It may have been in the small print. If it was, I missed it. When I signed on to be a parent no one told me how hard it would be to let your children go when they grow up. So it was really hard to say goodbye to Stephen two years ago when he left for Melbourne to finish his studies. I remind myself that two years have passed and I have survived. In the meantime Stephen has finished his undergraduate work and an honours year and is now back for holidays.
But now it is time to say goodbye to Andrew. He has returned to KL to do his pre-university programme. (I am based in Singapore.) I remind myself that he is only 360 km away and that I will see him at least once a month since I am back in KL at least once a month for ministry. And there’s the phone and the internet … but I know its not the geography. I am not just releasing Andrew to KL. I am releasing him to another chapter of his life.
Frederick Buechner speaks for many of us when he describes how he felt when he said good bye to two of his daughters when they were leaving for boarding school. The boarding school was in Massachusetts and the Buechners were living in Vermont.
What I did not see was that even though they were only a couple of hours away, and even though there would be years of weekends and vacations for us to get together whenever we felt like it, there was a sense in which, when we kissed them good-bye that September afternoon, we were kissing them good-bye for keeps. From that day onward, Vermont would never be home for them again in the way it had been. It would be a place to go for weekends and vacations. From that day forward, home, for them, was theirs to find wherever in themselves or in the world they ever happened to find it, if they were lucky to find it at all. Two of the four most precious people in my life had left for good, and I had been looking the other way at the time. Life went on, of course, and I managed to get around much as before, but there were times when it felt like trying to get around on broken legs, and there are times when it feels that way still. (Now and Then, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1983, 102)
I suspect there is a special dimension in the love of a father for his daughters, a dimension I have not experienced since I have four sons and no daughters. But I understand Buechner when he describes the grief of releasing one’s children to the next phase of their lives.
The children themselves will not fully understand this. Stephen and Andrew know dad misses them but they have their hands full coping with their new life tasks as they journey into post-secondary education, university, and beyond. They will probably never fully understand the pain of letting go until a time when they have to let go of their own children.
It is only now that I understand the price my parents paid when they allowed me to leave Penang to pursue my university education in Singapore. But I think the four years I was in Vancouver for my theological studies must have been particularly hard on them. We came home only once in that four-year period because we had limited funds. And this was an era before the internet made communication easy and affordable. We kept in touch through snail mail and the special treat of a long distance phone call a few times a year. Perhaps you can only really appreciate your parents when you become one yourself.
And sooner or later, whether we like it or not, parents come to realise that we do not own our children. We are only stewards of these lives which have been entrusted to us by the Lord.
Children are gifts from God to us, gifts which we never “own” but of which we are stewards, in a way so deeply understood by Hannah in the Old Testament (1 Sam 1:28)… Stanley Hauerwas suggests that a child is always in this sense adopted since the child belongs to the parents in a provisional and limited way …(R. Paul Stevens, “Parenting,” The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997, 733.)
Therefore, Stevens goes on to remind us that:
In one sense parents are continuously preparing their children “to leave home” from the very first months, and the failure to do this (assuming healthy initial attachments) leads to enmeshed families where the children cannot “leave father and mother”(Gen 2:24) even when they marry, and the parents are unable to “let go.” In their covenant ministry parents encourage belonging and differentiation at the same time, giving them both roots and wings. (Stevens, “Parenting,” 735-736).
So, by the grace of God, I want to see my children rooted in God and His Word. But I also want them to be all that they can be, flying to their full potential. And that means that there will come a time when I have to release them. But I am also beginning to discover that, if by God’s grace, your children grow up well, you connect with them again at a different level, in a different type of relationship, one that has its own set of joys and challenges. That is a story for another day.