“Only 18 summers.”
It’s a phrase I’ve seen a few different places lately, referring to the limited amount of time parents have for intentional, one-on-one influence before their kids go to college or leave home for other reasons.
It’s encouragement to make the most of every cold bite of watermelon, every lazy day around the pool, every family vacation. It’s a reminder that time is fleeting, that before we know it our children will fly the coop and the only tangible artifacts we’ll have from their first 18 years are boxes full of dusty sports trophies, camp T-shirts and band concert programs.
I get the point. I really do.
I felt the ache more than once this past summer as I watched my little girl play Monopoly with her stuffed animals, pretend to be a mermaid when she swims and clump around the house all day in her Anna and Elsa nightgown.
I know big changes are coming for her (as they eventually come for every girl), but I can’t help but yearn for her to remain little as long as possible. There are moments when I want this season to last forever.
And don’t even get me started on the fact that, while my big girl is just starting eighth grade, in a few short years, our conversations are likely to be dominated by talk of college majors, career choices and dorm-room décor. While life seems simple now, not-so-simple is looming on the horizon.
Because of all that, it’s tempting for me to bow to the stress “only 18 summers” can trigger. If I let myself, I could easily panic at the thought of how little time we really have with our children before they grow up.
But something a friend said recently—a passing comment really—has alleviated some of the self-induced pressure that comes when you think you only have a certain amount of time to do something extremely important (and, as long as we’re being honest here, when you think the outcome is mostly up to you).
What did my friend say? That her favorite stage of motherhood is parenting young adults.
This is a mom who endeavors to study her children, the youngest of whom just left for college. She would never claim to be a perfect mom, but she has parented faithfully through the good and the hard. Maybe more than most, she understands the unpredictable, fleeting nature of life. She knows, firsthand, that there’s no guarantee we even get 18 summers with each of our kids.
I know my friend’s experience is not universal, and that what is true for her may not be the case for me. But her passing comment struck a chord somewhere deep within me, jarring loose my grip on the expectations I tend to put on myself and my family for the years that our girls are under our roof.
When I asked her to elaborate, she explained that—based on what she has seen and felt—the preschool years are physically demanding for parents, the elementary years are mentally challenging and the teenage years are more emotionally taxing.
She enjoyed each of these phases, she said, but when her children hit young adulthood, parenting took on a different, more rewarding sort of vibe. There’s just something about watching freshly minted adults exercise their freedom to try new things and visit new places, to listen as they “think out loud” and try to figure out what they want to do and where they want to go in life, that she finds very satisfying.
“I love helping them see their strengths, interests and talents,” my friend told me. “I like being there to pick them up when things don’t go well and to help when help is needed to give them a boost. Of course, the best part is when they put it all together and find their way in life independently.”
There are no guarantees in parenting. There’s no surefire way to “raise them right” so they will always make the best choices all the time. What works for one family may not work for another. What works for one child may not work for another child in the same family.
But as my friend’s words encouraged me, parenting doesn’t end when the kids turn 18, graduate from college or get married. It changes, of course, but it doesn’t stop. And even if they leave home at some age and vow never to return, that’s not guaranteed either. Most of us probably don’t have to look very far to see that lost sheep are found, that prodigals do return, that years of parental prayer do pay off.
I realize I may feel differently when my own empty nest is looming large in eight years or so. But the pressure to make sure I enjoy every single second and take advantage of every single teachable moment has lessened some, at least for now.
It’s not like I’m going to take my mothering any less seriously or get lax in my job of preparing my girls to be emotionally healthy, productive, God-fearing members of society. But I’m not trying to be the perfect mother of perfect children, because nobody around here even comes close to meeting that standard.
Instead, I’ll do the best I can with what I’ve been given. I’ll enjoy as many moments as I can, while resisting the temptation to feel guilty when I wish some days (or seasons) would just hurry up and end, already. I’ll pray for wisdom, for grace, for forgiveness.
And rather than dread the day my almost-grown ducklings leave the nest, I’ll look forward to all the good things that can come with helping young adult children figure out who they are and why they’re here.
My friend says the best is yet to come.
I choose to believe her.