business and second-guessed decisions:
- I shouldn’t have let my son quit piano lessons.
- I should have paid closer attention when she ______.
- I wish we would have spent more time together just having fun.
- If only I would have insisted on having her switched to a different classroom teacher that year.
- I “majored on the minors” too often during his teen years. I let fear be my filter.
- I shouldn’t have been so focused on work/church/community issues.
In the change of role and identity for both us parents and child as we each move into what’s next for us in our relationship and in life, our regrets about our parenting misfires and sins may exacerbate our grief during this important time of transition. I’d like to suggest that our regrets can make this “good” grief.
Many of you reading this may not have any regrets – or you may have done a great job processing them with the Lord and your children on the fly. I bless you for this, and know that you’re still facing the challenge of change as you prepare to bring your child and your Target purchases to school this month. May you know the nearness of God during this tender time in your family’s life.
Others reading this may be caught in waves of sorrow tinged with regret. The ache of wishing for a re-set of quantity time with our kids, for the ability to somehow bring our sweet vantage point of what we know today that we didn’t know when they were three weeks old or 6, or 13, or 17 back into those parenting trenches of teething and toilet training and braces and friend crises and C-minuses on biology tests. We flinch at our failures. We want to flee from our regrets. But if I could offer a word of wisdom to parents standing on the edge of an emptying nest echoing with regret, it would be: Don’t hide from this discomfort. Stay put, and remember. Your grief can be good grief.
When those regrets appear, they are there as a catalyst to help you make peace with the past so you can begin to develop a new, maturing relationship with your young adult child. Appropriately sharing your parenting regrets with your child gives you an opportunity to seek forgiveness from them (if you haven’t done so already), acknowledge your humanity, and affirm your love and God’s for them. In this context, “appropriately” means not getting all defensive about your choices, nor does it mean asking your child to take care of you emotionally because you can’t forgive yourself for your failures. Appropriately means acknowledging to yourself that you did the best you could with the tools you had at the time, all while building a life and family without an Ikea-clear set of instructions.* It means remembering your regrets.
Again and again in Scripture, God calls his people to remember his faithfulness. (Here, here, here and here, just for starters.) Remembering his faithfulness comes in the context of our own experience with him. The word most often used for “remember” in the Old Testament is zakar. While the word may be used to point at the way in which we recall where we put our car keys, zakar can be a much weightier concept. It is a word used when someone is tabulating the past or creating a memorial. It is an active quest to connect what’s gone before to not only the present, but the future.
At the time each of my children were leaving home for the first time, I was so tender and raw with “Sunrise, Sunset” emotion that remembering – regrets and all – was more than I thought I could handle in the moment. I was the mom who puddled up at inopportune times shopping for dorm stuff at Target. I think remembering seemed a little terrifying to me because I was afraid of being swept away in my own undertow. So if you’re one of those moms who is biting the inside of your cheek while you’re in Target, I get it.
It is scary and more than a little counterintuitive attend to your parenting regrets at a time when you’re in the midst of a transition. The courage to zakar is a gift you can offer your launching child and yourself. They may load the car with all that stuff you bought at Target, a few well-chosen words about those regrets of yours may leave you both with a few less pieces of baggage to carry into the next chapter of your lives.
“…for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” – Ps. 103:14
If you’ve launched a child (or several), what was most surprising to you about your emotions during the process? If you’ve not yet gotten to this point in your parenting journey, what do you anticipate about it?
*The Bible does indeed give us instructions that both shapes the parameters of our lives and fills those parameters with the presence of its Author. But when it comes to whether we should buy a pet gerbil for our 7 year-old, Scripture is silent.