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A few weeks ago, I chaperoned my 7-year-old daughter’s end-of-the-year field trip to the beach. These outings are often a stressful time for all but the children — teachers and parent volunteers are inevitably running after kids who insist on wandering and getting wet, all the while worrying about losing one to a crashing wave as the children inch ever closer to the seagulls doing a delicate dance on the rock wall.

But it means a lot to my daughter, so I go. These days are a window into her world, an insight I recognize I will have less and less of as she grows out of being a little kid and becomes a person I know and love, but whose path I don’t define. The end of the school year and the change of seasons always bring with them an air of celebration and the lightness of approaching long days. But this time is also a reminder of the quickness with which the days of childhood, sometimes wished away amid the exhaustion and demands of the quotidian, pass us by. Suddenly my eldest is approaching second grade, and my youngest has completed her first year of preschool. On days like the beach trip I pause and gasp at the changes in my children, at the small ways they are evolving into the people they are meant to be.

Already the chubbiness in my eldest daughter’s small hands has been replaced by slender, delicate fingers, and the baby tummy is nearly gone from her lengthening frame. She calls out to be held in the privacy of our home, not on the playground or at the bus stop, as she was once accustomed to. It is ever more rare to cradle her in my arms, as I once did for hours on end. When she buries her face in my shoulders her legs stretch far out beside me, her weight on my lap no longer imperceptible. I now get a whispered, “Can you snuggle and kiss me before we get inside, mama?” rather than an unabashed embrace before we part ways. My girl is aware of space, of vulnerability, of peers in a way she was not before.

But on this day, as the sun catches the ragged ponytail flowing down her back, she wraps herself around my waist and asks to run to the shiny seashells at the opposite shore. I watch her go, her hair untamed by salt and wind, as her body becomes smaller with distance. I am startled by the sudden awareness that this, watching her leave me, may actually be my most important role as her mother.

I had understood when I became a mother the importance of nurture and protection, of keeping your children close and under your wing. Our primary role in those early years of caring for a tiny, needy infant is undeniably to meet their every need, to offer our hearts and presence as solace from the world. Yet from those first solid foods to the excitement of wobbly steps, early on we begin to negotiate shielding with independence. We maneuver when to protect, when to guide and when to step back, how to let our kids be of this imperfect world we have brought them into. It is the hardest thing to do, to step aside and let them live, to resist the urge to place ourselves between our children and the world at every turn, to save them from all pain.

Seven years old has been a different kind of journey for us. This has been the year of the big questions, of the realizations that life is neither fair nor simple. “Why do people have to die, mama? Why are people poor? Why do some parents hurt their kids?” All of these have been talks we have had in the past year, the beginning of an awakening of consciousness that will take our big girl from a cocoon of innocence into a fuller, more complete understanding of the world. We are watching her develop a sense of self, a moral compass, interests and passions that have nothing to do with us as her parents. It is at once disorienting and thrilling. She is not just getting bigger, she is truly becoming, in all senses of the word.

The “why” questions are a prelude to the moment when I will not have all of the answers she seeks, or when my responses are at odds with how she views things. This too, will come, this too will be a part of the path. Our youngest is nearly 4 years old, and already we can see the difference in her full acceptance of her parents’ word, her wide toddler eyes trusting that her parents know the full scope of all things. Our eldest has begun to discern that mama and daddy may know a lot, but maybe not all. These are the first steps, the beginning of searching for herself, of being a “big kid” and eventually a grown-up.

The bittersweetness of being a part of the blooming of such a lovely soul, of shepherding her through these days, lingers in the salty air. I had laid out clothes for the field trip the night before, trying to make our exit from the house a timely one. That morning my daughter instead marched downstairs wearing her own choice in outfit, proudly proclaiming, “I think this works better on me today, mama. And I matched it the way I wanted!” I smiled at her practical, comfy outfit, both a bit sad and delighted that she doesn’t need her mom picking her outfits anymore. The tides shift incrementally, in small ways, redrawing lines until we stand on new shores. Such is raising children.

Somewhere down the line, we start to figure out that our job as parents is to make ourselves obsolete, to love so freely and openly that our children may entrust themselves to the world. I will watch them run, fall, walk and stumble, for most of that time with their backs to me, in a direction unknown to their mother, perhaps to themselves. As the sun fades into shades of pink on a summer night, fall will come. I realize my time with my children is finite; their lesson to me is always to slow down, to pay attention, to listen and to watch because this is all we get, all there is. And what there is, is both vast and fleeting.

“Mama, look what I found, they’re so pretty! Can I bring them home?” My daughter comes running back from the lapping waves, shoes muddled with wet sand and hands filled with sparkling seashells. I see her eyes light up with excitement, and understand that she can run and let go with abandon because she knows there will always be open arms to return to. The sands shift underneath our feet, and the tides pull closer, then farther. A place to return to, always.

Dotson-Renta is a scholar of romance languages and postcolonial literature. She writes, edits and Tweets. 

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