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When They've Flown: How I Learned to Appreciate Every, Every Parenting Moment

I knew that the “end of the dock” was nearer than I “knew.” I’d felt it forever, it seemed.

I am the youngest of four girls. My sisters are five, seven and nine years older than I.

I was the Baby. The after-thought. The surprise (though my mother insists that all of her children were “PLANNED.") (I’ve always wanted to ask her if this implies that “oopses” are somehow less-loved…)

I was definitely the Last Hope for a Boy. (I am Donna Jeanne, named after my father, Donald Eugene.)

Once, with a group of moms who were talking about how life changed after the addition of the third child in the family, my mother commented: “I don’t know, for me it was the fourth that pushed me over the edge…”

My brain clicked: “Wait! That’s me!”

Fortunately, I’ve always had a strong sense of self-deprecating humor and I thought it was hilarious. My mom is funniest when she has no idea she’s being funny; there was no malice intended — having four kids was simply chaotic.  

Balancing older-girl activities with baby-care, then the time came for her to resume her teaching career. I had a very different childhood than my sisters who grew up in the same home.

I hated being the youngest, always “too little,” but determined to keep up. I learned to swim at nine months of age when I toddled into the lake after my sisters. When the water got over my head I just kept going (an appropriate picture, I suppose, of the life ahead of me.)

As a 6-year-old, I stood at the front door crying because I couldn’t go on a date with my oldest sister. Because I couldn’t do teenage stuff, I resorted to creating elaborate dramas with my Fisher-Price Little People.  

At age 10, I became a sister-in-law. At 15, I was an auntie. In middle school, people commented that I seemed older than my peers.

The day after I turned 22, I stood before a class of high school seniors ranging in age from 17 to—gulp—20. I had secured my first teaching position, was living independently, and would soon be married.    

I hate to think that I “wished away” my childhood, but I was always a bit ahead of my time. My independent spirit had carried me away long before the day I packed my bags to leave home. I’m not sure how my parents dealt with that.

Something tells me saying goodbye to the fourth child was likely the easiest. Not because they loved me less (I’ve never thought that). They’d simply moved into a new stage of parenting by then: grandparent-hood suited them just fine. 

I do know how Mom felt when my sisters left, because I was there to witness and share her pain. Our whole world had changed.

By my eighth grade year, my oldest sister had long since moved away with her husband. My other sisters were two hours away at college. Every time they came home and left again, I could hear my mom crying in her room. Sometimes I would think: What about me? I am here…

But I understood her grief. I was crying in my room, too.  

The nest wasn’t completely empty, but it was awfully quiet. That was a hard year.

I wrote letters to my sisters. The ones who had once called me “the pain” were telling me they loved and missed me. We grew closer.

Life got better for Mom, too. There were weddings to plan, grandchildren to enjoy, and, of course, balancing the activities of her youngest — the daughter who was independent beyond her years.

The one who had been living, vicariously, through her older sisters for most of her life.

My sisters married young and had kids young. I waited to have kids (I had seen—and was leery of—the demands of babies). A gap has always existed in our life stages, but these days, I love being the youngest. While they are empty-nesters, I am a “spring chick” by comparison.

Aside from having the upper hand in teasing wars, another advantage to being the youngest in adulthood is that I’ve seen what’s to come.    

I knew how FLEETING the days of diaper changes and story books and play-dough creatures that come to life in dreams would be. When my sisters’ worlds were pressured by soccer games and Girl Scout meetings and PTO agenda, I thanked God for every day I could be home with my children. In that light, Play-Doh in the carpet didn’t seem like a big issue.

By the time I was taxiing little athletes, I was also the shoulder for a niece whose prom date was a jerk, and I’d said goodbyes to nephews heading off to college.    

I knew that the “end of the dock” was nearer than I “knew.” I’d felt it forever, it seemed.  

I love “Emily” in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” because of her journey of discovery. My favorite lines occur when Emily poses the question: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” The stage manager’s reply: “No. Saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”

While I’ll never qualify for sainthood, I believe that because I am a poet, I realize some things others tend to miss — or try not to think about.

I know I am different. I think and feel — maybe not more deeply than others — but certainly more expressively than most.

That is why I write. Sometimes I feel my most important job is to be an interpreter of life. To convey what Emily wanted so badly to convey when she crossed over into the land of The Living. But for her it was too late.

When I think in those terms, I see life’s challenges as opportunities to cultivate a compassion I couldn’t possibly have otherwise.

I miss my little ones-- not just in the reality of their teenage independence, but in the days that I know are coming, when they will fly, on their own, and the nest will be empty.

I know that pain — I have felt it so many days already.

If the goal of good parenting is to “work yourself out of a job,” there’s much work to be done before that happens. Plus, our job as parents will never be completely obsolete, even when the description changes.    

Even as adults, our parents have a role in “parenting us.” Lately, my parents have done so quite beautifully, standing by me as I make hard decisions, supporting me as I do that, both morally and tangibly.

That is the type of parent I want to be. Now and when my children are grown.  

I have made my share of parenting mistakes. You have too. We’ve also made good choices. Whether or not our kids choose to extend grace for the not-so-good moments is their choice. My choice is to accept grace from the Greatest Source (the Best Parent) and move forward as a loving Mama.

When my little birds have flown (right off the end of the dock) I want them to look back and know I believed in them. I hope we will have peace about what has been and look ahead with great anticipation.     

As a parent that is likely your hope, too.  

In coming weeks, “The Growth Chart” will check in with a few Empty-Nesters to find out how they are doing this. If you’d like to share about your current or past life changes, please message so I can share your wisdom with our Patch Family!

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