Last week, my oldest son started kindergarten. Having heard stories from other parents about sobbing in the car after drop off, and knowing myself to be a crier, I anticipated the worst. But he was so excited and ready to be there that I was able to give him a quick hug and a wave good-bye and to exit the building without any water works starting. Then my younger son and I took a leisurely thirty minutes to walk the five blocks to our house, pausing to wonder at ant hills and fallen acorns and walking any balance beam walls or curbs we could find. At home, we spent some much needed one-on-one time crafting play-doh cakes and playing Candyland, two activities my older son believes he has outgrown.
Having survived the first week of kindergarten relatively unscathed, I foolishly was not anticipating the challenge of today: my younger son’s first morning of preschool and my first morning alone without the kids in five years. All three of us were all excitement as we headed out the door, the boys running down our alley, over-sized backpacks bouncing willy-nilly with each pounding step, and me struggling to keep up without spilling my coffee all over myself. All three of us entered the school doors together, the older one proudly heading toward the kindergarten hallway by himself and the younger one hanging up his belongings in his cubby. I waved good-bye to the kindergartner, walked the preschooler to his room, and after a quick hug in the doorway, made a quick retreat. Half a block from school, I started bawling.
Having been a stay-at-home parent for the past five years, this first morning of “free time” comes with all sorts of emotions. Certainly, I am proud of my sons, who seem ready to spread their wings in their respective big-kid school worlds. I am tickled by the people they are becoming. There is also some relief: relief that I have the next three hours to do with as I choose without the explicit or implicit demands of child-rearing. A weight that I barely noticed hanging around my neck has taken the morning off. And with this relief comes some excitement, too. The world is an oyster, and I may just remember how to have some of my own fun in it.
But along with all of these positive reactions, I feel grief. I am mourning the passing of a particular stage in my life. I think anyone who is honest about the demands of raising children can admit that the hands-on care required in these first five years is exhausting and trying, filled with challenges that leave many of us second guessing ourselves and wondering what in the world we have gotten ourselves into. Yet at the same time, these years are more rewarding that I could ever have anticipated. The joys of loving and being loved by children, the blessing of knowing them and their worlds so intimately, defy exposition. There will be new joys in the future, to be sure; but today, I am lamenting the passing of this particularly lovely stage of life with my children.
In our world, lament is a religious practice not much talked about, but it has a rich heritage in the Judeo-Christian traditions. Lament, in a religious sense, involves passionately expressing grief to God. Approximately one-third of the psalms recorded in the book of Psalms are lament psalms, prayers that describe a situation of distress or anguish. While some of these are private or individual prayers of lament, many of them are communal psalms. They are the words of the Israelite people who came together in worship and who voiced their suffering out loud together and directed their sadness to God. Lament does not take the grief away, but it does remind the grieving that they do not do so alone. In their sadness, God is there.
The famous verses from Ecclesiastes tell us, “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens … A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (3:1, 4). In the past, I had always thought of this as a way of saying that life has its ups and downs, that we need to take the good with the bad. But on this morning of mourning, I am hearing something different in it. What I hear more than anything is the fact that we need to take time for weeping and laughing, for mourning and dancing. It can be so easy in our busy lives to skimp on the time we spend on sorrow by drowning ourselves in television or food or any other thing that takes our mind off of our sadness. Lament is a religious practice that gives a name, a place, and some words to our grief. Lament reminds us that it is part of human life to mourn. If we give grief its due season, it does not have to consume our lives.