The Kids are Grown and (Mostly) Gone, so Who Am I and What Do I Do Now?

Our “baby” of five kids is just two short weeks away from being 21. It occurs to me that even though he’s living with us temporarily and working, while colleges decide whether or not to have live classes again, he’s for all intents and purposes grown, though maybe not entirely gone.

It also occurs to me that it’s the first time since I became a mother 37 years ago that I’ve felt completely free to do exactly as I please with my time every single day. I haven’t had this kind of freedom since, well, ever.

After my college years, there was the teaching job and the wedding and the children who began showing up. After three, I was unable to have any more, so we adopted two, mainly because I couldn’t imagine life without diapers and piano lessons and potty training. I know. Call me deranged.

But I loved motherhood, and with every year that went by, I realized I was working myself out of a job. Eventually, I’d have to say goodbye to my favorite occupation–raising kids. What would I do next? And who would I be then?

I didn’t know.

Our family in 2002

When Stone turned 20 in 2020, I realized it was the end of 24 straight years of co-parenting teenagers. That was a streak I was happy to give up. But it has taken some adjustment. As much as I’m glad not to worry about whether or not his homework gets turned in or what time he comes home, I liked feeling vital and needed. I liked being Supermom to all of them. It’s hard to take off my suit.

I wander around the house now wondering what to do next rather than refereeing a squabble in the kitchen or checking up on chore lists. And honestly, I like the quiet and the hours to myself. I like the feeling that no one is depending on me for rides to practices or clean khakis. I like a whole day before me and mainly my writing or friends that call. I’m glad that everyone is alive and thriving.

And yet.

It was such a sweet gig, and sometimes, I’m really sad it’s over. I was the homeschooling mom of five for 20 years. I was the one who directed the end of year performances, the one who stayed up late to write curriculum, the one who went all out on all occasions so my kids wouldn’t miss a thing.

Who am I now?

I’m learning that who I am now is who I’ve always been. Nothing that matters has changed. Being a mom is an occupation, a calling, a privilege, but it is not an identity. It’s never made me who I am. It’s given me something all consuming and fulfilling to do, but it’s never given me intrinsic worth and value. It’s never been able to tell me who I am. Only God can do that.

Cody and me on his wedding day

My identity is in God my Father whose love makes me his daughter. God’s love gives me a solid place to stand when my daughters-in-law have the babies in our family now (and not me); when my daughters depend on one another (and not me); when my sons turn to their wives (and not me). God’s love identifies and defines me.

Jesus himself found his identity in being God’s son. When John baptized him in the Jordan, the heavens opened and a dove descended, and God said just who Jesus was, “You are my Son, who I love,” Mk 1:11. If being God’s beloved son was enough for Jesus’ identity to rest upon, surely being his daughter is enough for me.

God’s love was proven on the cross when Jesus died and paid the price to make me his. Nothing I do can change that–not being a mama or a wife or a teacher or a writer–because who I am is not what I do. And who I am doesn’t depend on anyone else, not children or husband or students or readers. Because God is my Father, who I am is his child. It’s God’s love for me that makes me who I am, not anyone else’s. I have worth because he made me, and he died to make me as close to him as thought and breath, Mt 6:9; Jn 11:25.

The adjustments I have to make with grown children come in halting, sometimes faltering steps, but come they must. The challenge is will I embrace them as part of my children’s healthy flight away from us, or will I sabotage them and clip their wings or worse, cause them to crash and burn?

As mamas, we don’t get pats on the back for hanging back and letting others step up in the shoes we once filled. No one is waiting in the wings saying, “Attagirl,” when we take the hit in the misunderstanding on the family vacay and keep the peace.

It can be a lonely place on this side of phonics and fractions, but it’s the natural next stop after everyone moves out. And if I don’t inhabit it successfully, if I’m not here as my best, whole self, who else will cheer them on?

Every grown-up is still a child needing a mama who encourages them. It can look like a helping hand taking grandkids for the afternoon or a chat by phone across town or leaving newlyweds alone to do their own nest feathering. No matter their age, every child still needs to be loved. The trick is in figuring out how.

Dying to self was part of up-all-night ear infections, letting little hands “help,” cleaning up the same messes for years upon years. It’s still an integral part of mothering when they’re gone. But it looks more like swallowing unasked for advice, not minding that they’re cooking out and you’re not invited, not being first to hold their newborn.

Josie Love and me with first grandson

At its core, motherhood is raising children so they can soar, not so they keep coming home. It’s not about getting my needs met; it’s about meeting their’s until they can take it from here and make good for themselves. The goal is to love them as you ready them for life on their own.

There are thousands of deaths we die to parent grown kids, and most of them are unsung and unknown by anyone but yourself.

Who would sign up for this?

We all did. And I’m guessing we all still would.

There’s no amount of dying to self that makes me regret their snuggles after tears in the dark, or their looks of confidence when they learned to ride a bike, or the relief in their eyes when they find mine in a crowd. There are way more pluses than minuses in Mama’s Book of Comparative Gains and Losses.

So now that the kids are grown and (mostly) gone, how do their parents cope and grow up?

Bain, age 3

We accept reality and stop whining. It’s tough to feel put out to pasture, but it can also be our ticket to the best free fall we’ll ever have. It all depends on perspective. Counseling helps, and so does having fun with friends. Find your healthiest option and work it. There’s nothing like a day with the grands to remind me how much I’d rather be living my life as it is today than going back to my years-with-kids. Memory is often sentimental, not real.

We give ourselves away to others. Part of what makes raising kids wonderful is how it forces us to forget ourselves. There’s nothing like volunteering in the community or at church or with grandkids to keep us focused on other people and not on how we might be feeling that day. Besides, giving love to others brings it back to us.

We find something we love and enjoy it. These golden years are prime years for writing that book, taking that class, making that trip, organizing those family pics. (I’m having trouble with the last one—far too many feels.)

We invest in other relationships. If we haven’t maintained friendships during our child rearing years, it’s not too late to make friends now. Find women who share similar interests and suggest pursuing them together–reading, crafting, praying, cooking, painting, hiking—whatever. Plan outings and invite, invite, invite. Eventually, somebody will stick.

My prayer posse

We keep our hearts open to our grown kids, but we don’t live or die for them. Our children are not to be worshiped. They’re not God for us. We don’t give them the power to make or break our day. If they aren’t open to you, find folks who are. If they are, be sure you have healthy boundaries so you don’t get lost in them.

We seek God like it’s our job. Maybe we’ve kept in touch with him over the years while we’ve raised our kids. Maybe we haven’t. Regardless, there’s no shame in getting back in touch now. There’s excitement and sweetness in connecting with him in ways we’ve not had the time to explore before. And it’s important that we get well connected for what’s ahead–weathering retirement and lifestyle changes, losing loved ones, facing aging and the health issues that come. As the bumper sticker wisely reminds: “Old age is not for sissies.”

As I read back over these strategies, it strikes me that all six of these can be ways to cope with mothering at any stage, whether our children are grown or not.

When my father was in his 80’s, he told me he was not going to be a bitter old man, always complaining about how rotten he felt or how young folks were messing up. He was going to spend his remaining years loving everybody in his path for all he was worth. And he did. When he died, I could still feel his love for me. And I can still feel it today, five years later.

Bryan, Sadie, and Ransom

Love lasts.

We all want to give our kids our best legacy, the one thing that matters most to leave behind when we die. But what is it?

To be the parents that our kids are proud of, ones who handle the seasons of life that come along without falling apart and without looking to them to make us alright. Children weren’t meant to be emotional supports for their parents. Children of all ages want parents to act like parents–to be grounded, to be faithful, to be wise, and to love them well.

I don’t know any other way to do this than to seek God with all I’ve got and to give his love away to everyone else. Only he can ground me and make me faithful, wise, and loving. That was my father’s legacy to me. It’s a good one to pass along, because it’s not the stuff Daddy left me–or the things my Father in heaven gives me–that warm my heart most.

It’s the love.

Jed with Oak and baby Hawk

[For the story of my last visit with Daddy, see https://onetruelove.blog/2018/09/23/the-second-chance/]

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