“Pretend I’m 13, and my name is Millie,” she says in the morning as I’m making her lunch.
“Pretend my name is Belila, and I’m 11!” she announces on the car ride to preschool. I look in the rear view mirror, taking in her wide grin.
“Mom, I’m still Millie, and I’m 13, and you’re my friend, and you’re 11,” she whispers at bedtime.
I wilt a little inside. I don’t want to pretend.
Not just because I hate playing pretend—especially when a five-year-old is in charge of the rules and tells me exactly what to do every step of the way—but because time is already lurching ahead too quickly.
In seven weeks, my daughter starts kindergarten.
She’s my youngest, my sweet baby girl, and my emotions are all over the place.
Bittersweet begins to describe how I feel, but it’s not enough.
My daughter’s been in preschool four days a week, so kindergarten won’t change the amount of time we’re apart very much—and I’ll gain one extra day each week to work, to walk, and to write.
As an introvert, I crave the extra alone time. Time to unwind another notch from the intense mothering of the past eight years. Time to process the fact that those early years—those draining, amazing, sleep-hollow year—are forever gone. Time to not have to play pretend.
But I’m also heartbroken.
Three years ago, my son started kindergarten. The shift was challenging and invigorating, inspiring and deflating. He got less time to play and be outside. He learned to link letters into words, and then into stories, and he met new friends.
But mostly, what I know for sure about kindergarten is that it squeezed the baby out of him. He went in still chubby-faced, small, and mine. He came out lanky and learned, belonging to a world that stretched beyond me.
The baby stage was hard for me. When my son was born, I had postpartum depression and anxiety. And he was a sensitive, intense, fussy baby who didn’t sleep more than an hour or two at a crack. When I had my daughter a few years later, I was more acclimated to life as a parent, and she possessed a softer temperament. But it was still hard—starting all over again with interrupted sleep and breastfeeding. With two peoples’ diapers to change, two peoples’ needs to tend to.
But now, that phase is over, and time is picking up velocity.
Our daughter is our last child. When I squint my eyes, I can see the baby she was, still tucked inside of her. I can remember the feel of her scalp, sprinkled with fine, red-tinged hair. And I can see a hint of the girl she will be when she’s 9 or 11 or 13. So I don’t want to pretend like she’s 13 and Millie—it will happen soon enough.
She will morph and grow away from me. I won’t be her sun anymore, though she will still be mine. She will orbit around her friends, her world expanding and pulsing. She’ll have interests I can’t even imagine right now.
She’ll stop wanting to play pretend.
Just for this moment, she is still mine. So when I can, I will play pretend with her. And I will also pretend that I’m ready for this road ahead, for all of the unknown—because what other choice is there but to open our hands and try to embrace what’s next? I will still hold this version of her, this right-now, magical, big-dreaming, bright-faced, impossibly beautiful little girl.
That’s what parents do—we teach and correct, we cuddle and feed, but mostly, we hold onto them as we let go.
We retain each version of them as they shed their skin, and it’s the most wrenching, gorgeous, breathtaking thing ever.
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Images: London Scout/Unsplash
Editor: Catherine MonkmanA
Copy Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina