Armed with passwords and last year’s tax forms, we gathered at the dining room table with my youngest son and his new wife.
They had asked for help in the annual ritual of completing the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which college students must submit in order to qualify for scholarships of any type. Within minutes, however, the newlyweds were in the driver’s seat at the keyboard, clicking, scrolling, and entering data. I was happy to quietly excuse myself and move on to preparing snacks to fortify them for this blessed foray into independence.
Some parenting ties are easier to snip than others, and I’ll admit that this one was welcome. But the journey from dependent child to independent adult is never without its pulling and stretching on both sides. As young adult children relinquish their need for hands-on parenting and take up responsibility for their own lives, there is a mirrored relinquishment for which we, as their loving parents, usually need plenty of grace.
In the midst of this process, many mums worry that the mother-child relationship will be damaged as adult sons and daughters marry and start families of their own. We fear being replaced and forgotten when new family ties are established. Unfortunately, fear and worry are not helpful building materials for a bond that lasts. Mothers like me need help to embrace a biblical vision of motherhood that will enable us to work ourselves out of a job like missionaries, with gratitude for the gift of parenting and with joy in the launching and the letting go.
Holding Our Children Loosely
As a homeschooling mum who scheduled every minute of the day for my four sons, I stumbled at first with the choreography of letting go. Then, a seemingly unrelated principle from the teaching of Paul opened my eyes to a hidden idolatry, disguised as “good mothering.” In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul commends bountiful sowing and cheerful giving, a practice that demonstrates belief in God as both provider and sustainer. Giving strips money of its idolatrous power over our hearts, for we are saying, “I love God more than I love whatever this money could do for me.”
“Learning to hold my children loosely was step one in allowing God to take his own rightful place in my heart.”
I began to see that releasing my young adults and teens into their growing independence was one way to make war against that particular idolatry and the cherished illusion of control I had cultivated. Learning to hold my children loosely was step one in allowing God to take his own rightful place in my heart. And holding on tightly to God strengthened my belief that my children belonged to him first of all.
As loving mums, we balance our deep love for our children with a deeper trust in God’s loving and keeping, and, for me, this required stepping back from my idol of control, and then stepping joyfully into a new advisory role.
Stepping Back from Control
I realized when my boys were small that maintaining a relationship with them as they grew older was going to be a challenge, because I’m a do-er. When they needed help in the tub or someone to make them a sandwich, I knew exactly what to do. However, that physically dependent stage, when I was clipping forty fingernails and forty toenails besides my own, was (mercifully) short, and it didn’t seem long before our sons no longer needed my help or care.
Encouraging practical independence from mum and dad is a goal that sits alongside fostering spiritual dependence upon God, and conscientious parents can actually thwart that goal without even realizing it. Orchestrating every detail of your teen’s life, or swooping in to prevent every disappointment and to manage every outcome, can actually teach your children a false hope in success and happy circumstances. That’s a hope that will wear you out and leave your children utterly unprepared for the realities of adulthood.
As their dependence upon God grows, our adult children’s relationship with God may not look exactly like our own. Their mode of worship, their boundaries on gray areas, and the way they express their faith may not line up perfectly with what they learned in our home. In middle age, it’s tempting to define holiness as our own way of living the Christian life, with a dangerous shift in pronouns that redefines, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16), with the parent as the standard for holiness.
Just as we look to Jesus Christ as the standard of holiness for our own life on this fallen ground — not our pastor, not our favorite worship leader or inspirational author — grace-dependent parents encourage our children to turn their eyes toward Christ and to follow his lead. We recognize that we are not the standard for holiness. We are followers of Christ alongside our adult children, and we trust him to establish habits of holiness in their lives as we set an example by our own practice of lively faith.
Our New Advisory Role
The prophet Jeremiah wrote words of wise advice to the nation of Israel in exile, wisdom that helped me find a peaceful bridge into my empty nest. Somehow, at first, I found myself standing alongside those poor, displaced Israelites, waiting for life to return to “normal.” Sadly, their wrong thinking — that Nebuchadnezzar would come, and in a few weeks they’d be back home again — had gotten in the way of their obedience in the moment.
“I am learning that it is possible to live out the will of God in a land I don’t quite understand yet.”
Jeremiah counseled against their camping mentality with instructions to build and to cultivate and to make a life in Babylon, a location that felt like a dislocation (Jeremiah 29:4–7). As the grieving nation came to realize, “No, we’re not going back,” they stumbled toward a right understanding of what it meant to be God’s people in a place they had no desire to be. Likewise, I am learning that it is just as possible to live out the will of God in a land I don’t quite understand yet.
Rather than languishing in unmet expectations, parents of adult children have the privilege of stepping into a new role. Suddenly, we can “seek the welfare of the city” in an advisory capacity (Jeremiah 29:7). Someone else is doing the hands-on budgeting, planning, building, and designing that accompany the parenting life. Our children are now the primary ones responsible for the welfare of the next generation.
In None Like Him, Jen Wilkin warns readers against the tendency to usurp the incommunicable attributes of God — those qualities of deity that are his alone. Nowhere is this more of a temptation for me than in parenting. God will stop at nothing to pour his holiness, justice, and patience into the love I have for my kids, but what I really covet is his sovereignty, his omniscience, his omnipresence. By entrusting each member of my family to God’s sovereign plan, I am enabled to release the death grip on my desire to control and manage life from my limited perspective.
Still Sowing, Still Growing
Returning to Paul’s metaphor of generous sowing (2 Corinthians 9:6–7), the biblical pattern for all of us is to spread our seed pell-mell. As empty nesters, we are in a position to put on display the generosity of the gospel and the nature of God by investing in multigenerational pursuits with our families, and also by shaping our demeanors and our schedules to communicate our openness to their needs and our willingness to put our own lives on hold to be available to them.
Not all the seeds we plant along the way will bear fruit — but, then, we learned when our children were younger that parenting is anything but a cause-and-effect proposition. It is not a vending machine into which we insert our right actions and are rewarded with equal and corresponding reactions from our children. We’re after faithfulness first, not results.
Everyone collects a few regrets along the way, but regrets can’t set the agenda for our parenting journey going forward. Our goal is to leave a legacy of godliness, not a monument to our own glory and success. Freedom comes with understanding that our family is not our own personal project. God is doing bigger and more glorious things that we may not see or understand. He is building his kingdom, and it will be our greatest joy to have raised a small band of worshipers to join those standing around his throne at the end of all things.
Of course, this means that I will never be a “parenting graduate.” For as long as I live, I will need to grow in grace so that I will honor boundaries, resist giving unsolicited advice, and steadfastly reject unrealistic expectations of my adult children. I will need to trust God to instill in my heart a genuine and unselfish love for my family that enables me to see their ever-expanding world as a gift rather than a threat.
By grace, we can balance our deep love for our children with the “expulsive power” of a deeper love for God and a deeper trust in his sovereign goodness at work in their lives.