When You Wish You Could Go Back: A Word for Parents of Graduates
In my cabinet sits a mug with my oldest child’s six-month baby picture on it. I had it made back when I had time to do such things. (My apologies to my other three children who do not have similar mugs.)
I’ve been reaching for this mug a lot these days.
Part of the reason is nostalgia. Graduation is days away, and as we near the finish line, I think about him then – chubby cheeks, arms reaching for me, only wanting to sleep when those arms were tucked safely into mine. I think about his never-ending curiosity, a knowledge sponge from day one, who wanted me to read book after book before he could even speak a word. I think about our late-night snuggles in the rocker when the house was dark, before I had a phone to scroll through and there was nothing to distract me from his deep baby-breaths in and out. I think about his eyes—so trusting, so sure I could give him everything he needed.
I think about him then, but I think about me then, too. 25 years old, a baby having a baby. I think about me and my ideas of how it would all go – my idealistic dreams and discipline plans. My ideas of how I would disciple him, of all the things I would and would not do. I think about the parenting books I read, the times I stressed over nap schedules and solid foods, and my determination that my kid would never be like those other kids I judged in Target. (Okay, fine—I judged their moms, too.) I think about that confident version of myself, the one who had it all figured out, who truly believed that if she just had the right tools and applied the right principles, she would knock it out of the park.
43-year-old me knows it isn’t that simple. 43-year-old me wishes it was that simple.
Maybe I’m reaching for that cup out of regret—something that’s kind of taboo to discuss amidst graduation excitement—because while that little face reminds me of sweet pajama days when we had nowhere to be except tucked under a blanket on the couch, it also reminds me of all of my missteps between then and now. Controlling actions borne from fear. Harsh words spoken in frustration. Assumptions made, feelings neglected, wrong battles chosen. Decisions made out of plain ignorance.
I once said to my son, “Look, you’re our first. We’ve never done this before, so we’re still figuring it out. We’re going to make mistakes along the way.” To which he replied, “Yeah, but this is my life we’re talking about here!” Poor firstborns. They didn’t ask to be our guinea pigs, did they? But there’s no way around it. We simply don’t know what we don’t know.
We could play the game of, “If I could go back to the mom of that baby boy, I would say such-and-such…” But I can’t go back to her, can I? And honestly? She probably wouldn’t listen to me anyway, because she has her wide-eyed idealism and her black-and-white books, and the books don’t lie, dadgum it.
I can’t go back and instruct 25-year-old me, but I can speak to present me, in all her 43-year-old weariness. The one who has been humbled by life, the Fall, and her own limitations. I can speak to the one who reaches for that cup and sometimes cries, because she loves the baby on the cup and the almost-high school graduate who stands before her today and all ages of him in between, and she’s going to miss him. I can speak to the one who wishes she had done some things differently, but knows she can’t change a thing.
To her, I can say this: Life is hard. And God is gracious.
I can look into those tear-brimmed eyes, the windows into a soul that replays moments she did it terribly wrong, and say, “Life is hard.” I can remind her that life is stressful and unpredictable and so, so messy. It is not a 20-minute episode of Daniel Tiger, where by the end, everyone is declaring their love for each other and singing songs about the lessons they learned that day. I can tell her that, unfortunately, life is full of all kinds of opportunities for our sin to splatter and reveal the parts of ourselves we would rather hide. It is so very painful to hurt and be hurt by the ones we love, despite our very best efforts not to hurt or be hurt. Such is life sometimes this side of heaven.
And I can tell her that God is gracious. He is gracious to fill up where I am lacking, to parent even as I’m falling short. He is gracious to continue to work all things for good, even my mistakes, even my biggest regrets. He is gracious to redeem and shape my son’s heart on my very best and worst days, because His faithfulness to my son is not contingent upon me keeping my cool, or having the exact right thing to say, or making the best decisions. I would then hold her hand and lean in close, not wanting her to miss this part, because it’s the most important…I would tell her that He is gracious to forgive, again and again, and His forgiveness means I can walk in freedom instead of shame. Hope instead of despair.
Will my 43-year-old self believe me? I hope so.
The morning after graduation, when the celebration is over and my son is sleeping off the exhaustion of the last year, I’ll reach for that mug again. When those baby memories come, I’ll smile, and probably cry, too. And if images of regret rise with them, I pray I will choose, again, to rest in a God who is big, whose eyes are compassionate and kind.
“Life is hard,” He’ll whisper. “And I am gracious.”
And then I’ll sip in peace.