Friday, September 10, 2010

Back to School

We’ve had some interesting back-to-school experiences in our family, but this is probably the biggest back-to-school change ever: our son, our only surviving child, went away (five hours’ drive from home) to university as a freshman last week.

In the past, we’ve had variety: school transfers, one child in a special program within the public school and one in regular classes; we’ve had one in private school and one in public school; we’ve had one in a publicly-administered private school and one in the hospital (withdrawn from school). Katie passed away in August of 2007, so that "back to school" time was terribly difficult and strange, because David went to high school, and we had to adjust to the fact that Katie was gone from our home forever – but having no children at home this autumn is a brand-new experience for us.

Many of you have demanding care-routines for your children. Many of you have demanding careers in addition to those care-routines. Many of you have multiple children for whom you are responsible, and for whom you provide care. I used to have two healthy children – then, a demanding care routine for a sick child and one healthy child, and after that, one healthy child. I am, for the first time in 17 years, at home by myself with my husband. It’s weirdly quiet here, but it’s not bad.

I came to motherhood relatively late; I was 33 years old when our son was born, and Gregg was 37. Having attended college and worked for years, I was accustomed to life apart from children, and knew that I would have it that way again someday. I knew that my job was to love and help my kids to thrive and grow, and prepare them to take their own places in the world. Though the tiny-infant days seemed to move super-slowly, it now feels as if my children have moved out into the universe at the speed of light.

I always wanted to roll my eyes and gnash my teeth when saccharine-voiced people would tell me – usually when I was worn out – “Be sure to savor and enjoy this time; it goes by so fast!” But they were right. It is hard to believe that there are no children living here full-time. But as I said, it is not a bad thing; it’s just different. We are re-discovering some freedom as a couple.

I held a certain portion of myself back from motherhood, because I could never abide listening to those women whose only topic of conversation was breastfeeding or growth percentiles or what was in the last diaper. UGH. I didn’t want to “lose my identity” in my children – I am a child of the 60s and 70s, for goodness’ sake! I had a life apart from my children, and I didn’t want to be incapacitated by mommy-brain.

When Katie was admitted to the hospital and we found out that she had life-threatening cancer, I let go, and gave myself completely to my family. We were already a very close-knit family, but I became closer to all three of them, and particularly to Katie, than I would have guessed possible. We all lived together in one room, sharing a bathroom, for weeks at a time, or commuted to and from the hospital - two at Ronald McDonald House and two in the hospital. That was the end of looking ahead and preparing for my life “after kids;” I was in the moment with my children in an entirely new way. I was theirs – not my own, not my husband’s – theirs.

When Katie passed away, motherhood changed a lot. We have one surviving son who is very precious to us, and I didn’t want to smother him, but I was conscious of his importance in a heightened way. Parenting through our grief, and being a family of three grieving people, is not easy, but we have done the best we can, in the circumstances, to balance the desire to hold on to him with the natural need to let him have appropriate freedom. And now, David has moved across the state and taken his place at a wonderful school. This is what we have been preparing him to do, all of his life; it is a gift and a privilege. I am thrilled for him. However, I’m aware that he has passed his last day of being a full-time member of this household. It was a sobering awareness, as the day of his departure was nearing. Our child-rearing days are OVER.

I won’t tell you to savor every moment, because I believe that, if you are reading this, you are already doing the very best you can to love and cherish your family. I will say that it feels like it happened in a flash - and now, they are gone - both of them. I knew this day would come, but I did not think it would look like this. Katie is not coming home again, but David will return.

I’m faced with the question of what to do with my own talents and abilities, now that there are no children living here full-time. I want to do meaningful work, so I am listening for the next steps. I have great hope that I will be led to utilize my time and energy where they are needed.

Great necessities call out great virtues.” - Abigail Adams

Karen Gerstenberger is the president of Katie’s Comforters Guild at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which provides homemade blankets to sick children, and she writes at .


  1. What a beautiful essay. I hear your future calling to you, and it is going to be wonderful. Thank you for sharing this intimacy -- there is pain and wonder and always great love in your writing, and it is all gently put forth and therefore, most powerful.

  2. and Elizabeth said what I was thinking with such eloquence, I'll leave it at that.

  3. I have no doubt that you will do meaningful already are! As always, I admire your strength and mindfulness Karen.