This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of HomeLife magazine.
I don’t know about you but May always finds me incredibly busy. This year my husband and I are traversing the country in order to attend the graduations of our niece and two nephews. Making plans and booking flights brought back memories of our daughter’s graduation and her leaving the nest for the first time. If you haven’t journeyed this path before, there’s an unsettling angst leading up to the big day that’s hard to describe, but I’ll try.
Is she prepared? The days leading up to Elise’s departure from high school into a surreal summer and the semi-real world of college found us thankfully in a scurry with a graduation party to plan and others to attend. My heart was cheerfully diverted as we searched every department store high and low for the perfect white dress to be worn under her graduation gown. We spruced up our home and stocked the pantry in anticipation of our many relatives flying in for the big event. Then with brave hesitation we proudly attended the last of all her events from senior banquets to the Rodeo Parade, where she would march with her beloved high school band one last time.
As the grand finale, we attended a baccalaureate service at our home church followed by a reception with all her classmates and their families. All through the planning phase mixed emotions seemed to creep in and dominate my thoughts. On the one hand, I was so proud of our daughter for her heart for the Lord, sweet character, well-chosen friends, and many accomplishments. And at the same time I found myself staring at her in disbelief. How could it be time for her to leave, and more importantly, was she ready? This question above all else lingered: Had we pre- pared our daughter to take care of herself far from home? Had we prepared her to take the wheel and continue on her own road?
It seemed so cliché to ask where the time had gone. It seems only yesterday I was experiencing sleepless nights endlessly nursing her. It all evaporated in the blink of an eye. I was there for her during each of the 17 years, 362 days of her childhood, and now I’m moving her into her dorm just three days shy of her 18th birthday.
When you really think about it, it’s such a short time to fully mold a person into adult life — from instilling family values and honing social skills to preparing them for real-life readiness and financial sufficiency. With the gravity of this kind of responsibility, it’s a wonder no one warns you of the curve in the road ahead, although somehow I think we already knew.
I was thankful my husband and I had devised a makeshift, real-world system early on for our offspring in preparation of this moment. Fully aware we were raising them to leave us, we developed the mindset of age appropriate responsibility. It looked like this: At the age they were capable of a task, they would assume said task on their own. Therefore, because Elise was capable of picking up her blocks and putting them where they belonged at four years old, it became her ongoing responsibility. At 13 she took over her laundry, and at 16 she obtained her own debit card that she funded through babysitting jobs. And even though she’d hit every milestone set for her, during those last fleeting months under my wing I found I was constantly scrolling through my mind trying to think of yet another example of adult accountability I’d forgotten. Cook for herself — check. Change a tire — check. Reset a circuit breaker — check. Finally, I ran out of the practical, tangible list and delved into the life challenges she would face in her freshman year, like resisting peer pressure, battling loneliness, using street smarts. My checklist exhausted, we deemed her ready to take the next step into adulthood.
On graduation day, we beamed proudly from the stands at the ceremony before heading home to celebrate with a houseful of extended family and friends. I soon lost track of time in the tangle of well-wishers and barely caught a glimpse of Elise as she ran out the door and down the steps of our home to a car of waiting friends rallying for yet another graduation party. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks … she had always been on loan to us. I allowed myself a deep and satisfying cry as I finally exhaled what I had been holding back over the past few months. And in that very hard moment, I realized I had done a good job preparing our daughter for college, and a lousy job preparing myself.
Am I prepared? As that sweet summer came to an end, so did the days of our family under one roof. I learned to be thankful she was ready to leave, grateful we could afford her education, and suspected I wasn’t the only one experiencing a change in our family. My husband and sons would be feeling the void as well. Most importantly, I realized she needed me to encourage her in this next big step with the same enthusiasm I did when she was taking her first steps as a toddler. Just because she was leaving didn’t mean she didn’t need us. I began to see those changes as God’s plan for her life.
My husband and I moved her into her new dorm on a hot Saturday afternoon in mid-August. Needing to fuel my nur- turing instinct and make everything just-so for her, I longed to organize her closet and desk, then make up her extra-long twin with the new fabric we had selected and sewed together over the summer. But instead, I held back and waited for an invitation to pitch in, respecting her new space and posi- tion. I did my best to hold it together until my husband and I landed safely in our car before letting the waterworks go, then waited the excruciating 27 hours before she finally checked in and called us.
After a few sleepless nights of worry over her safety, I realized God loves my child more than I do. I finally learned to let go and trust her protection to Him. Truth be told, even though I leaned fervently on the Lord for comfort and strength, and told myself she was happy, and that this was a natural transition, it was still a very hard adjustment to make. I noticed the worst part of my transition was around 4:30 every afternoon when I began setting the table for four of us instead of five. It made sense this is where I’d grieve since our kitchen table was where we all came together at the end of the day. She had a place there, and now it sat empty.
After a few months of learning to be patient and allowing my heart to heal, an idea came to mind. My mother had made our family dinnertime a priority, not simply to fill our bellies but to foster communication and build a tie. In turn, I’d naturally done the same with my young family. Sadly, I noticed our culture was trending away from dinners together. In Elise’s absence, I saw very clearly the commitment to daily family time around the table had made an indelible impression on our connection and bond. It was so simple. Suddenly I felt the need to tell others about the gifts of the kitchen and the family table. I shared the idea with my husband exclaiming, “I want to write a book to help strengthen families.” I had no idea how to get there but God provided the path.
That Thanksgiving when our daughter returned, I relished in how much she had changed and grown as a person. She seemed more confident, self-reliant, and appreciative of us. We missed her but we had grown individually as well. We all had so much to talk about, sharing pieces of our new worlds.
God prepared a new path. As the years moved forward, I’m happy to report each sibling’s college departure became a little easier. Yes, we were probably gaining experience, but also I found unexpected blessings in the relationships our children were forming among themselves. Once away from home and no longer tethered to one another, they were becoming real friends — confidants. It was the end goal — the cherry on top.
For those experiencing the leaving years chapter of life, I hope my words of empathy, encouragement, and hope can be a salve to your aching heart. Even though I couldn’t imagine an end to childrearing, I have found a new season emerging, one that’s oh so sweet. I used to wonder what we would do without swim meets, scout meetings, Friday night football, and open house on Tuesdays in September. Now, we go out to dinner and grab a movie on a Tuesday night, and run out on Saturday afternoons without a consideration of who needs what and when. I like to think we’re enjoying our empty nest because we first nurtured it, beginning with placing our heavenly Father first, followed closely by our marriage, then family. The best wisdom I can offer you is to trust Him with all your heart, leaning not on your own understanding, but acknowledging Him in this season and all seasons to come, and He will prepare a path — a new path — for you.
Laura Schupp is the author of Our Newlywed Kitchen: The Art of Cooking, Gathering, and Creating Traditions. Learn more about Laura at OurNewlywedKitchen.com.