I’m not saying this with a hint of arrogance, but I felt prepared for having little kids. During high school and college, there were always young kids around me. Friends of mine had young siblings, I babysat on the weekends, I worked in a nursery, and I studied early childhood education. I knew how to change diapers, put kids to sleep, teach basic math and reading, and plan fun activities and crafts. Young children weren’t a mystery to me.

So when I brought home our first child—and then second, and then third—I felt confident that even though it was going to be exhausting, I could do it. I could have little kids.

But now I’m done having babies, and I wasn’t ready for the grief that followed. To be honest, I’d be tempted to have more if it wasn’t for the three traumatic labors and the money it costs to raise kids. But there will be no more diapers, no more weaning, no more rocking to sleep, no more breastfeeding. No more.

Grief over the empty nest syndrome. Of not being needed in the same way.

My youngest goes to school in September. It’s the driving factor that has made me consider how I am coming to the end of a season—an era of young motherhood. All three of my kids will be in school for six and a half hours a day. I’ve never, ever experienced this since birthing my babies.

I’ll be left to my own devices. Left to decide what to do with this newfound freedom. And in one sense, there is release in that, a breath of fresh air. I can spend time pursuing this little career of freelance journalism, invest in a befriending project I run for survivors of modern slavery, and maybe even seriously pour into my dream of writing a novel. I can even go for a morning swim in the river.

Related: Savor these moments mama, their firsts will also be your lasts

But something I never expected was grief about this transition. Grief over the empty nest syndrome. Of not being needed in the same way. Of having to rediscover who I am apart from children. I wasn’t prepared for it—for having not-so-little children.

I didn’t think about how I would deal with not being needed in the same way. They can make their own cheese sandwiches. They can put on their own shoes, stuff clean clothes into drawers, get water from the sink, and even unlock the door (which is scary).  

I didn’t think about how I would respond to an eight-year-old who no longer wants to hold my hand. Who pulls his away from mine when I go to grasp it.

Related: Dear Son: You will never be too old to need your mama

I didn’t think about how I would answer big questions about religion and science and morality. Where did the world begin? What happens when you die? Why can’t I swear? You get the point—lots of questions—and often followed by ‘how do you know that?’ Which is a question I find even harder to answer but try my best to through my drib drab responses.

I didn’t think about the frightening feat of letting go of control and leaving kids to go places without my constant supervision—summer camps, park dates, trampoline parks, and bus journeys—where I’m not there to protect them.

I didn’t think about how to give them freedom, but still set boundaries. You can go on Kids YouTube, but not the proper one. You can walk down the street without me, but not home from school. You can play Minecraft, but not Fortnight.

Related: It’s so different with my last baby

But I also wasn’t prepared to structure my days around anything other than meals and naps and screen time and playdough.

As mothers—and as parents I suppose, primarily mothers—we sometimes lose ourselves in the early years of motherhood. We put dreams on hold, hobbies at bay, work to the side. Whether you think that’s right or wrong, just or not, it seems to typically be reality. In some ways, it’s beautiful. We are creating bonds with our children in those first years, especially the first three, that we will never forget—even if they do. And I don’t regret it.

But once we start to emerge from the haze that is sleepless nights and total dependency, I think we (or shall I say I) need to evaluate and prepare for what’s next.

Instead of yearning for them back, I want to appreciate them for what they were.

What is going to bring fulfillment and joy in this new season? The world is our oyster, I suppose. So instead of rushing to the next thing, this transition is a time for reflection, for noticing, for exploring. For figuring out our place in a huge world, within a little family, on a small dot of the planet.

And if we go back to the grief of them growing up, there is indeed a sadness that comes with saying goodbye to some of the most precious years of their youngest lives. But it’s only because those years were filled with so much good. Instead of yearning for them back, I want to appreciate them for what they were. Flick through photos and videos to remind myself how unique the times were.

And then I want to live in the present, with their current ages and stages. Chapter books. Late nights chats on the bed. A genuine sense of humor. Music taste. Deep conversation. Movies like Matilda, Flubber, and Yes Day. Games like Chess and Checkers.

Related: This time-lapse viral video of a girl growing up will have parents everywhere crying

As I wrote this, I stopped halfway through to give the kids their dinner. And would you believe it, my oldest came to hold my hand. That thing I said he never does. Because although he is growing, although he may not want to hold my hand in public, he is still my baby. 

So yes, I carry my grief of the baby days that are now gone—but I equally hold on tightly to the fact that they are still and will always be my babies.