Growing up in central Texas, the idea of getting in a car and driving to another state in less than four hours was foreign to me. I could get to Mexico faster than I could get to any neighboring state. Texans are proud of their long highways. In fact, not long after you enter Texas from Louisiana, you’re greeted by a sign that says “Beaumont 23, El Paso 857.” That’s not being helpful, that’s just showing off.
When I arrived at DePaul University in Chicago in 1991, I was not only entranced by the big city but also intrigued by the idea you could hop in your car and get to Indiana in a relatively short amount of time. So one night freshman year, my friend and I were feeling spontaneous; we decided to visit Gary, Indiana, since, we thought, It’s a Monday night; we’re adults now; and there are no rules.
We headed to the snack shop on campus and loaded up on Cheetos and candy and big fountain drinks for the road trip ahead of us. We grabbed a map (remember, it was 1991), headed onto the Chicago Skyway, and hit the open road. The music was cranking, the jokes were flowing, and 45 minutes later, we were in Gary. We’re here? I thought. I hadn’t even opened my Skittles yet. I was just starting to enjoy the ride, and it’s already over?
That’s how I feel about being a parent. My oldest daughter heads to college in a matter of days. Just when I felt I was finally getting the hang of being a parent, at least with our oldest, it’s over.
Long Days, Short Years
The parenting cliché is true: The days are long but the years are short. There are days you feel will never end. Same with phases. I thought our youngest daughter would never stop crawling into our bed every night. As much as I disliked it, I didn’t want to fight that battle in the middle of the night. It felt like she would never not be in our bed each morning. But then, one night, she didn’t come into our room. Same thing the night after that and, all of a sudden, I forgot she used to do that. And somehow, all of a sudden, she’ll be in middle school next year. Just as soon as you prepare yourself for the “new normal,” there’s another new normal. And then it’s over. You’re already in Gary.
Just as soon as you prepare yourself for the ‘new normal,’ there’s another new normal.
Now you probably think I’m going to say, “Treasure those moments with your kids. Don’t miss a single little league game or choir performance.” And yes, by all means, we should attend their games and invest in their lives. But three other lessons have become especially clear to me.
1. Parenting children at home ends quickly.
As sure as Gary is close to Chicago, parenting ends sooner than you think. Don’t be surprised. If our life is a mist that appears and then vanishes (James 3:14), then our time with our kids is what, a single water molecule?
Part of the difficulty of having children leave for college is not being prepared for it. But being a parent to children who live at home eventually comes to an end.
2. Our kids were never intended to be ‘ours’ forever.
When you do something for as long as parenting kids in the home, it’s easy for it to become your identity. We can forget that God lends these image-bearers to us for a time, to train them up in the way they should go, and then trusts us to know when to release them (Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4). Raising children must be more about growing them as disciples than about our experience as their parents. It’s painful when the time for their leaving comes, but it’s how God designed parenting to normally work.
Raising children must be more about growing them as disciples than about our experience as parents.
My experience as a youth pastor has informed this conviction. When my first class of students graduated from high school, it was excruciatingly painful. I was so sad that I wrote and performed a song about them at their senior banquet. I didn’t know if I’d ever get over it. But I soon realized that while I didn’t see them as regularly, we still maintained a close relationship. Thanksgiving break was just around the corner, followed by Christmas break, and spring break. Many became summer interns and volunteer leaders in the ministry. It signaled a new and different chapter in our friendship. It would never be the same, but it wasn’t the end.
This is what I expect will happen with my daughter as well. The unexpectedly early arrival in Gary will be the appropriate resting point along the bigger journey. Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that for everything there is a season—and although we will miss the old season, new seasons brings new joys.
New Seasons, New Joys
What I didn’t tell you about our trip to Gary is that since we got there so quickly, we realized we could make it to New Buffalo, Michigan, in another 45 minutes. So off we went and once we’d done enough late-night Midwest exploring, we turned around and drove home. Life in the kingdom of God will always be changing for each follower of Christ, and there are always new paths ahead, new roads onto which the Spirit leads us.
When I drop my daughter off at college soon, it will be the end of an era, and my wife and I will grieve the loss of her daily presence as we’ve experienced it the last 18 years. But then we’ll open up Google Maps (it’s not 1991 anymore) and say, by God’s grace: “Hey the trip’s not over. Where to next?”