The sun sinks into the mountains behind us as we drive away. Goodbyes are said. The van heads home a whole lot lighter. One seat is empty where just a few hours ago it was full. Clearly, we are well entrenched in this new season of life—the season of goodbyes. We first sent a child to college six years ago. He returned home a graduate and then lived with us a couple of years while he worked to save money. We said goodbye unexpectedly three years ago when a child left at fifteen to take up residency in Florida with the U.S. National Team. We had four days to prepare for that leavetaking. He, too, returned.
For awhile, all nine children lived under one roof.
Late last December, the eldest left home again. Hard-earned money invested in a home of his own, he took a wife and left our home to create a family of his own. Two weeks later, his brother left for college. Yesterday, another brother followed. “The big boys,” as they’ve been called collectively since the youngest was two, have all gone. It’s eerily quiet in my house this morning, though six children remain.
I think it a happy liturgical blessing that the Church prepares for the feasts of St. Monica and St. Augustine in the last weeks of summer. Just as we send our children out into the world—whether to kindergarten or college—we have the reassurance that comes with praying novenas for the intercession of a mother-son pair whose faith is breathtaking.
St. Monica is the mother of St. Augustine. Her story is so worth the time of every mother. The brief version is that Monica was the wife of a pagan, who had a violent temper and a problem with alcohol. His mother was a difficult, irritable woman, who lived with the couple. Monica bore them patiently and with kindness. She prayed for their conversions and ultimately, they both died Christians.
Monica was also the mother of least three children who survived infancy. Augustine, her eldest, was a bit of a handful. He was a wild child who sorely tested her limits with immoral living and heretical philosophies. Monica stayed close to him and prayed mightily for his conversion. In the end, St. Augustine, under the direction of St. Ambrose, was baptized and grew into his vocation as one the greatest saints ever and a Doctor of the Church.
As I’ve witnessed the grief of mothers as they send their children off to school, I’ve noticed several things. The first is that every woman comes to this time a little differently. For some women, the grief is wide and deep and raw. I’ve seen that this is not the case for everyone. Unfortunately, a woman who aches cannot assume she will be supported and consoled. There is the real possibility that someone will scoff. This is unfortunate, because mothers do need community. The experience of launching a child into the world is not unlike the experience of childbirth. Birthing became a much happier, more humane experience when women began to share collective experiences and to advocate for measures that would bring comfort and support. So, too, we need to empathize with one another in the transition and the sending forth of our children from homes.
I’ve listened intently to other women this time around. Eyes wide open and ears alert, I’ve noticed a trend. Mothers worry that they haven’t done enough. As her daughter leaves for college, you give a mom a hug and assure her that she’s done a good job and all will be well and she returns your well-intentioned words of encouragement with wild-eyed panic. She worries. She worries about all the conversations they never got around to having. She worries about all the lessons in faith she never taught. She worries about all the moments of instruction and guidance and reassurance that slipped through her fingers. Was it enough? Did she do enough? Now that her job is over, will everything be ok? Sometimes, the grief upon leaving is commensurate with a mother’s fear that she has somehow failed to adequately prepare her child for the day of departure.
We are certain—because we know our child so well and we love her so fiercely—that it is not enough. We are certain that we’ve forgotten something. There’s more to do, more to say, more to love. And there is.
Here’s a hint, mom. It’s not over.
We don’t stop mothering when they leave home. God’s not finished and neither are you. St. Monica prayed for her son for seventeen years after she kicked him out of her house. She stuck close. He left Tagaste for Rome and she followed him there. She stay tuned into him, engaged in his life, and was prayerfully incessant. She wasn’t a nagging mother (or nagging wife, for that matter). Instead, she was a faith-filled servant of God who never stopped loving and was relentless in her firm resolve to live the Gospel. She was a teacher, a role model, and an agent of change in the conversion of people she loved well past their childhoods.
It’s not over.
It’s not too late. You aren’t finished mothering. Indeed, in many ways, it’s just begun. One of the saddest stories I’ve ever known is the story told by a grown woman whose parents were “finished” when they left her at college. They considered their “jobs” done. It’s not a job. It’s a vocation. Parenting is for a lifetime. In this age of entitlement, one thing is certain. If there is anything—anything—to which a grown child is entitled, it is the ongoing prayers of his parents and the sweet assurance that they will forever hold him tightly in their hearts. Whatever lies ahead, no matter where he goes and what he does, no matter the challenges, we will dedicate ourselves with confidence to the gentle kindness and firmness of conviction that St. Monica brought to mothering adult children.