The signs are everywhere.

A couple of months ago, I went to one of those crazy PTA resales. I’ve been to these events numerous times since my eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was born four and half years ago, but this was the first time I’d ventured to one of the “big kid” sales, the ones with items for children ages five and up.

As I strolled around, on the hunt for the usual princess toys and cute little outfits emblazoned with glittery hearts and phrases like “Daddy’s Little Girl,” I realized something: everything seemed unfamiliar and I felt out of place.

The more tables I stopped at, the stranger the experience became. I was surrounded, not with my old standby brands like Carter’s and Gymboree, but with Justice and labels I’d never heard of. To me, the clothing on display was not sweet or anything that I would want my daughters to wear. It all just seemed garish and—dare I say it—sexualized. And I couldn’t find Anna or Elsa or Sophia the First anywhere; they had apparently been replaced by the mature looking Bratz dolls who seemed to be sneering at me from every angle.

I left the sale feeling disheartened, but I couldn’t quite identify why. I went about my day, and then, during some idle moment later on, the reason behind my discomfort hit me like a Mack truck: My daughters aren’t babies anymore, and the idea of them growing up and changing scares the heck out of me.

It keeps happening, too. It seems like every time I turn around, the universe is sending me subtle reminders that my girls are getting bigger.

Like when I haul yet another load of toys that my daughters no longer play with or clothing they have outgrown to Goodwill. Or the fact that, once our 3-year-old, Maggie, completes potty training this summer, we will be out of diapers for good. And at places like story time and the nature center, my girls are beginning to look like the “big kids” compared with the babies there, toddling around on their newfound sea legs while their bleary-eyed mothers chase after them with bottles and binkies.

Believe me, I find it to be as equally irksome as you probably do when some well-intentioned stranger—almost always an older woman—in line behind me at the supermarket tells me to “Enjoy it, they grow up so fast.” Yeah, easy for her to say; she didn’t just have to quell the thirteenth tantrum of the morning because–and this is not an exaggeration–one of your kids is livid that the other one looked at them for too long. Seriously, this is legit grounds for a meltdown of epic proportions in our household.

The early years, man… I know. They are not exactly the most fun on certain days. I think that most of us parents, at some point or another, have wished the time would go faster so that the constant and exhausting demands of toddlerhood would lesson and the ease and convenience of older child self-sufficiency could take over.

I get it. I watch as my neighbors’ older children play outside by themselves and attend sleepovers and prepare their own meals, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not envious. That I don’t think to myself, for the love of God, “When will that be us?”
But lately, as my daughters’ shoes continue to magically shrink, and I watch as Elizabeth triumphantly pumps her legs and swings all by herself with no assistance from me or my husband, I can’t help but wonder…

What am I giving up to be less needed?

I know that by trading in the seemingly incessant cries, shrieks and whines of toddlerdom, the inevitable back talk and eye rolls of the hormonal teen years loom menacingly in the not so distant future. And while some days all I crave are five minutes alone without someone crawling all over me demanding hugs and kisses and attention, I am also painfully cognizant of the fact that the days are fast approaching when the last thing my girls will want to do is show me affection, because what would the cool kids think?

When will I go from being their world, the very essence of their tiny beings, like I am now, to playing second fiddle to their friends and significant others?

Stephen King once said, “Time takes it all, whether you want it to or not.” As someone who has lost a child, I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. After Elizabeth’s twin sister, Hannah, passed away at three weeks of age, I spiraled into a dark period of postpartum depression and anxiety that left me crippled with the inability to bond with my surviving daughter and wishing that she had never been born.

I spent that first year of her life desperately wishing the time away and longing for the day when that needy little blob would be out of my hair and I could return to those glorious days of freedom B.C.: before children.
They say to be careful what you wish for.

Every time that my girls learn something new or accomplish something by themselves that used to require my help, yes, it feels like a small victory. But to me, those moments also signify the unstoppable freight train of time that has no mercy. Day by day and year by year, my children are becoming more independent and fearlessly plunging forward in their own unique journeys through this life, and while it’s exciting to witness, it is also terrifying and too bittersweet to adequately put into words.

I only get one shot at this parenting thing, and I think I speak for a lot of fellow parents when I say that I feel like I’m messing it up all the time. Like, every day. Honestly, I’m just making it all up as I go along and hoping for the best. And maybe that’s OK.

I just don’t want to look back and regret not breathing in every beautiful moment of this crazy stage of life and appreciating who my daughters are and where they are at in this exact moment, tantrums and hair pulling and all.

This is what I know: My children will grow and learn and mature and become even more amazing versions of what they already are, and I will be there for them every step of the way. I also know that, one day, I will be that lady in the store, gazing longingly at the harried looking mother in front of me who is juggling several young children while she loads boxes of cereal and fruit snacks on the checkout counter, pining for my own chaotic days of caring for little ones. And I will become the very cliché that I swore I would not, and I will gently tell her to enjoy it. Because time does, inevitably, take it all.

Maybe it sounds a little cheesy or overdramatic, but when I came home that day from the resale, I hugged my daughters a little tighter, with everything that I had, and I didn’t want to let them go. I know that incredible moments are coming in my parenting journey, and I look forward to them.

But, for now, I want to hold on to my babies just a little longer.