On Launching our Children

Children are characters in the family story we tell — until, one day, they start telling it themselves.

Rachel Cusk

For a month I have wanted to write a piece about launching children. I don’t know much about parenting, despite having parented five who are now adults, but I do know something about the feelings that come with launching children. I also know that many of you are going through this for the first time. I’ve seen the pictures. I read the captions. More importantly, I can also guess the subtext, the unspoken, the words that are in your hearts and your journals because only those places can capture your true feelings.

From the time they put our children into our arms for the first time, we enter into a place and journey best descibed as a foreign land. Never have we been so confronted with our own weakness or strength, never have we been asked to do so much for so little. These small humans are part angel, part dictator, and part parasite. In one momentous event we enter a place of protection, responsibility, and love all combined and we are never quite sure which one is playing out at any given time. Perhaps it’s because they are so entwined. The incomparable Rachel Cusk says it well in her book A Life’s Work:

Having lived so high up in the bickering romantic quarters of love, it is as if I were suddenly cast down to its basement, its foundations. Love is more respectable, more practical, more hardworking than I had ever suspected.

Rachel Cusk in A Life’s Work

As moms we are tuned in to these extensions of our bodies and hearts. We have eyes in the back of our heads, and ears everywhere. We have the sixth sense that comes with parenting – and then they’re gone. We birth them — either through the physical labor of the birth process or the emotional labor of the adoption process. We carry them home in soft and sweet-smelling 0-3 month baby clothes, making sure the car seat is facing the proper way. We teach them to brush their teeth and tie their shoes, eat healthy food and get enough sleep, learn to trust and learn to pray. We bravely wave goodbye at first days of Kindergarten and watch them cross over, alone, to school play grounds–their (and our) version of the river Jordan. We yell at them, hug them, cry with them, laugh with them. We vehemently advocate for them — just as strongly as we urge them to grow to be people who advocate for others.

And then it’s over. One day we could be accused of neglect if we don’t know where they are and the next day we aren’t even allowed to see their medical records.

And as we wave goodbye they rarely look back. It’s part of the armor of growing up, this not looking back. They look forward, as well they should. But we are left waving silently at their backs – and brushing away tears as we recognize this is a rite of passage and nothing will ever be the same.

Suddenly we miss the round marks on the wooden coffee table because we miss the ones who made those marks so very much. The house is too quiet. There are too many cookies in the container, and in our case, too much hot sauce in the refrigerator.

So what of this launching? What can I offer you beyond words?

I offer you these things:

  • Trust your intuition – if you wake up in the night and you can’t get them off your mind, there is a reason. Call or text them. If they don’t answer, call someone who can check on them. Buy a plane ticket and go see them. You won’t regret it.
  • Try not to equate your university student not following in your faith path as lack of respect and love on their part. It’s not. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way. As they journey forward, the faith of their mothers and fathers must be taken on and worn to become a part of their being, or not worn as they choose.
  • Send care packages. If you live far away and mail is not reliable from where you live, you can find people and places that will do this for you. In the United States, Spoonful of Comfort is one such company.* In the United Kingdom, this company could work for you.
  • Learn to release. This is the hardest piece of advice I’m going to give. Releasing is a daily act of faith and trust. It is a daily giving up of our right to know what’s going on with our kids. We were editors of their stories for a long time – 18 years – but we are no longer the editors. Instead, we become the readers of some good and some hard stories. As we learn to release, we become better readers, better listeners, and better at journeying beside these children of ours.
  • Remember that from the beginning parenting has not been all light. There have been the shadows, otherwise how would we recognize the light? It’s easy as we enter the launching stage to imagine that all that came before was bright and light. But the truth is more complicated. Now we enter a stage where for awhile it may feel quite dark. Sophomore and junior years of university in particular can feel fraught with disillusioned youth, but the light will shine through and be all the more precious for the dark.
  • Don’t look to the right or to the left. If you look to one side you will be proudly preening wondering how you got so lucky with your kids; if you look to the other your shoulders will slump in dejected insecurity. Again I look to Rachel Cusk as source of wisdom and brilliant writing. She says that the public narrative of parenthood denies the light and shadow of reality and “veers crazily toward joy.” Nowhere is this more evident as on social media. Carefully curated feeds insult our hurting hearts and we wonder how the rest of these parents seem to do this thing so well. Remember – you are seeing only a public narrative. Grab a cup of tea on a dark day with any one of those parents and you will cry tears together. Parenting young adults levels our proverbial playing field.
  • Honor their journey. You’ve raised them for this. It’s true that you no longer play the same role – if you did, it would hold its own hard journey – but you are always and forever a part of the story. You’ve just traded places in who gets to tell it.

So there you have it. You’ve entered a new season. Before long, it will be normal, but before it gets that way enjoy the change in colors. Like leaves that fall to the ground too quickly, this too will some day be gone. In the mean time, eat those extra cookies. You wouldn’t want them to go stale.

*No compensation is received for this post!

On Missing My Kids

There are days as a mom of adult kids where you miss your children so much that you physically ache. You feel it in your bones. It’s not the sharp pain of an acute appendicitis, rather, it’s the dull ache of arthritis. You remember each labor and delivery, the final push that ushered them into the world. You remember gazing at those eyes, nose, ears, mouth completely in awe of the mystery of birth, the mystery of motherhood.

You know in that moment of birth that you will never forget. Never. That these tiny humans that lived in your womb for nine months, sometimes more and sometimes less, are connected to you in an unfathomable mystery.

You know also, though you don’t want to think about it, that they are yours for only a time. After that, who’s to know?

You break inside for the knowledge that the world will sometimes hurt your child. You know this, because you are an adult and the world has not always been kind to you.

The years go by – some interminably slow, others far too fast. And then – they are adults.

You love the conversations. You love watching them with their friends. You love the unique place they hold in the world. You love watching them connect and find their place. And yet, they are no longer in your house. The daily check ins of “when will you be home?” no longer apply. This is when you know that when your mother says on the phone “I love you more!” it’s true. For you now know the immeasurable love of a mother for her children.

Parenting is a dance and you are in the stage called ‘slow jazz.’

I think about this today as I look at pictures on my shelf. I smile at each kid as though they are present when the reality is far different. I think about the parenting dance, the way it begins as a slow dance or ballet. The music is beautiful and haunting. That baby we take home from the hospital, from the orphanage, from the foster care system comes into our lives, and while everything changes, it’s a slow change. We have anticipated this for a long time. The baby blankets and onesies are purchased and waiting. We have bought or borrowed a crib for the little one. The curtain goes up and the ballet begins.

Every movement of that first baby feels recorded in our hearts and memories, it seems like forever. The first smile, the day they sleep through the night, their eating, pooping, sleeping habits all weave their way into our lives.

As another child comes the music changes and the slow dance stops, replaced by the chicken dance where there’s little grace, just a lot of squawking and moving. It’s fun but it’s exhausting.

Middle years are the Macarena and Bollywood. There’s a rhythm and grace and fun. You got this thing. You can criticize other parents because wow – your kids are amazing and their kids? Better beware because they are headed straight to the state penitentiary by way of the principal’s office. But not yours. Oh. No. Yours are amazing and talented and oh you are so thankful for Grace. The Grace given to you of course – not that bestowed on others.

Every parent thinks they dance well during the middle years!

Then the teen years come and you bow humbly even as the dance changes from the Macarena and Bollywood (which you love) to that of rock and roll where your head is splitting and you don’t understand the words but you think you caught a swear in there. It’s so fast you are spinning. The activities, the angst, the long talks punctuated by angry silence, the fun yet exhausting dance of rock and roll.

And then comes parenting adult children. 

And suddenly it all changes. It becomes like jazz music: you agree on the notes and then you improvise. Negotiation becomes a key word. The parental dance goes back and forth between being too worried and too involved and throwing your hands up saying “Well, it’s their life!” But even though you throw those words around, you are always there waiting. When the text comes at midnight, you hear the buzz. When the call comes in early morning hours, you know to take it. When they make decisions you disagree with, you know that you love them fiercely and will love and pray for them until the day you die.

Slow jazz is in the background, but no longer a central part of your life. The furniture is rearranged and the house echoes with empty. You miss them deep in your soul, but you know you’ve raised them with wings to fly and they are exercising those wings well.

There are times when you pour over photo albums and you remember when they were so little. And you think “I thought they were so big. I expected so much out of them.” But you realize now that they were so little and the world was so big.

And though the dance has changed dramatically through the years, you pray that even as you occasionally stumble and fall you will dance every step with grace.


Note: Excerpts from this were first published in 2014.

Babies and the Sovereignty of God

Sometimes we come to points in our lives where we seriously question the sovereignty and wisdom of God. While I know this is ill-mannered and audacious, I still do it.

I had one such moment 25 years ago when I found out that I was pregnant with our fifth child. Did God not know that I was seriously under qualified to raise 5 children? Did he not know that we were struggling with other things in our lives that made the idea of another child impossible? Did God not realize that I had two friends begging Him for children and they were being ignored, while my womb was like that of a teenager who merely had to stand downwind from a teenage boy to get pregnant? There I was, fertility personified, and to use Biblical language poised to become heavy with child.

We were living in Cairo and had just moved from one part of the city to another 1/2 hour away. The day I went to the doctor, we were expecting a group of 20 students to arrive from the United States for a study abroad program that my husband directed. It was a chaotic time and there was little chance to be alone and process the pregnancy, never mind the bigger issue of the sovereignty of God. I hid my growing stomach under Bill Cosby sweaters, all the rage at the time, and managed to go four months before having to let people around me know. At that point I was slowly becoming used to the idea and so could come up with clever quips to snap back at the insensitive words of not so well-meaning friends and acquaintances.

The reality was that my other four children were over the moon. They couldn’t have been happier and wise friends of mine reminded me that I would far rather have 5 children than just one or two, but I thought I had told God that four was perfect.

I gave birth two weeks ahead of schedule in a hospital on the banks of the Nile River to Jonathan Brown Gardner. The moment I looked at him my questions to God dissolved in his soft baby skin. He was perfect in every way. Never had I been more aware of the glory and wonder of 10 fingers and 10 toes, a suck reflex, and eyes with perfect vision that slowly took in the world around them after first fixating on the face of a mother, and that mother was me.

At 22 inches long and 6 lbs 12 ounces, he was put into my arms and in an instant I was overwhelmed with love for this child and the wisdom of God. I knew a love for this child that was infinitely bigger and stronger than my circumstances – he was perfect.

Today that baby turns 25. He is a wise 25-year old with an old soul. Fluent in Greek, he is getting his masters degree at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece.

I am just one of a number of women who through the years has had babies and pregnancy give them life lessons on the sovereignty and deep love of God. I join the ranks of Sarah, wife of Abraham who had the opposite problem and tried to take things into her own hands; Hannah, who begged for a child with agony too deep for words; Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah who in her old age conceived, much to the surprise and gossip of those around her. And Mary, the blessed Theotokos, who said the words “How can this be?” to an angel who told her she would have a child, only to come to know her beloved son as the author of salvation.

As the months go by what confuses and confounds ultimately allows us to bear witness to God’s sovereignty in the form of a baby. Happy Birthday to Jonathan Brown Gardner. You are an extraordinary gift from God and I can’t imagine life in our family without you!

Advent Reflection – A Mom’s Tears

jerry-kiesewetter-198984

Ask any mother and she will tell you that the tears we weep for our children are like no other. They are tears that come from deep within our souls as we cry out in pain, either for them or because of them. They are the tears we weep in solitude when our daughter has faced her first break-up. At that moment, should the boy be present, we would possibly commit a crime that locks us up, unless the lawyer can use the grounds of love, impulse and passion to convince a jury that we are not dangerous.

They are the tears that we shed when our pre-schooler is not invited to the birthday party that every other kid seems to be attending. They are the tears that come when we know that we are helpless to make life better for our children, that the days when we could control who comes and goes from their lives are now gone. They are the tears of rage when we feel wronged or misunderstood by these products of our womb, when the path they are taking is leading to a place that we know will cause pain.

They are the tears of agony when we know they are in deep pain, pain they can’t share with their moms. They are also the tears of unspeakable delight and joy at weddings and graduations; tears of admiration as we are invited to participate in their world; and the tears of happiness as we realize how proud we are and how much we love them.

One of the Orthodox icons depicting Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer, is an icon that shows Mary with seven swords going into her heart. The icon is called the “Softener of Evil Hearts”. In Orthodoxy, these seven swords are seen as representing the immense sorrow that the Theotokos experienced at the foot of the cross; the sorrow that was prophesied by Saint Simeon when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”*

I had been a mom for many years before I first heard about, and then saw, this icon. I thought about it for a long time. Here was one who understood far more about a mother’s tears then I could ever imagine. Sitting there at the foot of the cross, helpless and watching her son die, she did not yet know the full picture. The resurrection would be three days later. Her heart was pierced by a sword many times over before she saw the risen Lord on that Paschal morning.

I think about this icon as I shed tears for my children. Though we know but a fraction of this pain, our hearts too are pierced. We shed our tears and we too, wait; wait for the God of resurrection and miracles to comfort and strengthen us.

We wait for our souls to heal, for wrong to be made right. And we press on.

*Luke 2:34-35

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

 

Remembering those First Days of a Newborn

It’s my daughter Annie’s birthday today.

Annie is our firstborn. She ushered us gently into parenthood 32 years ago. On day two she slept so long that we sat around her woven Moses basket like we were humans examining an alien being.

The conversation went something like this:

“She’s so perfect.”

“Yes. She is SO perfect.”

“Look at her tiny hands.”

“Look at her nose.”

“She is so tiny.”

“She is so beautiful.”

“Do you think she’s sleeping too long?”

“I don’t know. Do YOU think she’s sleeping too long?”

“I kind of think so.”

“Me too. Maybe we should wake her up?”

“Do you think we should wake her up?”

“I kind of do.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s been so long since she’s nursed.”

“Yeah. Let’s wake her up.”

“Okay.”

“How?”

“Well, maybe if we pick her up she’ll just wake up.”

“Okay.”

“You do it.”

“No. You do it.”

“Okay.”

Sigh.

“But she looks so peaceful!”

“I know but I think she needs to wake up. She needs to nurse.”

“Okay.”

“Look at her feet!”

“I know. They are so perfect.”

“Look at her rose-bud lips! Look at how they are quivering.”

And so it went on and on and on.

Finally, we woke her up. And then….well, then we couldn’t get her to sleep. She was the wide-awake baby girl.

So the conversation continued.

“Do you think she’s still hungry?”

“I don’t know. I think she nursed a lot.”

“Do you think anything is wrong?”

“Maybe we should change her diaper again.”

And on, and on, and on. Because we were smitten and all we could do was talk about our baby. The most perfect baby in the entire world.


There is something about those days with your first-born child that you will never, ever forget. Your whole being is raw with love. Your heart is on the outside of your body and there is no protection for the arrows that come your way. You marvel at every tiny move, expression, furrowed brow, slight smile. You hold the tiny thing close, afraid to let it go. Your nights and days are no longer your own, and they swim together, closing in on each other. You have never known that kind of exhaustion. You thought exhaustion was about research papers in college, but you now scoff at that exhaustion. That exhaustion is kid’s play compared to this real, grownup exhaustion.

You can’t get enough of this little human. When you play charades, this little baby is your favorite person to act out. First touch, first smiles, first tooth, even their poops and peeps are cause for amazement or distress. And your conversations? You hide it from your friends but when you’re alone together, all you want to talk about is this little baby that now consumes your life.

Today I remember those first days and I smile. My first-born now has her own first-born and I delight in watching the two of them. His face lights up when she enters the room and his smiles brighten her world, just as her’s did mine.

In the dance of parenthood, we have left the slow dance of the beginning, with it’s long moments of sheer wonder. We are now in the era of jazz, where you agree on the notes, and then you improvise. Slow jazz plays in the background, but this dance of parenthood is no longer the central part of our lives. The furniture is rearranged and sometimes the house echoes with empty. We miss them but we have raised them with wings to fly and they exercise those wings well.

But still there are those moments, especially on their birthdays, when we are taken back to the beginning.

We remember and we smile.

Happy Birthday Annie! Being your mom is an undeniable gift.


Note: The above dialogue went on for much longer than it took you to read it!

My Ramadan Baby

I remember the day like it was yesterday. The Islamabad sun, hot and bright, burned down on my mom and I as we walked to the hospital with my first-born – Annie – in a stroller.

It was May of 1987 and it was Ramadan, only a couple of days before the huge Eid celebration that would mark the end of this long month of fasting for Muslims around the world. We had been living and working in Islamabad since January and I was 9 months pregnant with our second child.

After a false start a couple of days earlier, my mom and I headed out to my  regularly scheduled prenatal appointment.  After examining me, my doctor said “Sometimes we need to push the horse and cart!” Which was code for “I’m going to give you something to speed up this delivery.” I was more than willing to oblige.

It was a text book induction and just after midnight on May 25th I gave birth to a gorgeous, blue-eyed, fuzzy-headed baby boy. I was smitten.

I wrote about my Ramadan baby 6 years ago, when I was a new blogger. As I reread the piece I wrote, I realized it communicates the story exactly as I remember it, so I have reposted it below in honor of my Ramadan “baby’s” 30th birthday!

Date: May 25, 1987

Location: Islamabad, Pakistan

Place: Ali Medical Center

24 years ago today at 10 minutes past midnight I gave birth to my second child. It was toward the end of Ramadan and this showed significantly in the absence of staff in the hospital. Earlier in the evening as I labored, my husband and I began to worry aloud that the doctor, busy breaking the fast at her home, would not make it and we would be left on our own. We needed her assurance in seeing to the safety and health of a pregnant woman in transition (me) and a baby that wanted to enter life. My mom, well versed in cultural norms in Pakistan, assured us that the doctor would arrive on time. But as we waited and wondered, we were deeply grateful for the calm presence of my mother.

As the hospital staff ate their fill of Ramadan specialties before dawn came (and with it the arduous fast that would not break until 7 or 8 at night) two babies made their way into the world.  The last azaan, calling the faithful to prayer, was heard earlier through the brick walls of the labor and delivery room, ensuring that even those inside would know it was time to break the fast. At that point all hospital staff disappeared, oblivious to the labor pains of two women, as they rushed to ease their hunger pains.

One of those babies was ours: Joel Rehan Braddock Gardner, born with a head of blond, fuzzy hair and deep blue eyes. I took one look and fell in love with 6 lbs and 12 oz of baby. It was magic. The second baby was also a boy – a little Pathan boy, as dark-haired as Joel was blonde, born to a family who lived in Peshawar. They had made their way to Islamabad for the delivery, ensuring that their first child would be born at a good hospital.

It was a text-book delivery and after 6 hours of laboring and a few pushes, Joel took his first breath and let out a yowl. I don’t even know if yowl is a word but it describes what was a mixture of a yodel and a howl. He was a perfect, 10 fingered, 10 toed, baby boy. Dr. Azima Quereshi was the doctor presiding over the delivery. After observing me labor without drugs and breastfeed immediately after birth, she looked at my mom with tear-filled eyes and clutched her arm saying “I’ve read about deliveries like this, but I’ve never seen one!”

The hospital staff enjoyed their own show that night as they sent staff in by two’s to see “the white lady who had her husband in with her during the delivery,” something that was unheard of at Ali Medical Center and most hospitals in Pakistan. “Who wants the men in there?” was the incredulous question voiced by Pakistani friends and acquaintances.

The Pathan family showered the hospital staff and doctor with gifts of fruit, Pakistani sweets of gulab jamun, jalebis, barfi, and savories of samosas and pakoras. This ensured a favored place with staff as low on the ladder as cleaning people and as high as surgeons. 

We were not so favored. A gift of imported Cadbury Chocolates delivered in a fake gold bowl for Dr. Quereshi seemed appropriate and we went on our merry way, taking Joel back home to the F-8 residential area of Islamabad to meet his older sister Annie and settle into a bassinet.

It was only later that we realized our faux pas in not buying treats for the entire hospital. We had failed to publicly recognize the role the rest of the staff had played in helping us deliver a healthy baby boy which, from a cultural perspective, was a huge thing to acknowledge!

And so Joel came into the world and today he turns 24. His blonde hair has turned into light brown, he still has deep blue eyes – and his yowl? That has turned into an infectious laugh, ability to argue anyone into the ground and a great personality.

Happy Birthday Joel – We are so blessed by your life.

Some Thoughts on Parenting and Goodbyes


“All the world feels caught in these goodbyes, goodbyes that bruise and hurt but remind us that our hearts are still soft and alive. For a dead heart doesn’t hurt with a goodbye, only a heart alive to others feels the pain of that goodbye, the difficulty of leaving….” From the Goodbye section of Between Worlds page 202

On Sunday we said goodbye to our youngest son at the entrance to Hellenic College, a college that has shaped him through academia,service, friendship, and most importantly – faith. 

We said goodbye in early evening, when the sun still had a long while before it set, reflecting golden rays off of Jamaica Pond. 

We said goodbye to the many years of college that come with five children. We said goodbye to the joy we had in watching a child grow to be a man. We said goodbye to those who came into our lives through him. 

A short while after we said goodbye, he boarded a plane to Albania; from there his plans include travel and study for the next year. We raised our children on travel and the uncertainty that comes with frequent moves, so there is a deep satisfaction knowing that he is choosing to grow through travel. 

Letting go of our children is a series of stages that begins early in their lives. We proudly, but fearfully, watch as they make their way onto buses or across playgrounds, their first venture into a world we can no longer control. Each stage and step gives them a bit more independence until we face the reality that we are ancillary to their adult lives. When we began the journey of parenthood, we created their world, we were their world. But through the years we gradually step aside and let them shine, apart from us. 

And our son – he shines, and it is the work of God. 

The gratefulness I feel is complicated by post-surgery exhaustion and the tears from saying goodbye. It comes in waves, and I try not to overthink, over analyze, instead allowing myself to just be, to feel what I’m feeling without defending or accusing. 

A few years ago I wrote these words, and today I repeat them: 

…the best thing I do as I pack him off and say goodbye is place him where I have placed him countless times before — in the arms of the Father. The Father who does not walk, but pulls up his robe and runs to greet his beloved children.

While the journey of parenthood continues until the day we die, there are pivotal turning points within that journey – and this is one of them. So I say goodbye with open arms, a glad heart, and tear-filled eyes. Somehow, all of those emotions belong to this moment. 

We become parents with no guarantees. Whether biologically birthing or adopting, parenthood is a journey of faith. Today I get to celebrate. Tomorrow I may have to cry. But that’s what this is: A long journey, a journey of faith. From A Long Journey, A Journey of Faith