by Susy Lee Deck

My mother and husband were both worried that I wouldn’t be a good parent. Coming from a broken family leaves you pessimistic about the whole family affair, so I had famously declared I’d never have children. My first baby was eight weeks premature, so we were thrown into the deep end. I didn’t get to hold my son until day three, when I felt suddenly as if I was under a wild waterfall of absolute contentment. Twenty-five years ago, I performed miraculous feats of motherhood to get him home and onto healthy weight charts and I carried and cuddled and encouraged with my whole heart. Today, my family all acknowledge that I’ve been a great mother!

My eldest son just married a wonderful partner amidst a glorious village ceremony and has started his career as a renewable energy engineer. He wants to give his life to working for climate justice. Second son told me his fascination with birds is his version of grown-up Pokemon (a game invented by a guy obsessed with insects), and he’s working towards a career in ornithology and conservation. We adore his girlfriend. My boys are good, kind, and they’re saving the world. And they still love their parents.

Picture perfect right? So why am I so sad?

I threw myself into parenting with great intentionality, not trusting the usual method of just doing what your parents modelled. I read books. I read them books. We raised our kids in a church community that gave them opportunities for intergenerational relationships, for social justice action and for leadership. We watched in awe as the Holy Spirit made them even more amazing than we could have imagined. But then they left us. They’ve started lives of their own, just as we raised them to do!

The depth of this grief took me completely by surprise and I’ve been floundering around trying to understand it ever since. Why didn’t anyone warn me? Is it just me? What do I do now they don’t need me? Should I feel rejected? Is that my baggage or am I just in normal transition? How much space should I give them? My empty nest affects my marriage, my relationships with my sons and their partners, my work and, well actually, my very identity.

The grief comes in waves. Decisions made without needing our input. The end of school, girlfriends, moving out for university, new jobs and then the wedding. When I heard that my fabulous sister-in-law was making the wedding dress, I was suddenly a blubbering mess.

It took a trip to a counsellor to realise how this event had hooked into my grief about my own mother and my insecurity about being good enough. I know enough never to dump these feelings onto my boys, so God, hubby and girlfriends have done overtime listening to me verbally process.

Jenny Brown’s book Growing Yourself Up was helpful. She writes about family systems during different stages of life, and how to take responsibility for your own part in the system. Rather than retreating into my wounded shell, I went for a walk with my future daughter-in-law and we talked about how I could be helpful in the wedding plans too. My faith compels me to keep summoning up the courage to work at these crucial relationships.

When I went to a friend with four grown-up sons for help, she told me she’d been sad for three years. Once I started expressing my own vulnerability, other mums suddenly started opening up about the pain in the changing nature of their families. It seems to be the way with us mothers… we all pretend we have it together until someone confesses, then we feel safe to chime in. I’d forgotten about The Mask of Motherhood by Susan Maushart, which addresses this issue of why we never talk about our fears for fear of being judged. We all know that parenting is the most important thing we’ve ever done and the one we’re least prepared for, so we’re constantly insecure.

I’m learning, mostly through crying out in prayer (and just crying),to put mysentimentalityinto perspective, and to form new adult relationships with my grown children. Hubby and I are reconnecting, trying to remember what life was like before kids. Holidays help. The real saviour for me has been throwing myself into a new ministry, remembering (or trying to believe) I still have much to give the world. A colleague told me that women are at their most productive from 55-60. They have fewer responsibilities and they know who they are and what they’re really good at. And they simply won’t settle for doing anything else. I’m trying to make that me.

I’m taking my passion for families into my career. I’ve been fascinated by how to raise kids who care, so plan to produce fun experiential events forwhole families to learn together. The preteen years are our best opportunity: they’re incredibly formative and kids are still opento family conversations. I’d like to create shared experiences and communications that spark conversations about the difficult issues of life. From conflict resolution to consumerism, from creating happiness to curing depression, from purging poverty to taming technology. Imagine churches reaching out to families in their widercommunities with these events, giving them a taste of Kingdom of God relationships and purposes. Whatever our society’s dominant child-rearing practices are now, will impact the whole of our society in a generation’s time, so it’s worth working on.

Families bring such a crazy amount of joy to us… it’s reasonable to be sad about the change and loss of those lovely times, isn’tit? I’ve discovered it’s possible to be very proud and happy for my sons at the same time as feeling devastated for myself. In the same way that becoming a parent helped me understand the depth of God’s love for us, watching my kids grow and make their own decisions and walk outside my care makes me wonder how God feels. Does he hold his breath and pray for us too? I hope so.

My grief is calming in direct proportion to the passion I’ve given to the rest of my life. I’ve just taken up tap dancing and it’s bringing me unexpected joy. Working on my new ministry with God is giving me fresh purpose. We also promised, in our wedding speech, to be fabulous grandparents one day!

Susy has worked at local, state and national level in ministries that encourage people to care about children, families and vulnerable people around the world. She is passionate about the effect our wider culture has on us, and the ways we can become more intentional about living faithfully, compassionately and generously. She has a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and writes, teaches and speaks to inspire us to be people who care.

Cover photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash