Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;
the old has gone, the new has come!
2 Corinthians 5:17
I’ve heard the elementary-school phase referred to as the “golden years” of child rearing. You’ve made it past immersion in your child’s bodily fluids, literally and figuratively. You’ve survived the rebellion of the “terrible twos,” something child development experts say won’t be revisited until puberty. Your child is dressing independently, eating without assistance, and, hopefully, taking some responsibility for household chores. Add the fact that most kids are now out of the house for long periods, and your days do seem to shine with the promise of something golden: free time. My problem is, I have yet to hit the mother lode!
Much to my surprise, my kids did not automatically become self-sufficient little individuals simply because they entered school. (I know. What was I thinking?) In fact, their behavior and needs reminded me of the ups and downs of a roller coaster, riding the heights of self-confidence one minute and in a steep free fall the next. For instance, at a vacation rest stop, our six-year-old son announced loudly that he would not go into the ladies’ rest room—he was going in the men’s. I positioned myself at the door only to see him reemerge a minute later because he couldn’t unbutton his shorts.
I could almost feel the click-click-click as the developmental roller-coaster car crawled upward the day my daughter asserted that it was embarrassing for me to give her a hug or a kiss good-bye around her friends. Still, some evenings, she comes flying back down the other side of the coaster and begs to sit in my lap. Last year our youngest son, who still slept with his blankie, informed me that it was not cool to wear shirts with cute pictures of animals on them. So I sadly gave away the last of the garments decorated with Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, too (except my own, of course).
Obviously, children this age feel conflicted about the level of independence they want to enjoy at different times and in various circumstances. One day they don’t want you to walk them up to school; the next they refuse to get out of the car unless you accompany them to the front door of a friend’s house. All this vacillating can leave moms feeling frustrated and confused with their kids and with themselves. Even when they are taking two steps forward and one step back, elementary-school children clearly are working hard to become a new creation—to emerge from the cocoon of the preschool years and test their wings.
One mom shared how her daughter expressed excitement about her future role as a mom. On an afternoon when she, her six-year-old daughter, and her mother (Grandma) were eating lunch together and talking about the future, her child commented, “One day I’ll be a mom. Mommy, you’ll be a grandma, and Grandma, you’ll be dead.” Talk about getting pushed out of your role prematurely! However, if we’re no longer the person whose life is defined by wiping noses and bottoms, who exactly are we? What is our role with regard to our children in the middle years?
In her book Your Child’s Self-Esteem, Dorothy Corkille Briggs defines the middle years as a “time for developing physical, social, and academic competence. You help with [these skills] when you
• encourage your children to join constructive groups of their age;
• actively support groups they enjoy;
• make your home available to friends;
• avoid giving so many home responsibilities that there’s little time for activities with chums; and
• avoid making them feel guilty for cutting the apron strings.”1
At this stage, you still are the primary role model and communicator of attitudes and values. A mother’s love and affirmation protects her child from the harsh realities of group dynamics, even while her youngster’s focus is shifting toward his or her peers.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 states, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” As children grow, our attention shifts from teaching basic life skills—such as eating, dressing, and using the toilet—to focusing more on details and subtleties. It’s like switching from scribbling in a coloring book to staying within the lines. This change in emphasis can make our mothering role feel more like that of taskmaster than teacher or playmate. The first signs of frustration our mellow third child exhibited toward me began with the introduction of homework and piano lessons. Pouting and tears were new behaviors for him, at least when directed toward an adult. Adjusting to my new role was difficult for both of us!
If I had to characterize our children’s middle years in terms of a game show, I’d call it The Waiting Game. There were the usual daily waits: waiting in line at the store or waiting to talk to a “real live” person on the phone. There was also the customary wait for my children to get ready to go anywhere, as well as a wait for them to return. I felt trapped—first in my home away from home, the minivan, then by the waiting game my life had become. I was even waiting for God to let me know His will for my life.
I am not particularly patient and therefore not all that great at waiting. As the days and miles rolled by, my prayers changed from, “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (Psalm 5:3) to “Free me from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge” (Psalm 31:4). I was having trouble coming to terms with the fact that I was starting a new phase of my life, too—along with all that meant.
Spurred on by the desire to take a temporary break from the waiting game and to lay claim to some of that mother lode of free time, I engaged in a quest to rediscover or reinvent myself, to define this new creation. This goal leads to the second real reason I have yet to strike gold: commitments. For those of us who thought we sent our Supermom complex packing along with our children’s backpacks and lunch boxes, this season offers brand-new opportunities to extend her another invitation.
Today there are many more people, groups, and organizations in need of volunteers than moms with time available, which means you will be inundated with requests for help at school, church, extracurricular activities, charities, and even in your neighborhood. Erma Bombeck said her youngest child went to school knowing one phrase: “My mom can drive.” (You’re not the only one who wants to tap in to your “free time” mother lode!) Almost all these volunteer positions offer you the opportunity to do something good, and if your service for the past several years has been limited to cooking, laundry, and housework, it can be hard to turn down such worthwhile endeavors.
I, myself, am guilty of misinterpreting Paul’s urging in Ephesians 6:7–8 to “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does” as an exhortation to serve on any committee that called and asked. Eventually I realized I was riding a roller coaster of my own making.
Click. I’ll be room mother because it’s important to be involved at my child’s school.
Click. Our church needs someone to teach Sunday school and I love that age group.
Click. My daughter’s Girl Scout troop needs a leader or the group will disband.
Click. The local library needs someone to participate on the board of directors.
My car kept climbing to the pinnacle of busyness until I reached the top and went over into the long fall of “too much to do.”
I rushed headlong into my idea of what my new role should be without consulting my Creator. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7). As exasperating as waiting can be, sometimes it serves a purpose. After my first, fairly unsuccessful attempt at making myself into a new creation, I took a step back and embraced the wisdom of this observation: Between the wish and the thing lies waiting. There is so much to look forward to during children’s middle years, in their lives and in ours. The challenge is finding balance between a mom’s independence and the ties that bind us to our families.
How can we smooth out the bumps on the roller coaster of life during the early years? First, moms should recognize that their children need them as intensely as they did in _the preschool years. Your role may have changed, the time requirements may have lessened, but kids still require the love, acceptance, and security a mother provides. Try to establish a routine of doing something special with your child—that doesn’t include driving her to a weekly lesson or sitting on a bench watching her perform an activity. You both will enjoy the one-on-one time together! If you have trouble prying your child away from her friends, invite them to come along. Introduce yourself to their parents and make getting together a family affair. (This is a good idea at any stage.)
Making changes in your own schedule really helps slow down the daily roller coaster. Often it’s easier to switch than fight, so I’ve become “The Accommodator.” For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why I seemed to have less time available with my children in elementary school. Then I realized that, when they were preschoolers, I followed a pattern of doing something with the kids, doing some work, doing something else with the kids, doing some more work, all day long until they went to bed. Now I have to accomplish everything between eight in the morning and three in the afternoon because from that point until about nine at night, the minivan and I are at their beck and call. That means housekeeping, errands, grocery shopping, volunteering, and, oh yes, writing need to be basically finished before I pick them up from school. (Okay, it doesn’t always work out that way, but I do my best.)
To accommodate my kids’ need to have me available in the evenings, I’ve also changed the timing of the activities I undertake. When they were little, I usually joined groups that met in the evenings when my husband was home from work. Now it’s very difficult to fit my evening activities in between everyone else’s. Again, I’d rather switch my activities to the daytime, when possible, than fight my kids’ schedules.
Big changes will rock your child’s world—and your world, too—in this new phase of life. In the movie Parenthood, the grandmother talks about the feeling of riding a roller coaster as a metaphor for life with children. Fast, exhilarating, scary. Some people prefer riding the merry-go-round, Grandma says, but that didn’t do anything for her. It was too safe, too mundane. The ups and downs of the middle years can make you want to scream or make you hold your breath, but just like Grandma, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You may have heard the phrase “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” but as our children grow, so does the “stuff” we have to deal with—in difficulty and importance. Don’t underestimate the amount of emotional energy it takes to deal with the larger concerns of the middle years. Build some time to rest into your schedule to recover from the roller-coaster ride.
If you do find yourself with some free time on your hands, don’t squander it! Pick up an activity you may have put aside when your children were younger or try out a new interest.
If you feel unsure about what kind of “new creation” God is calling you to become, remember the scriptural promise that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Let God lead you into new endeavors.