My eldest daughter married last October. A year has slipped by and the foundation of her marriage has been built. This is cosmic sleight-of-hand. Just last week, she was an infant sleeping in my arms.

On an overcast day last year on my sister’s farm, I waved a final goodbye to my firstborn baby’s childhood. The feisty, red-haired girl in the pansy-print dress and pigtails had magically transformed into a beautiful woman in a bridal gown. Perhaps my mother felt the same 24 years ago when I did the same.

How did I miss it? When did she grow up?

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At least twice the weekend of that child’s wedding, I caught a glimpse of my then-12-year-old daughter and wondered who that woman was. Seriously, I didn’t recognize her at first. She looked so mature. 

She didn’t look like my little girl anymore. The flash of a smile gleaming with braces reassured me it really was her. Those braces are now off, revealing straight teeth that make her look even older than her 13 years. How does removing braces have that effect on a face? Nobody warns you.

The braceless teenager now stands two inches taller than me. She wears a size 11 shoe. This is madness. She looks like a young woman. Yet at some point she, too, was a blanket-clad bundle of softness, slumbering in my arms.

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Now she’s on the precipice of entering high school. She’s hurtling toward full-blown teenage life, complete with pep rallies and drivers’ education courses. There will be final exams to study for and friendships to cultivate. This is to say nothing of the proms where girls don a flourish of taffeta and high heels, transforming them into women for an evening.

Sometimes I think about the fact I only have five more years of her childhood to enjoy.

In that short span, she will mature further. She’ll get good at lots of new things. She’ll fail and hopefully, learn from it. She’ll develop her own ideas and ways of seeing the world. I pray her tender heart and love for Jesus continue to blossom as she grows.

Then there’s my 8-year-old son. He’s growing taller, too. His dangling legs kick my husband in the shins when he tries to carry him to bed asleep. His face is thinning into a face that isn’t my baby anymore. The fat baby in the Tigger costume has vanished. He’s losing teeth now and racking up cash for them. In fact, when he “lost” a tooth last year, he admitted, “I’ve been looking to get my hands on some cash.” He pulled the tooth on purposeforcibly yanked his tooth out for money.

Beside his shrewd financial aims are deep, philosophical questions and statements. These include things like “Why are dolphins mammals but need to live in the water?” and, “I think God wants me to be a comedian so I can share jokes with people who don’t have any.”

Watching my children grow reminds me that life flows on, and we are powerless to stop it.

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I used to tell them they had to freeze and couldn’t get any older. They would laugh like crazy at this command. Then they’d openly defy it, outgrowing their clothes and getting too big to carry to bed.

With my first child, I was unaware. I didn’t know to slow down and savor it. The years slipped by without my permission. Her childhood lives in cellophane-paged albums and boxes of film negatives. Now and then I come across these photos. Tears come as I remember it all.

My younger two are babies of the digital age. I take pictures of them all the time, both mundane and milestone moments. I do it because I now know time is a thief and steals our babies away. 

It turns them into adults who graduate from college and get married. 

It turns them into eighth-graders who look like women. 

It turns them into tooth-yanking boys who used to be toothless babies.

Immortalizing them in imperfect, everyday moments is my way of selfishly hoarding these memories. I make no apology for it because I need to remember. I need proof I once had babies.

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Another October blows in with falling leaves and another birthday for me. I marvel because I grew up, too. The awkward girl with the Dorothy Hamill haircut has metamorphosized into a 40-something mother of three. 

The rebellious teenager has become a God-fearing, praying mother, interceding for blessing and protection over her three children. I’m certain my own mother asks “Who is that woman?” about me sometimes, too. Her strong-willed, Garanimals-wearing little one has become middle-aged. Just like that.

Every mama’s heart is burdened with the weight of her children’s fleeting childhoods.

But the beauty is that we are still mamas in every season.

They may be too big to carry.

They may be living with their spouses.

But we are still mamas.

Lord help us to impart something good in them before they fly.

Tracy Gerhardt-Cooper

Tracy Cooper is a New Jersey wife, mom, teacher, and writer. She loves Earl Grey tea, quiet mornings, and autumn leaves. You can read her blog, Earl Grey and Yellow, and follow her work on Medium.