Next week, Elsie and I will drop off our youngest daughter, A. J., to at Davidson College to begin her freshman year. As she is the last daughter to head out the door, this month marks the end a 24-year era of raising kids in our home.
When my wife first told me we were pregnant with our first child, Alicia, my honest response was: “not right now, honey.” I knew when I got married that kids were likely coming – that they were part of the package – but my young adult life was full and at the time didn’t have room for this enormous undertaking. The night before she was to be born (she was to be induced although she ended up coming of her own volition that night), I thought: “well, regardless of the circumstances or lifespan of either this new person or myself, by definition,, I will be a father for the rest of my life.”
Getting married altered my lifestyle. Having a child threw it out the window. Everything changed: when I got up, when I went to bed, how much I slept if I did, what I did in the evening, what I did on weekends, where I went on vacations, what I did on vacations, how I spent money, how I related to Elsie, how I related to my siblings/relatives, what I planned for, what I ate, where I lived, . . . the list goes on. As a father of young children, I learned the whereabouts of all the playgrounds in town, I learned that there were different sizes of diapers (who knew?), I learned all the possible tricks of getting my young one to sleep, that bassinets could buckle into car seats, that infants take frequent naps – until they don’t, that anyone under 3 is more than happy to take up every waking minute of your 24-hour day. Later, I learned to make ships with Lego, alternate lunch menus, push kids on swings endlessly, and manage asthma. That moved into teaching kids how to say the alphabet, flip a pancake, ride a bike, or greet someone at the door.
Through the process, between belt buckles and shoelaces, far under the radar screen, while measuring every change in height, weight, speech, hair color, and reading level of my child, what I failed to notice was the change in me. Lo and behold, I was becoming – usually the hard way – more patient, more tolerant, more accommodating, and far less wrapped up in my ambitions and ego. Not that I had much choice if I were to stick with the process. Who was rearing who?
Well by the time all kids were in elementary school, I had transitioned in my head and heart from the ‘married’ identity to the ‘family’ identity – still married but overshadowed by the latter label. Both Elsie and I were full-time employed and yet our world was kids and all that contributed to their wellbeing and nurture. It’s what we did. It’s who we were. I readily admit that my work as a pastor benefitted enormously from my having kids: opening doors, making connections, building credibility, etc. They should have earned commission!
Middle school and high school years changed our childrearing practices but not so much our identity. Less labor-intensive and more training in habits and attitudes, mores and lifestyle. But the needs of kids only increase and my identity as a father only deepened.
And so it was a strange feeling in April of 2016, near the end of my oldest’s junior year in high school, when my subconscious caught up with my rational mind and I realized that this little fivesome we had created, this unique, tight-knit team that did everything together, this nuclear unit Elsie and I could in almost every way call our very own, would soon hemorrage. Maybe that’s a strong word for the phenomenon of children leaving the nest but that’s the best word I can find to describe the feeling. It was the beginning of the end. What was I thinking: of course they would go off to college or employment elsewhere – hadn’t I done the same thing? Nevertheless, it was unsettling and frankly not fair.
That was seven years ago. But neither the unsettlement nor the innate sense of unfairness has completely left. The fact that for 36 years I had lived as a non-parent seemed to make no difference: I was lost outside the family identity. I thought: “what did I used to do before kids?” I had no idea.
And so, in anticipation of this auspicious new identity called ‘empty-nester,’ I have spent the last year working hard to accept and embrace the impending transition. We are re-evaluating – again! – what we do, what we eat, where we go, how we vacation, how we relate to each other.
It is most odd that an identity that seemed so foreign as a young adult is now an identity I find hard to shirk. Of course, we will always have family and that by definition makes me a family man. But not having them under our roof upheaves so much.
I shall forever cherish these 24 years. Nothing can replace them. But I shall try to remember that I wasn’t born with this family – neither did I earn it; it was a gift from God. As Job, the Biblical character, once said, upon having his family taken away: “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away – blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1: 21)
I am delighted to discover that there is still family after these child-rearing years finish, that we still have kids, and that they have chosen to continue to be a part of our lives. Yet another gift!
As for grandparenting, well, if we are blessed with such an identity, that will be another whole life!