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Wistfulness over kids growing up

Reader Rose (we met her, remember?) send me this question:

How do you deal with wistfulness about time passing with your children? My son turned 27 (!!!!!) a few days ago and this evening I was thinking about that sentimental song:

“Where are you going, my little one, little one, where are you going, my baby, my own? Turn around and you’re one, turn around and you’re two, turn around and you’re a young wife with babes all your own. “


Now, neither of my children have babes of their own, and heaven knows they still live with me, ha, but I had a good thirty minutes’ cry fest over those dang lyrics. I just wanted to know if you had any wisdom to offer. Your thoughts on contentedness have helped me so much over the years, you don’t know.


Oh man, yes, I think almost every parent has experienced exactly what you are describing.

And we don’t even have to have adult children in order to feel this way! I remember feeling wistful, looking at my six-week-old babies and comparing them to their newborn pictures.

black and white of Lisey, Sonia, and Zoe in the grass.

You are well ahead of me in the parenting game, as I’ve only been at this for 22 years.

But I am happy to share what has helped me (and what is currently helping me, as I am in the midst of the nest-emptying stage of life!)

I remember that every stage has good and bad, easy and hard

This is a truth that has carried me through every stage of parenting so far.

No stage of parenting has been 100% easy.

But at the same time, no stage has been 100% hard.

As I look to a time when my kids are all grown and gone, I can see that there are parts that will be hard.

But I also trust that there are parts that will be good! and easy! I know I will experience some upsides that maybe I can’t even see or imagine right now.

This is also helpful when I look back with glasses that are too rose-tinted. Were there many good times when my kids were little? Yup.

Kristne hugging toddler Sonia

But that stage wasn’t perfect either! There were frustrations and difficulty and exhaustion mixed in too.

So, two things I tell myself:

  • don’t over-romanticize the past (there was hard back then too!)
  • don’t over-catastrophize the future (there will be good stuff coming up)

I remember that I did savor times in the past

I think I’ve told this story before, but during my second pregnancy, my aunt had a sudden emergency hysterectomy, after having had 9 babies.

I was only 22 at the time, but I remember being struck by the thought that there was no guarantee I would have any more babies.

Before that, I’d just sort of taken “more babies” for granted, but really, you never know!

So, once she was born, I snuggled and appreciated that baby as though she was the last baby I would ever have.

And same with the next, and the next (who was, in fact, the last baby!)

Sometimes, I would finish nursing my babies in the middle of the night, burp them, and then just sit there a little longer, memorizing the feeling of their small selves sleeping on my chest.

Kristen holding infant Sonia.

Anyway, when I wistfully look back at their baby photos, it helps to remember that I appreciated those times…I experienced them fully when they were happening.

Kristen, Sonia, and baby Zoe

I feel the same way when I think back to the hundreds (probably thousands, with all four kids!) of read-aloud sessions we had before naps and before bedtimes.

I don’t have to look back and think, “Oh, I wish I had appreciated those times.” because I know I did.

I try to enjoy RIGHT now

When my kids were younger, I sometimes would come across even littler pictures of them, from their baby and toddler days, and I’d think, “Oh, they used to be so little! Sigh.”

But then I would try to remind myself that RIGHT NOW, at that very moment, my kids were as young as they would ever be.

That moment, that RIGHT NOW, would someday be a time I’d look back on and think, “Oh, my kids used to be so little!”

You know that song lyric that says, “Someday, these will be the good old days…” It’s that kind of idea.

Kristen with her kids

My kids are all pretty grown-up right now. But one day, I will look back at 2021 photos and think, “Oh, Zoe looks so young!”

Or I will look back and think, “Ohh, those were fun days when Lisey was still living with us.”

If I make sure to appreciate the right-now times in the moment, then I will not look back on them with regret, wishing I’d appreciated them when they were happening.

I try to think of abundance and not lack

Lisey is 20, and as you all know, she’s moving out this fall to go to airplane mechanic school.

Lisey painting her calipers red.

I know I’m going to be sad about this, and I know I’m going to miss her a lot.

But here is what I try to focus on: a lot of kids move out to go to college when they’re 18. If I view it like this, I can think, “We got two whole bonus years with Lisey!”

That thought makes me feel rich in Lisey-time, not poor, you know?

I remember that children growing up is the best possible scenario

You know how on my birthday, I’ve often said that I am so grateful to be getting older because not everyone gets to have this many birthdays?

Zoe with a birthday cake.

In the same way, when I am feeling sad about my children growing up, sometimes it helps to remember that this is the best-case scenario.

Just like I can’t stay young forever (it’s either grow old or die young!), children can’t stay little forever.

And while I think it’s fine for me to feel nostalgic, it’s also good for me to remember that this whole having-children-who-get-to-grow-up thing?

It’s not a privilege every parent gets.

I remind myself that there will always be babies and children around me

Kristen and niece

Grandchildren are never a guarantee, of course.

But there will always be other babies and children around to love when I need a small-human fix.

Kristen holding a toddler.

My teen self with a neighbor that I babysat

I can volunteer at church in the nursery.

I can volunteer to hold babies in the NICU.

I can help extended family members with their children.

Kristen holding her baby niece

And if my dream job pans out, I can help deliver and take care of other people’s newborns as a nurse.

I remember I can always fill my house with people

Maybe my children will eventually be spread out over the world, far away. But that does not mean that I am doomed to have a quiet, empty, sad house.

Kristen with two little girls

I can host get-togethers, I can invite friends over, and I can invite people over who need a friend.

If none of my adult kids are around for a holiday one year, I can think of people who don’t have family around and invite them over.

If I remember that I have a lot of say over whether my home and life are lonely, that feels a lot less helpless and sad.

I try to remember that “mom” is part of me, not the whole of me

I have been a stay-at-home, work-at-home mom since 1999, and a homeschooling mom since 2004. It’s safe to say that I’ve been swimming in mom life for a long time.

And while “mom” is always a hat I will wear to some extent, it is not the whole definition of me.

Kristen with her kids on a beach.

I will not cease to be valuable once my kids move out!

I will be a college student, and then a nurse.

I will still be a neighbor, a church member, a friend, a daughter, an aunt, a cousin, a daughter-in-law.

I will still be a writer.

I will still be a person who can contribute valuable things to the world around me.

This kind of goes with the idea of thinking of abundance rather than lack. If I focus on the empty bedrooms in my house, well, we know how that will end.

(Tears. Lots of tears.)

But I focus on all the things that I still am, and all the possibilities that are still open to me, well, that feels way more cheerful and empowering.

I remember that life can be beautiful in many different ways

Was life beautiful when my children were all small? For sure.

But that is not the only way for life to be beautiful. 

There was beauty then.

Black and white photo of Kristen and preschool Lisey in a swimming pool.

There was beauty in the middle.

Kristen and 5 year old Lisey, sitting in front of a tree.

There is beauty now.

Kristen and Lisey with hats and jackets on.

And there will be beauty in the future. 

What makes a beautiful life?

For me, it involves things like a grateful heart, meaningful relationships, and meaningful work. And mercifully, those things are all possible at many different stages. 


Rose, I don’t know if I hit on any of the particular things you are struggling with, but hopefully I did!

And before I open up the floor for questions, I want you and other readers to know that I understand the wistfulness.

I experience it myself (especially as I’ve been going through my archives recently!), so I’m sharing the stuff in this post as someone in the trenches with you, not as someone who magically feels 100% hunky-dory about my children growing up. 

Readers, how do you deal with wistfulness over your children growing up?

P.S. I think I made this clear, but just in case: I think it’s totally normal to be sad over children growing up and moving out; it means you love your kids. And I also think that it’s good to focus on things that help keep us feeling hopeful, thankful, and not-helpless.

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Monday 6th of September 2021

My daughter is starting kindergarten tomorrow. I feel very, very happy for her - I love her teacher, feel great about her school, and am feeling remarkably calm about the whole thing. Given the fact that I’m generally a fairly anxious person, it’s wonderful to feel calm and good about this. I’m feeling a bit sad at the same time though - this is the beginning of real school, and I know how quickly time is about to pass. I bookmarked this post a few weeks ago, knowing I was going to need it, and I just want to say thanks. You made me feel a bit better on a day when I’m feeling quite wistful myself.


Saturday 14th of August 2021

How is your son doing? We don't really hear about him much anymore. I hope he's well! Thanks for sharing your family with us these years!


Monday 16th of August 2021

Thanks so much for asking. I wrote about that at the end of this post, and unfortunately, I don't have any positive updates since then.


Tuesday 20th of July 2021

Thank you for this, Kristen! I read this a few nights ago as I grumpily nursed my 4 month old in the middle of the night—but it was a wonderful reminder to treasure the little, middle of the night moments with my son instead of resenting them. Since then, I’ve tried to do what you mentioned: take a minute after burping him to soak in the moment and realize it will be gone before I know it. As always, I so appreciate your perspective!


Tuesday 20th of July 2021

Aww, I am so glad that you've been able to appreciate some baby snuggles in the middle of the night.

And just so you know, I think that this is a both/and type of thing; you can feel exhausted by the frequent middle of the night feedings AND also appreciate the snuggly little person in your arms.

But one day when the feedings are over, I think you will be glad you managed to store away some of those snuggle memories. I know I am!

Melissa G

Friday 9th of July 2021

I love your perspective on this. My kids are 15, 12, 10 and almost 5. I've been sad about them growing up their whole lives. It's time for me to live in the moment with them and be grateful for the time we share. My littlest is nervous about starting kindergarten next week. I should not be adding to her distress with my sadness of losing her for three hours a day. I needed to read this!


Friday 9th of July 2021

I'd like to add that social media doesn't help much. Seeing posts of others with their grandchildren nearby, etc. Its healthier for me and my jealousy to stay off of those posts.

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