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Picture this little boy: He is just turning 4, with tiny teeth and fine, golden hair. He has a sturdy little body and a serious little expression as he holds his sign, with “STOP” on one side and “GO” on the other. He wears an orange felt “construction” vest over his pajamas, and a yellow hard-hat. He stands on the sidewalk in front of his house on a street that gets intermittent traffic, which he directs.

That year, he and his big brother constructed my favorite vision of their future. They’d move to New York and live in the fire station on Broadway. He’d be a firefighter; his big brother, also in preschool, would act on Broadway. The fire house would be so convenient. As a mom, that future, and them leaving our sidewalk, seemed impossibly far away. It was nice to imagine them out there in the world together.

Back in those early parenting days, it was impossible to keep track of how many times people repeated that familiar line about the days being long, but the years short. Current twists on that time-flies theme flood social media: “And just like that” or “in the blink of an eye” are familiar captions on parenting milestone photos. But for me, while the days were long, not even one year flew by.

Yes, I can see that sweet little boy who nearly ruined us over every bedtime when he was in preschool. The boy who dreamed of being a firefighter is in college, where he studies social change, eyes a semester in South Africa and eventually hopes to pursue a PhD. His big brother, also in college, studies theater. I am grateful they are friends, because friendship between siblings is not guaranteed. But these things did not simply happen overnight.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I am not. My real-life parenthood has involved plenty of times I’ve blinked back tears, and times I’ve let them flow. I cried while enduring those rage-inducing, needy preschooler bedtimes; on white-knuckled drives home from family therapy; while waiting out the months when it wasn’t clear our adoption of our youngest child would clear legal hurdles; and during the week two very small kids, my husband and our housemate were all sick and I wasn’t. I advocated (often poorly) when the kids struggled in school. I held a grudge (okay, real talk, I still hold it) against the dad who let every other friend onto his soccer team in fourth grade, except my kid, and then recruited a more accomplished player from another school. I’ve worried about them plenty and been in awe of them even more.

Admittedly, we have four kids spanning 12 years, so the “firsts” and “lasts” have stretched over a long time already. I got teary on the last day of preschool for my youngest child, because I love the preschool and because I adored the cute kids. At the same time, the end of preschool came as a huge relief, after all those preschool tuition bills, co-op hours and notices about cases of the dreaded hand, foot and mouth disease. Our family occasionally has nifty milestone overlaps, like this spring, when the eldest will graduate from college and the youngest finishes elementary school.

Here’s the thing about real life, though: I wouldn’t trade these heavy-duty parenting years no matter what. If my kids had grown up “just like that” and the years actually had flown by, then those years would have taken no toll on us, and we wouldn’t have aged at all. But I have definitely aged. I earned every wrinkle, every gray hair and all of the wit and grit and bitterness and tenderness and imperfections that have come with these years.

It’s not just that I’m older. I have been changed because I love my family, and have messed up with my family, and have disappointed everyone thousands of times over (daily, most likely), and been disappointed in return. I have been changed because who they are is so different than they or we could have dreamed back in the traffic-directing days, but also because, at heart, they are them and we are us. I trusted my love for my husband and our love for our kids and that has changed, by which I mean it’s grown. We’ve all grown. I’m as grateful for my growth as I am for theirs.

And I don’t want to blink that away.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a writer and can be found on Twitter @Standshadows.

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