Last night, at a formal social event called the Green Dragon Ball, where my wife and I celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps with 700 of my closest friends, we got better acquainted with the Fort Leonard Wood chaplain and his wife. They are a few years younger than us, with a son in college and a daughter still at home. I mentioned that I had done some writing several years ago on the subject of parenting young adults.
This article below was originally posted on my personal blog in September 2010. It is the first of a four-part series. My reflections were based on an understanding that our children are a gift from the Lord, that it is our job to raise them up as He has taught us, and then we are to set them free to live out their own faith and relationship with God. It is about honoring the biblical principle of “leaving and cleaving”. I think that there may be some wisdom here that parents of young adults may find helpful.
Here I am, three weeks into the “Empty Nest” syndrome once again. I took our youngest child back to college on August 20th. It is time to reflect a little on that event and others related to it.
It wasn’t nearly as emotional of an event as it was this time last year. It was pretty routine for both he and I. Sure, we had a good summer together, and I was definitely going to miss him, but I honestly wasn’t feeling sad to go home all by myself. I really enjoyed our three-hour drive together, and I was actually quite happy for him. He was where he belonged and was now reunited with his sweetie that he had missed terribly all summer long.
We’ve done this taking our kids back to college thing more than a few times now. My wife took our daughter to Wheaton College, near Chicago, all the way from Utah for the first time in August of 2003, while I was doing my second unaccompanied tour in the Republic of Korea. I can only imagine how hard that was on her, doing it all by herself. It didn’t surprise me to hear that on the way home she cried anew each time she crossed yet another state line, taking her further and further from her daughter.
When we took our college student back to school the following year, I was the one struggling and suffering. I’m not kidding. It was very hard on me, daddy saying goodbye to his little girl. What made it even more painful at the time was that the minute we pulled up to the driveway to her dorm, the Christian song, Blessed Be Your Name, was playing on the radio. It was one of those times I knew that the Lord was speaking directly to me through the speakers in our Ford Windstar mini-van. For those who know this song, you may recall these powerful lines, taken from the book of Job:
He gives and takes away
He gives and takes away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be your name
Ouch! It was a clear message to me: God gives us our children, and then a mere 18 years later, He takes them away from us, so they can go out and do bigger and better things. It is an act of faith as we let go of each one of these precious gifts that He has given.
When we took her back to Wheaton in 2005, it was much easier on all of us, being the third time for Linda and the second time for me.
The next year, it was our oldest son’s turn to go to college. It was pretty hard on both he and his parents, but we got through it, knowing full well that it was the right place for him to be. Time has confirmed that decision to attend William Jewell College, near Kansas City, MO. Miraculously, we got both he and his sister back to their respective schools within two or three days of each other and survived both long drives, six hours one way to the northeast and four hours one way to the northwest.
If I’m counting correctly, the grand total is 11 trips: five for the eldest, four for the middle child, and two for the littlest rabbit. There were five for our daughter because I had to account for taking her to start grad school in 2008, where she would live in an apartment in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This was another large step of faith for all concerned.
And so, for the past seven years, this has become our life. We say goodbye to our children in the fall, in January, and in our son’s and daughter’s case for the majority of several long summers spent far from home. We say hello for major holidays, when school gets out in May, and perhaps a few special visits here and there. You get used to saying goodbye, and it does get easier over time. You know you are going to miss them when they leave, but you simply learn to rejoice with those who rejoice. They rejoice because in their minds they are going home, not leaving home. College becomes their home, and that is all right. I know I felt the same way when I was that age.
One last thing to address. Our newly married daughter and her wonderful husband came home for several days in August, right before school started. We hadn’t seen the young newlyweds since their wedding in March. This was their first trip home, and it was great to finally see them interact as a married couple. No conflicts that I can recall; no awkward moments. We did have to tease the new son-in-law upon their arrival about us making up the futon for him to sleep on like he did during his last visit at Christmas, but it was short-lived. He knew we weren’t serious. We definitely enjoyed our time together, and we look forward to the next one.
When discussing the details of this visit with our daughter on the phone a few months prior, I somehow came up with a very simple saying. “Come when you can, and stay as long as you like.”
This statement implied a strong desire to see them. More importantly, it was a lifting of any burden of pressure, guilt, or expectations on the timing or length of the visit. It was all about respect for them as independent adults and about us honoring the biblical principle of “leaving and cleaving”. They had the freedom to decide when to come and go when it was convenient for them. It meant that this visit was about them graciously sharing their lives as a married couple with us. In gratitude, we would feed them well and would even let them do some laundry if they needed to. If it was a short visit or a long one, that would be their decision to make as a couple. We would be grateful for the time to share our lives with them once again, but their needs would come first.
I used this little phrase again when we invited our son and his new fiancée to come home for Labor Day weekend. It seemed appropriate, as he will be moving towards that transition of “leaving and cleaving” next summer. It was also a great visit. The principle seems to have worked out well with them, too.
We are still learning how to treat our children as adults, but I think we are on to something. The best we can hope for is that they will come back home again, or perhaps, let us visit them at their home next time.
So, it’s back to just the wife and I again. And yes, with one year under our belts as empty-nesters, we are clearly enjoying our time alone together as a couple. Yes, the spark is still there! We talk with our kids on the phone at least once a week. Also, we and they send texts and/or post something on Facebook as needed. We rejoice that they are all independent, compassionate, responsible, Christian adults who are making good decisions and have found true love. What more can a parent ask for?
(Click here for the next article in this series.)
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.