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The milestones you didn’t realize would matter—until they did

Transitions can be liberating but also heartbreaking. And that’s OK.

The milestones you didn’t realize would matter—until they did

It all started with a hairy leg.

I was reading to my 3-year-old son, who was wearing his usual summer night uniform of a Lightning McQueen pajama shirt and shorts. I looked down at his legs and noticed that he no longer has the totally smooth, eminently kissable legs of a toddler. He now has fine little hairs on his legs, a sign of the hairy, grown-man legs he will have at some time in the future.


Faced with the reality of this and the finality it implied—this kid is no longer a baby and never will be again—I lost track of where I was and what I was doing.

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My chest started to tighten as a physical manifestation of the loss I felt.

A few weeks ago, it was a shower. I was tucking my little one into bed and heard the shower start. I figured it was my husband and didn’t think much of it until I heard sounds of my older son’s singing coming from the bathroom. He had taken it upon himself to take a solo shower for the first time. And I thought, “He is old enough to do this for himself now. Gone are the days when I listen to stories of the day’s dramas while washing his crazy-thick brown hair.”

Again, that tight chest feeling, that feeling of loss.

Because I write for and about moms, I often turn to the writings of other moms to help me make sense of my parenting experiences. But this doesn’t necessarily help me during those odd, out-of-the blue transitional moments. For one thing, most posts focus on capital-T Transitions. The “classic” emotional transitional moments of parenting are well documented: the trauma of the end of breastfeeding, the first day of Kindergarten, the first trip to college. You hear these stories, and you know to gird yourself for the inevitable future time when these things happen to you.

But it’s those moments you’re not prepared for, the ones that catch you off-guard, that really shake you.

Few write about the lower case-t transitional moments. There are no playbooks for those moments, no chatrooms filled with moms similarly traumatized by leg hair.

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I have found, too, that many of the posts I read don’t capture the emotional tone of those transitional moments, at least not as I experience them. Some are overly precious—like when a mom speaks in flowery language about that moment she saw her tween daughter walking on the beach with the golden sun setting behind her and realized that she was no longer a child. Others are overly snarky—like when a mom drops f-bombs while she hates on other moms she meets at the Kindergarten orientation.

But transitions, at least for me, often look much like my leg hair and shower experiences: I’m caught off guard, I’m suddenly hit with an acute sense of loss, my chest tightens, my eyes fill with tears.

My experiences with kid transitions seem to fall somewhere between preciousness and snark.

As a psychologist who specializes in helping moms manage stress, I spend a fair amount of time helping my patients “cope ahead” for transitions. And it’s hard for a big-time “cope ahead” advocate like myself to acknowledge that there are lots of parenting moments you can’t prepare for, that, as vast as the Internet is, there might not be a mom out there who can put words to the particular ache you are feeling. And you yourself might not be able to put words to the ache you’re feeling, either. Sometimes, you can only describe it as a physical pain, like a tightness in your chest.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand: When words fail and there’s no way to prepare, the only thing you can do is let yourself feel what you’re feeling.

Transitions can be liberating but also heartbreaking. Sure, I wished and hoped for the day when my son would be old enough to know not to bite and hit. But as soon as that day came, I also lamented the loss of those kissable legs, those mispronounced words and unasked-for hugs and unabashed declarations of love.

Which is why I allowed myself to cry a little bit when I saw my son’s legs, even though I was mid-tuck-in. And even though my son wondered aloud what my problem was—was I so sad about the dragons accidentally eating spicy salsa that it moved me to tears?—I let myself continue to cry until I’d gotten it all out.

And when I was done crying, when I had some time to reflect on my loss, I wrote about it. I recommend that my patients do that, too. Or put together a slide show of old pictures. Or sit down and reminisce with their partners. It helps to do something to commemorate the transition, the stage that has now come to an end.

I know there will be other leg hair and shower-type moments; other times when the reality of my kids’ maturation will suddenly hit me, seemingly out of nowhere. And in those lower case-t transition moments, I’ll have no choice but to clutch my chest and messy cry a little bit. And maybe smile a little bit, too, as I marvel at what my sons are becoming.

Every transition, no matter how small, is an opportunity to celebrate and to mourn.

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