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From a distance I noticed the perky, orange jeep parked at the far end of a long line of minivans in front of an elementary school I pass each morning while walking my dog. As I got closer, I saw a tiny blond boy sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, elbows propped on knees, chin pressed into hands, eyes focused downward. His mom was standing above him, holding his backpack. Her body language was that of forced patience and false calm. She was speaking to him, but he was stubbornly not hearing her. After a few moments, Mom bent over and swung the rigid little body into her arms, moving him by gentle force toward the school building.
Three times, in a sad, sad voice he shrieked, “Mama, down!”
Mom was moving him bodily toward the school doors as I passed by with my dog, and we had almost reached the corner when I heard his disconsolate wail, “Mamaaaa,” long and drawn out in the cool morning air. I could imagine an unfortunate aide peeling son from mother, her mama-heart being peeled away with him despite a mishmash of additional feelings of embarrassment and frustration.
I wince as I remember how my children both struggled at kindergarten drop-off, each in their own way. When the morning bell rang, my daughter would stand in the line silently, pitifully crying large droplet tears from her sad, chocolate colored eyes. She never ran to me, she never spoke; and I would stand right nearby helplessly drowning in her sorrow.
My son was a different story entirely. I remember taking him to a kindergarten-readiness screening where he was quite delighted by the whole thing until he realized he had to be separated from me for part of the evaluation. He immediately climbed me like a tree and clung to me like a koala. I’ll never forget the wretched feeling of trying to pry my son from my body while he clutched at me in fear.
Oh, the ache.
Parents spend their lifetimes getting set up to experience this profound ache, the ache of pushing our children out into the world. It is an odd reality since we spend so much of our parental time and energy shaping our children’s home-life into a place of comfort, goodness, and safety, doing our darndest to make it absolutely clear that they are loved in that place.
We know in our heart of hearts that everything we pour into our children at home should buoy them up, and carry them into the wild world outside their doors with strength and perseverance. But it still hurts to see them go. (Especially when we have to push them from the nest, so to speak.)
It wasn’t just kindergarten drop-off that killed me. It was sneaking away from Nursery when they were toddlers, and sending them away to camp the first time. And, if I thought the first day of kindergarten was a challenge, the first day of Middle School was significantly worse- and they weren’t even clinging or crying!
Each time I nudge my children into the greater expanse of the world, trusting they are well-prepared and even ready to handle it, I ache deep within. There is the ache of separation, most definitely, but I’ve begun to realize there is more.
Wrapped up in my beating, parental heart there is also the ache of my hope and expectation for what they can do in and for the world- just by being them. There is also another beautiful reality, that once they leave my door my children continue to be molded and shaped into better and better versions of themselves by forces that I cannot always predict, and neither can I provide them at home.
I’ve taken note of the fact that both school and youth group are places that have helped my daughter love the expansive world and all of its inhabitants more fully, and more tangibly. And, as my son goes to taekwondo class, I see that he has learned precision and respect in ways that I’ve not been able to impress upon him at home. It all makes me smile.
Oh, I ache for the loss of the soft nest of home, but I also ache with the joy of who they get to be in the world once I push them out.
Each time that I welcome my children home from one of these new experiences, even if it takes time, I can see transformation for good. That is why I do it again and again, even when it hurts.
Sometimes I think about the ways that our loving God forms and nurtures us in the bosom of faith and of church, but then sends us into the greater, expansive world. In this wild world, beyond the soft, comfortable nest where we know God loves us, we encounter so much more than we ever bargained for. There we learn how to love like God loves. There we have the opportunity to carry hope and help into hard, dark places.
I imagine there is a deep ache within God’s own heart, to see us pushed so hard beyond our comfort zones, but I think there is also that good, sweet ache of joy and expectation for what we can be in the world. And, I think God smiles.