The Cost of a College Education

I remember my dad saying to me many years ago that he would pay for my college education because he felt it was important for me to start my adult life debt-free. I wish I would’ve taken him up on that free bachelor’s degree. I left college before finishing.

Shortly after having our first child, Jeremy and I were talking with friends who had also just had a child. Our friend announced that their daughter would be responsible for her own college education. I thought it was weird that the decision was already being made. But it got me thinking about what we would do for our child. It didn’t take me long before I said to Jeremy, “I think we need to pay for Isaac’s college education.” I didn’t really know what I was saying because I didn’t know what the cost would become. But I said it anyway and I kept saying it even after we had kid #2.

As a stay-at-home parent, I often heard, “That’s so great you can afford to stay home.” The thing is, we really couldn’t afford it if you compared our life to the lives of those who were saying this to me. They had bigger houses, nicer cars, fancier vacations, and much better summer camps for their kids to attend. We were regularly reminded how we couldn’t really afford to be a single income household, and yet we made it work. I knew the sacrifices we were making were worthwhile. Summer vacations and sick days weren’t an issue. The pace of our lives was not only manageable, it was enjoyable. I have so many memories of time with my kids. Now that they are grown, these memories have become priceless.

We did have to come up with a plan to pay for college. We decided once our youngest finished third grade, I would go back to work full-time and my income would go towards college savings. Soon enough those 529’s would be busting at the seams. It was a great plan until a year into my full-time job I realized I really wanted to pursue something that would require more education. And so I went back to school, now costing money rather than making money. Our college savings plan was derailed.

But we were used to sacrifice and simplifying. We were experts at modifying our lifestyle. I earned my master’s degree and finally started to earn some money for education. Our son earned his bachelor’s degree. He started his career two months after graduating, debt-free, and has been financially independent ever since. Our daughter is finishing up her third semester of college. We have had to take on some debt in order to get to where we are. All of my income goes to education expenses, either current or past. The college savings plan had to be modified, but it is working.

I remember that friend saying many years ago that he thought his daughter would appreciate her college education more by having to pay for it. Well, both kids express their gratitude regularly to me for their education. They are well aware of what a gift it is to not be drowning in debt or worse, having to walk away from an education because they can’t afford it.

Obviously what a parent chooses to do is up to that parent, and what a parent is able to do can greatly vary. I have never said to someone, “Why aren’t you paying for your kid’s college?” That choice is theirs alone to make. But I would like people to stop saying to me, “That’s great that you can afford to pay for your kids’ college.” The statement fails to recognize the sacrifices we have made and continue to make in order to do so.

Many times I have wondered what we would be doing if we hadn’t made this decision so early on: the trips we would take, the home remodeling projects we would do, the animals I would adopt… Our decision was a big one. We were uninformed and somewhat impulsive. But I think it was the right decision for us. Sure, the cost is high. But the benefits are way higher.

Thanks, Dad.

Empty Nesting

Well, friends, it has been quite a few weeks. We dropped our baby off at college and are settling into a new normal of empty nesting. I remember when we lost our beloved dog of nearly 15 years, I would find myself going to feed her, only to be jolted into the reality that she was no longer with us. I would then tear up and sometimes just weep from the loss. Eerily similar, I get home from work and am about to call up the stairs to tell my daughter I’m home, only to remember she’s not in her room. She’s not in the house. And she won’t be coming home for awhile. But I don’t find myself tearing up, most of the time that is. I find myself feeling grateful for who she is and where she is.

Raising a child these days is no easy task. What they face, what they know, what they see, what they deal with is a lot. Helping a child navigate childhood into adulthood can be overwhelming and hard. Neither do I take for granted the young woman I left at her new college dorm nor all the people it took to help us get her there. I didn’t raise perfect children and I didn’t raise them perfectly. In fact I made lots of mistakes. But I feel proud of the job I did. And I feel proud of the adults my children have become.

In reflecting upon how we got to this place, I have been thinking about what I think I did well, and not so well in my parenting. The efforts I put into being a better parent has made me a better person. There are many things I could share, but I thought I’d focus on just a few.

First, what I think most often got in the way of my being a good parent was my impatience. It was easier just to do something myself. It was easier to pretend I didn’t hear the 15th question. It was easier to redirect for the sake of getting to the point rather than allow them to meander through their thoughts and ideas. I cringe at some of the moments I can recall. Sometimes I would catch my impatience, stop, apologize, and do better. Sometimes I would realize after the fact, go back and apologize. And far too many times I’m sure, I moved on without realizing what I had done and how my impatience must have felt sharp and judgmental. Both of my children are very gracious when I share my regrets and offer an apology. I have definitely improved my patience, but have a looooooooonnng way to go.

What seemed to come naturally for me was to love my kids unconditionally. It has been the most natural relationship I have experienced. And loving them has helped me to love others better. So I can take no credit for this in my parenting. I have heard of others struggling to love their kids unconditionally, often because they have never experienced that kind of love themselves. I am thankful that I could love them unconditionally, meaning it was never their job to love me or care for me. Correction was given for the sake of their learning to be better people, not because they owed me anything or needed to do anything to keep my love. I believe we all need to be loved unconditionally, and the sooner that can be felt, the better.

I think what I did well was decide from very early on that I would know my kids. I don’t just mean superficially. Or know what I want to know or think I know. It has taken time and effort. It requires hearing sometimes what I don’t want to hear or know. It is both humbling and at times frustrating. But this is what allowed me to see them as individuals from the very beginning. Not an extension of me or my husband. Not someone to do what I wish I had done. Not someone who would live into my expectation. Rather to see them as their own entities with their own ideas, dreams, flaws, and needs. This has enabled me to allow them to follow their own paths, and to make their own mistakes.

And it is what has made our empty nesting feel so right. Don’t get me wrong. I miss my kids. When my son came home for my daughter’s graduation, my heart felt like it might burst from joy. I miss my daughter, and I have teared up several times. But my children were never mine to keep. They were mine to raise and then share with the world.


A Successful Launch

It has been a whirlwind of a summer. I spent 11 weeks doing an intensive chaplaincy training program at a hospital while my son, recent college graduate, found employment, moved, and settled into his new life. I had little time to contemplate the implications of his new independence, and little time to feel the feelings that go with it. But my intensive unit is done and my boy has settled in and now I find myself facing the undeniable reality that my job as mom has nearly come to an end.

Before you tell me that the job never ends, let me say how accomplished I feel to have gotten to this point with my son. It is our job as parents, as best as we are able, to get our children to a place of full independence and functioning. It is our job as parents to help our children to see their purpose in the larger world, a purpose that brings joy, contentment, and responsibility. And so I celebrate my son not needing me very much any longer. That is what I was supposed to do – ween him physically, emotionally, and mentally. I am supposed to move him from a place of needing me in his life to (hopefully) wanting me in his life. While he still calls with questions about things such as benefits or banking, the reality is he can reach out to a number of folks to get those answers too.

I celebrate his adulthood. And I grieve it just a little too. To deny that grief might mean I’m unhealthily holding on in a way that prohibits his full independence. I grieve openly and honestly because it is difficult to go from being the center of one’s universe to being just like everyone else, even when we are given years to accept it. And periodically I feel myself trying to be that center again. I guess that is natural. But when I feel myself wanting to be needed by him, I recognize that is more for my benefit and to his detriment.

I think the best thing I have done as a parent is to never stop learning how to be a better parent. I listen to my husband as he shares his observations. I listen to those who know me and my kids well. And most importantly, I ask my kids questions and listen to what they have to say. I know there is still learning I have to do as I figure out the new normal for my adult son and me. And no matter how much I have screwed up, I take comfort in remembering that parenting is about the cumulative effect. We always have the opportunity to improve the quality of a relationship. We make mistakes as parents. How could we not? But if we don’t forgive ourselves for the mistakes made, we can’t be our best selves in the here and now. I look at my grown son, and I see how we have all grown to get to this place in which we find ourselves.


To My Sweet 16 Baby Girl

In some ways, I can’t believe this day has arrived. In other ways, it has been a long time coming. You have been growing and changing and forming and challenging and pushing and loving and doing all sorts of other -ings as you are becoming the grownup you are meant to be. And I’ve loved nearly every minute of it. Well, at least a solid 80% of it. 🙂

A few years after having your brother, I remember thinking how much I wanted my second child to be a girl. I am not suggesting that your brother was a disappointment though I know that is how you would like to interpret it. I always figured I would have two kids and I unapologetically wanted one boy and one girl. Since my boy was already present and accounted for, I longed for a girl. With a 50/50 chance of that happening, I decided to wait until I was ready for whatever gender the baby turned out to be. That took about two additional years.

Finally the time arrived where I felt ready for child number two, any child. I was feeling pretty nonchalant even about getting pregnant. “If it happens, it happens” I remember thinking, and actually meaning it. Consequently, thanks to the flu and a few other factors, I didn’t realize I was pregnant until 11 weeks along.  What a gift to learn of your presence just as the fun part of the pregnancy was beginning. No longer was I suffering from morning sickness or fatigue, which I had mistaken for ongoing flu symptoms. I was carrying my second child.

I felt pretty relaxed about the pregnancy. I was also keenly aware of each milestone. I had taken those milestones for granted when I was pregnant with your brother. Six years later and having witnessed the loss others had experienced, I was more aware of what could go wrong. This didn’t make me nervous. It made me grateful. Each milestone felt like a gift. At the ultrasound appointment, the tech checked off her list. Everything about you was looking good, healthy and on track. I was thrilled. She then looked at me and asked, “Do you want to know the baby’s gender?” “Yes” I said as I held my breath. I knew that I really would be happy with whatever your gender was because I had learned you were healthy and well. “It’s a girl” she said. And I began to cry. “Are you sure?” I asked in disbelief. “Yes” she said.

When you arrived, on your due date no less, the doctor announced, “It’s a girl.” “Are you sure?” I asked, with tears filling my eyes. “Yes” she said. You were cleaned, wrapped, and placed in my arms. I know I loved you from the moment I learned of you. But that love was sealed the moment I saw you. My sweet little girl had arrived.

And now here we are 16 years later.

Liv & me

We’re both older and maybe a bit wiser. And I can’t imagine life without you. I’m not sure why my longing for a daughter was so strong. Maybe it wasn’t  just for a baby girl, but it was for YOU my heart longed. I have treasured the time I have had with you. I look forward to your transition into adulthood, needing me less as a parent and hopefully enjoying me more as a companion. You make me laugh and cry. You have turned some of my hair grey. But they provide some nice highlights in my darkening blonde hair so I don’t mind. Thank you for being you. And happy sweet 16!





interjection, noun

1. an expression of one’s good wishes for a person’s success and safety


Letting go is rarely easy, whether it is a person, relationship, job, state of mind, a dream, or anything else that we have become accustomed to. Godspeed became my prayer to help with the process. It started when my son started first grade, the first time I experienced his being away from me more than he was with me. Although I would miss him, it wasn’t so much a thought of missed time together as it was a matter of influence. I might not have been interacting with him for the full 12 hours of each day, but I had a say as to how those 12 hours were spent. Now there would be 7 hours, five days a week, that would be out of my control. I am not a micromanager nor am I a fearful person. And so I didn’t expect my initial reaction to be one of struggle. But as I sent my firstborn off to school, I realized that this was just the beginning of letting go. And that this step would be the first of many to come.

And so began my “sending off” prayer. As I watched him walk towards the school, little backpack over his shoulder running toward his friends, “Godspeed” would fall from my lips. It was a quiet prayer that I whispered typically with my breath held. Letting go… Trusting he would be alright… Hoping the day would be a good one… Some days it felt more like a plea because I knew the day ahead would be tough for one reason or another. Other days I would boldly say my prayer as more of a threat to God, as if God might need the reminder to watch over my kid.

When my daughter came along, my transitions went more smoothly, but the prayer stayed the same. It was the prayer used on my most confident days, on the days I felt utterly out of control, and each day in between.  When I knew what the kids were facing and when I didn’t have a clue, it was my way of letting go of what wasn’t mine or couldn’t be mine to hold onto anymore. As a parent, I needed to let them go little by little so that they could navigate life on their own. I knew this was my job as their mom – not to protect them indefinitely but rather to equip them to navigate their own lives. When the time is right, I have had to consciously move from leading them to walking alongside them.

As my son’s high school graduation approached, I found myself increasingly nostalgic about the momentous occasion. I couldn’t believe my first born would soon be a high school graduate. In the week leading up to his graduation, I would periodically tear up as I thought about the era that was coming to an end. One morning, I lingered in bed awake but not wanting to get up. I was thinking about how hard this was going to be, the biggest “Godspeed” yet. As I said my prayer silently, I heard myself whisper, “Stay…” It caught me off guard. I said it before I even consciously thought it. I didn’t want to let him go. I wasn’t ready. Like Elliot saying goodbye to E.T., I had to let him go even though it was breaking my heart. I stayed in bed and wept. I wept for the time that had passed so quickly. I wept for the man he was becoming. I wept for the journey ahead and I wept for the room that would soon be left empty. I wept both my joys and sorrows in one, long cry session.

For the rest of the week, I indulged in crying from time to time. There is a song the Dixie Chicks had done several years prior called “Godspeed”. I had always heard it as a lullaby to a young child. Suddenly a new meaning emerged. I played it several times, singing this lullaby to myself as a prayer for my little man. My little boy had grown up.

Graduation day came. Surrounded by family and close friends that evening, I toasted my boy by sharing the story of that prayer I had used for so many years, and about the morning a few days prior where I found myself whispering, “Stay.” Knowing I couldn’t nor shouldn’t ask that of him, I raised my glass and toasted him with “Godspeed.” I cried as I had shared my story. And I think I saw my boy tear up too. It was a beautiful moment to celebrate the 18 years we had spent together. He was my firstborn. He was my little buddy. He was now my man-child. And I couldn’t have loved him more than I did in that moment. All those years spent helping him to become the person he was and we had arrived at this day, a day to celebrate. The work had been hard and frustrating at times. But we made it. And I knew if he was going to be a healthy adult, he would need to go.

It has been nearly three years since that graduation day. And it will be a short three years until I have to do this again with my baby girl. There will always be a part of my heart that whispers to my children, “Stay.” But there comes a point where we just know that it is time to let someone or something go. For me, in that moment, there is sometimes only one thing to say. Godspeed. 

(Click here to listen to “Godspeed” by the Dixie Chicks. And if you have never seen it or haven’t watched in awhile, click here for the clip from E.T.)


A Promise is a Promise, sort of

liv at 10My daughter has always had an air of caution about her. It’s not that she is fearful or doesn’t take risks. In fact I would say Liv is quite adventurous. But she tends to think through what she’s doing. Once she has deemed something worthwhile, she goes for it. Now that she’s 14, this is a great trait. But the early years were a little problematic. She would come up with something she thought was quite logical, but her logic had limitations and she would occasionally get stuck. For example, one day in first grade she went to the nurse’s office because she wasn’t feeling well. She threw up on the nurse, the floor, and herself. The nurse was annoyed that Liv didn’t use a trash can (Really???) and Liv was mortified. Liv wanted to make sure she would never experience this kind of embarrassment again, so she (in her mind) logically concluded that she should never throw up again.

Bedtime ritual typically included talking about the day, a bedtime prayer, kisses and hugs. Then one day, shortly after the throw-up incident in the nurse’s office, she asked, “Will I throw up?” “No,” I said. “Promise?” I tried to reason with her and tell her that I couldn’t make that promise. But she needed reassurance and it was more important to do that than worry about breaking a promise. And so each night for a few years to follow we would go through the routine, “Will I throw up?” “No.” “Promise?” “Promise.” I assume that her logic was that we as parents were trustworthy, and our promises assuaged her fears. Other promises followed. And it was always for a sense of peace. She never asked us to promise her a pony or a trip to a faraway land. Her requests were always her attempt to be reassured, comforted, and told it would be okay.

Then one day she asked me this: “Mom, promise me you’ll never die.” The first time I was asked, my logical response in my head was, “Of course I can’t make that promise. There are many factors beyond my control.” But she was little, and I could see in her face, just as with the throw-up incident, that reassurance was needed more than grownup logic. And so I would take a leap of faith to make a promise I wasn’t comfortable in making, and often with a silent prayer following, “Please God, don’t make me a liar.”

I remember my son periodically asking me if I would die. When he was young I would simply answer with a “no” and that was that. When he got older, I answered with a little more vagueness, “I have plans to be around for a long time.” The answers satisfied him and eventually he realized that I couldn’t know when I would die and so he stopped mentioning it. My daughter, on the other hand, didn’t stop. She would hear, read, or think of something related to my dying, and then come to me asking me to promise that I would never leave her.  When she was about 10 or 11, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the exchange. It’s not that I didn’t want to comfort her, but I knew that her logic had exceeded this ritual. And so the day came where she said, “Mom, promise me you’ll never die.” I hesitated. I looked at her pleading face. Tears began to well in her eyes. She was old enough to know that this was not a promise I could make. And yet I could see the little girl in her looking for reassurance. She said again, “Promise me, Mom.” And I thought, “What if the unthinkable happens? Will she look back at this moment and hate me for lying if I make her this promise now?” She tried to blink back the tears. She probably knew what was coming. I hated to say it, but I had to. “You know I can’t make that promise.” Tears spilled onto her cheeks and it was painful to watch. She knew what I was saying was right, but it was hard to hear.

And then I knew what I had to do. I hugged her tightly and said, “I promise to do everything I can to be around for a very long time. But I want you to know that whatever happens, I know you’ll be okay. No matter how hard life gets, you are strong and kind and loving and resourceful. You will find what you need to get through. You have so many people who love you and will be there for you. YOU are going to be okay.” And I held her while we both cried a little. It wasn’t that I could no longer reassure her, but I realized her reassurance needed to be different. She was old enough to face what was real, and needed my help in finding the courage to do so.

I think we all have promises of our own that we ask, whether acknowledged or not, and we are hoping they will be kept. It doesn’t matter if they are realistic promises. They are rooted in both deep need and fear. “Promise me you won’t leave me because I can’t be alone.” “Promise me you really do love me because I’m not sure that I’m worthy.” “Promise me that you won’t tell me bad news because I don’t think I can handle it.” But there comes a day, or two or a hundred, when we are given an opportunity or even forced to face the need and fear behind the promise, just as my daughter had to do.

When she was little, Liv had the luxury of believing that her world was in my care. And I’m thankful for that because many children do not have that luxury. But at some point, that belief would have become detrimental to her. We can inadvertently teach our children and hope for ourselves that our world is controllable, that good things always happen to good people, that life is fair. But those things simply aren’t true. And when we assume God is only in the positive outcome or we have a faith that requires winning/healing/success/promise, we are denied the opportunity to experience God when we need God most, such as in a tight, long-lasting hug that follows a difficult truth.

A Lasting Legacy

When my son was two, we were living on a barrier island in North Carolina, having just moved from Las Vegas.  My husband and I were figuring out what this new life would look like personally and professionally.  While many of our peers were already well into home ownership, 401k’s, annual vacations and such, we were increasingly aware of our lack of all of the above.  Even though we were happy, we kept questioning whether or not we should be happy. Neither my husband nor I had a career we were passionate about.  But we were paying our bills and able to see the ocean from our little cottage that we rented for $400 a month.  Our son had everything he needed and then some. Yet persistent and nagging questions continued:  Am I doing enough?  Am I building a legacy that will continue beyond my life?  I looked at friends who seemed to be so much more successful. Ours was a simple life.  We didn’t have much. We didn’t need much.  We didn’t want much.  But was that right, or good, or the way it was supposed to be?  Were we being selfish, or poor stewards of talents we had?  I honestly didn’t know.

One afternoon I was walking on the beach in kind of a prayerful way.  For me that means I’m having a conversation in my head and I’m hoping that God is listening.  I was saying this mantra, “What should I be doing?”  In other words, is my life going to matter beyond our little family of three?  Again, in looking back I believe the source of my anxiety was more about the comparison to others than my own sense of satisfaction.  After a quarter of a mile or so into my walk, my thoughts were suddenly and abruptly interrupted with questions posed to me:  “If you raise your son to feel loved and to love, will that be enough for you?  If no one will ever know the depth of how you’ve loved and sacrificed for him, will you do it anyway?”  I have had a few experiences where I felt moved to my knees because of being overcome by emotion, and this was one of those times because I knew without a doubt that the answer was “yes”. For me, importance and legacy have never been about self.  I didn’t want to be famous or successful.  I wanted to make a difference.  I didn’t want to be rich.  I wanted to be kind and generous.  And in this little boy of mine, I had seen from the moment I laid eyes on him my greatest opportunity to give. In the two years that followed his birth, I had made choices and gave up things to make more time to be with him.  I didn’t need to spend every waking moment with him.  I wasn’t interested in entertaining him.  But I wanted to be there for him.  I wanted him to feel safe and loved and cared for.  There would be time for home ownership, 401k’s, and careers.

At the time, I thought God was giving me a dose of humility by saying “It’s not always about you!”  But I now see the exchange differently.  My lesson that day was about a shift in thinking from how the world measures success to what I believe God cares about.  It’s not so much about what I was doing in life, but how I was doing life.  I had a pastor who talked about form and function.  He would say that function is what we are trying to accomplish, and form is how we will accomplish it.  It is natural to look for one’s worth in the eyes of another.  And there is value in seeing how you are perceived.  But no one can give you a lasting sense of self-worth.  What we tend to compare, because we are able to compare it, is the form.  What does a successful person/career/appearance/parent/marriage look like?  But the reality is, it’s function we should be paying attention to.  Function is about quality of one’s character; his or her integrity.  You can be an honorable attorney or you can be an asshole social worker.  My initial question about legacy wasn’t “How am I doing?” but rather “How am I looking to the rest of the world?”  And in a leveling response, I think what God said was, “Wrong question.”  What I saw when I looked at my son was not what I wanted to do, but who I wanted to be.  God wasn’t trying to humble me, but rather encourage me.

There are many ways success is measured – financial, network of friends, familial relationships, causes we support.  But none of these things determine who we really are.  When I question what I am doing or whether I am far enough along, when I worry about failing or not amounting to much, when I feel powerless over the life I’m living, when I wonder what is the point, I remember the question posed to me on that day almost 19 years ago:  “If no one notices what you have done, would you do it any differently?”  The moments I am most proud of in my life are the moments of sacrifice or acts of love that went unnoticed because I was more concerned for the recipient of that act than what it meant for me.  That’s the kind of person I want to be, and that’s the legacy I want to leave behind.  I want people to remember not so much what I did, but rather who I was.