Just the other day, my three-year-old came bumbling down the steps. I was behind her, holding her baby brother. “Mama!” she exclaimed. “We are both growing up so fast!”

Maybe it was the morning sunlight pouring in through the open shutters, illuminating her Paw Patrol bicycle, still in the living room from the night before. Maybe it was her little bedhead, with those wispy tufts of baby-fine hair sticking straight up in the back, or the way she grabbed her spoon while shoveling the Cheerios in front of the television.

Whatever it was, I became struck with the idea that what she said couldn’t be truer. She’s growing up and changing at a rate that I can hardly fathom. She’s whip-smart and beautiful and says things like “You are perfect for me, mama” and it’s as if those tiny shreds of her babyhood that she’s still holding onto are slowly giving way to her childhood. It’s a beautiful thing to bear witness to, but it’s also really hard on a mama’s tender heart.

As we were practicing writing her letters in the living room later that day, she wrote a really wonderful “Q.” I picked her up and twirled her around and told her, as most mamas do at one time or another, that she was so smart! She should be in college already!

“But,” she began, with tears welling up. “I’d miss you, mama.”

I quickly reassured her that she had many more years before she’d be making that journey, but the sentiment struck a nerve with me. Right now, she needs me more than she ever will again. We’ll never be as young again as we are in this moment, and she won’t love or require me with such intensity as she does in these early formative years.

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Right now, the idea of leaving me even for a few minutes is unfathomable to her. She clings to me in public like a newborn puppy. She grips my hand tightly when we’re watching cartoons and buries her head deeply into my arm when I’m reading to her by lamplight at night. What a gorgeous and generous thing it is to be so incredibly sought after.

When I was expecting her, I poured over every decision. I researched things like baby thermometers, these car seats, which swings and baby bathtubs were the best, and where to find zip-up onesies, teething necklaces, and diapers for cheap.

I thought if I just had the right gear, or the right knowledge base, that it would somehow be easier. Yet, all the parenting books and online reviews in the world didn’t prepare me for how I’d feel at 2 a.m. when she was six months old and running a sky-high fever. I couldn’t ready myself for her big tumble down the steps last year, or that time that she wasn’t invited to her friend’s birthday party.

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The really big growing-up stuff, I have to handle on my own. I have to reach down within to find the right tools when it comes to navigating things like broken hearts, hurt feelings, and other challenges.

She’s not even four yet, and I already dread the day that she goes off to high school, driving away from our house in the morning without so much as a second glance back at home. I take her everywhere in our little car now, but one day she’ll hop into her friend’s ride, I’ll yell out a curfew time and I’ll have that time to myself that I so desperately crave now. Will I even want it then? I don’t think so.

To be a mother means to lean heavily into the slow but steady progression of time. It means holding on and letting go at the same time and embracing all the big changes as they’re hurdled your way.

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Right now, she thinks that everyone loves her and that the world is a fun and safe and beautiful place where she can see her garden from her bedroom window and go to sleep beside all 50 of her stuffed animals. She wants to be a twirler when she grows up, or maybe an ice cream girl or a soccer player. She thinks her favorite television characters hang the moon, and her books are her most cherished possession.

I don’t know where her little threenager self thinks all the time, or what she dreams about at night. But I do know that she’s to-the-bone precious and loving, and as we walk down this winding road together, I can’t wait to see her grow into the super-sized heart she’s got.