Empty Nest. Full Heart.

Twenty days until I turn 60 and I can’t get motherhood off my mind. It is linked to gratitude I feel for my mother’s role in giving me life, for sure. But it is also linked to my own identity as a mother and how much it has changed in the past two years. It was two years ago when our youngest children got married and the last of seven got engaged.

Staring at an empty nest in a whole new way, I feel a distress I never expected. Frankly, after raising so many kids, I was always happy to see them go off to boarding school, to college, and to a spouse’s shared home. I had earned the emptiness of a nest that had been filling up since I was 21 years old. When I didn’t feel the lament of my peers as their children married off, I chalked it up to the intensity of raising a big family and much-needed respite.

The summer of 2021 was different though. As I am prone to do, there was a lot of navel-gazing and tears about what I wish I had done differently with my children, especially around religion. Letting go of regret is hard for me, as with so many mothers I know. Letting go of motherlove is another thing entirely. An empty nest is not the same as an empty heart.

I feel this acutely as my adult children face serious trials and suffering. My desire to care for them is as strong as ever, but I often feel awkward or bewildered by the intensity of my burden to do so.  Recently as I fought with myself about it, all I could liken it to was Mary, the mother of Jesus. How bewildered and burdened she must have felt as she watched her son bleed out on a cross.

Well, actually, before Mary I thought of Ethel, my paternal grandmother:

In 1997 against my father’s wishes, Gramma visited him at the hospital after his quadruple bypass surgery. He was 63 at the time, a tad older than I am now. Gramma was 85, and Dad hated the ways she fretted over him. One disagreement between them was so intense that he threw a plate and called her a bitch, breaking a glass pane in her china cabinet. This level of volatility was not the norm, but there was a mutual getting on nerves between them.

It did not stop her motherlove. At her request, my brother and I drove Gramma the 90 miles to visit dad at the hospital. He was surprised by – but accepting of – her visit. Assured he was okay, she bid farewell and waited for me to pick her up in front of the hospital. As I approached the loop, there was Gramma lying flat on the ground with a small group of caretakers surrounding her. She had leaned on a pylon that gave way, causing her to fall. There were no visible injuries, but off to the emergency room we went to be sure nothing was broken. I don’t think we told Dad about this incident because it certainly would have irritated him.

Was Jesus irritated by Mary at the cross, standing there staring, probably crying; maybe weeping; maybe heaving with a panic attack? He had certainly expressed frustration with Mary when he was 12 and a day’s journey removed from her watchful eyes. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. Somehow being 12 and missing was not reason enough?! From then until the cross, Mary had to figure out how to manage her motherlove as her boy became a man, fulfilling the call of God on his life.

While we cannot know for certain everything Jesus felt about Mary’s presence at the foot of the cross, we do know that he called upon his beloved disciple John to care for her in his absence. The other night as I was caught up in my own motherlove burden, I jokingly – and maybe seriously – said aloud, “Jesus, send me John.”

Who is this message for? First, it is for mothers. We can’t help it. God made us to love deeply and intensely no matter how old our children become, no matter how irritated they are with us, or we with them. I want to embrace this intense love as a mirror of Christ’s love. It is sacrificial and unconditional and forever. Jesus gets me even if my children never will, but that is not permission to interfere and overbear. Learning this balance is ongoing, for sure.

Secondly this love is for anyone irritated by their mother. Jesus gets you too. Whether you’re 12 or 63, your mom is going to get on your nerves. Just remember it probably comes from a place of deep, authentic, inexplicable love. A love that’s like a fire that can never be extinguished. Thank God for your mother’s love because so many have never known it.

And maybe that’s the third group, those whose mothers are not around, perhaps never have been, perhaps never will be by choice or terrible circumstances.  In the absence of your mother there’s the presence of a heavenly Father, loving you more deeply than a mother ever could.

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! Isaiah 49.15

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