Working moms and stay-at-home moms have a tough life. Whether we work or stay at home as we raise our children, we will come to an inevitable point in our lives when we have to “let go” of our children and allow them to grow and become adults. Whether dropping them off at college or sending them off to the army or other major events, we must face the reality that they are leaving the “nest.” For some of us this will be a great time of joy, but for others, it will be a time of loss, adjustment, and big change.
For women who are professors, there is the added stress of how to manage your children while trying to maneuver through the academy. There is a growing amount of literature out there to help professorial moms navigate the academy so that they can be successful professors in their own respective areas. However, a majority of this literature, as seen in the example of Patricia Maurice’s “The Baby-Before-Tenure Question,” deals with the initial process of pregnancy and navigating early childhood. Other pieces like Rachel Leventhal-Weiner’s “The Afterbirth and the Academy” describe how to maneuver one’s way through the academy while giving birth as a graduate student. But what do we have to say about navigating the end of this process of parenthood, namely dealing with late childhood and adult children? There isn’t much literature out there to help people deal with letting their children go, or what to do when academics become empty nesters.
We have fought the hard battle for legitimacy as scholars and have struggled to be dedicated parents, yet no one tells us how to balance the mix of logistics, emotions, and identity change that comes with letting our children go. From the day our children are born, we begin to think about their futures, wondering about what they might do when they reach adulthood, even though that is still may years away. Parents who work in the academy may find themselves imagining the day that they will send their children off to college. However, it isn’t all glorious as we may have imagined that it will be. There are feelings of inadequacies, doubt, fear, and how are to we to readjust our time and priorities.
As I send my first child to college, I am finding that navigating the end of childhood as an academic parent means coming to terms with the beginning of parenthood far after the fact. My story reveals that it is a messy and emotional process, dredging up old fears and raising new ones. This process calls us to reflect on the paradox of the brevity and length of time, of our own limitations and the agency of letting go.
Eighteen years ago, in the middle of my Ph.D. comprehensive exams, I unexpectedly got pregnant with my first child. This was not supposed to happen. I had my life perfectly planned ahead of me, all mapped out in my mind—but here I was, with my trajectory shattered into pieces. I was a mess, alternating in a pattern of weeping, crying, and stagnant staring into blank space. I didn’t know what to do about my pregnancy: I was in the middle of my program, having difficulties with my in-laws, and was starting to feel sick frequently due to the pregnancy. To say this was a difficult time for me is an understatement.
Eventually, I sought the counsel of my Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Harold Wells. I walked into his office, burdened with feelings of depression, anger, sickness, and shame. As I sat on a large armchair across from him at his desk, he looked deep into my eyes and smiled asking, “What is the matter?” Uncontrollably, I broke down. I did not know what else to do.
He kept asking me, “What is the matter?”
Finally, I calmed down and choked out, “I am pregnant.”
He responded, “That is wonderful news. The best news I have heard all year!”
I was shocked and replied, “What do you mean, the best news? I am so upset and inconvenienced. This is an unplanned pregnancy.”
He continued to say that the pregnancy was the best thing that could happen to me. I did not understand, but he proceeded to try and calm me down. We began talking about life in a larger and more profound context, dabbling into the idea that the unexpected happens all the time. He assured me that I should be rejoicing not shedding tears. This made me calmer, but I was nonetheless still confused and scared when I left his office.
While I did not fully comprehend what Dr. Wells was saying to me at the time, I now realize that he made a big difference in how I was going to move forward with my studies. His words shaped my approach to my pregnancy. Rather than thinking that it was the closing force of an unfinished chapter, I took it as a strange and beautiful part of my life. Now as a mother of three, I often marvel at how I raised them while being a professor, author, and speaker. I have no doubt that the advice my supervisor gave me that day I sat in his chair sobbing helped me monumentally along the way.
My first son has now graduated high school as a salutatorian and just entered college this fall. This is the moment I have been waiting for since he was born. I have dreamed of this day as the threshold that would bring more freedom and allow me to devote more time to my work and writing.
But just as when I learned of my pregnancy eighteen years ago, I feel the same bittersweet emotions today. I am torn.
My first born left the safety of this nest and entered the world as a young man, eager to take on the world. Part of me is excited that he left and gave me “some” part of my life back (as I have two more children at home). I won’t have to pick up his dirty socks off the floor, yell at him to clean up his always-messy room, or argue with him over aggravating yet silly things like if he is given the same food two days in a row (heaven forbid!).
And yet, the boy whom I gave birth to and nurtured for eighteen years is grown up and is now on his own. I will not be there to guide and nag him, nor will I be able to protect him from what I perceive are the dangers in our society. It will be up to him to make choices that will lead him in the right direction. I feel my influence over his life is declining and I question whether I did a good enough job as a mother to instill the beliefs and understandings that will make him a contributor to our society.
Letting go is much harder than I had imagined. This is the moment I have been awaiting for many years yet it isn’t the moment of pure joy as I had imagined. As my son leaves home, I have come to realize how important a role all of my children play in my life. My life isn’t just about writing, teaching, and speaking. It is about much more than that. The joy that enters my life (as well as the headaches) come from children’s own spiritual, physical, and mental growth. Yet now I also see that this comes at a cost—eventually letting them go. Unwillingly, I am forced to relinquish control.
As I struggle to come to terms of a ‘new’ stage in life for me and my son, I wonder what it all means for my life as a professor of theology. As I search for the divine in all aspects of life, I am always pondering how the divine is experienced in the life of my children, as well as how I experience it in letting them go. During this time of joy and loss, I have come to realize that all I can do is surrender. Just like the times when he was living at home, I recognize that I really never had control over his life. I now must learn to enjoy this phase of letting go and the new beginnings it brings. With new beginnings come new and fruitful times both for our children and for our own scholarship if we allow it.
**This post was originally posted on Feminist Studies in Religion