I remember the moment when my daughter grew big enough to change from holding just my finger as we walked, to holding my full hand. I can’t tell you her exact age, and I’m only 80% sure about where we were, but the feeling I had when she shrugged off my finger and grasped my hand is seared into my brain. It was the first time I had the generic thought “my baby’s growing up so fast!.” But it was more than that. It was a fearful thought of “I’m never going to get that experience again.”

When you’re raising kids, there is always going to be the last peek-a-boo, the last bathtime, the last tickle fight, the last piggy-back ride. Most all things are going to have a one last time. The problem is you may never know which time will be the last. I was able to pick up on the hand-holding incident, but the rest? The rest I couldn’t tell you which was the last time. She’s 13 now and most of those “lasts” are gone forever.

But I’m not sad about it. We always had a different philosophy with her. It started with my wife and I not wanting to give up on our footloose-and-fancy-free lifestyle. (Not that we were anywhere close to being crazy all-nighters.) But we insisted on keeping things the same as much as we could. If we wanted to go shopping, we all went shopping. If we wanted to hang out with people, everyone including the baby went out. It went so well (and she was such a good kid) that more than a few times other couples told us that she was their inspiration for having children.

We also assumed she would be our only natural born child. Knowing that, I think we intentionally soaked up every moment. She was always with us and simply adored by both of us. (Not spoiled; bed time means bed time, now get back in there. Mommy and Daddy want to watch something that’s not a cartoon.) But no other kid could possibly get more snuggles and hugs and kisses than this one.

Every new accomplishment or stage of growing up was joyful! We celebrated and embraced it all. Eating new foods, riding her bike without training wheels, talking to other grownups on her own, brushing her own hair, deciding to play percussion in band. It was all wonderful. We never needed to mourn the stuff that passed, because we were there for it and loved it in the moment. It’s like having a good vacation somewhere and checking it off your list. We did Atlanta. It was good. No need to go back there again. No offense, Atlanta, but the traffic alone…!

Of course I miss some of the sweet parts of babies and toddlers, but don’t forget about the rest of the stuff. The late nights, the diapers, the struggles with food, the tantrums, having to do everything for them, the diapers. People ask us about having teenager foster kids, and “aren’t they so much harder? Don’t they have more problems?” Not necessarily, plus they dress, go to the bathroom, clean, and feed themselves. It’s heavenly!

Each age and each stage is full of new and wonderful things. I loved watching her do soccer for the first time, then ballet. I loved watching her find friends on her own and see where she fits in. I loved seeing her through the awkward stages of middle school (not that she had it as bad as I did), and being able to see into the future of the beautiful, intelligent, confident person she will grow into. I just hug her through the hard parts now with an empathetic broken heart, but also with a wise, all-knowing smile when she’s not looking.

We ended up deciding to have a boy 7 years after her. We are soaking him up just as much as we did with her. I think of the fading stages more often with him. Probably because I’m aware of what’s going to happen this time around, and knowing he’s for sure he’s the last kid. He just rode his bike without training wheels for the first time. He’s trying to learn to swim. He’s wicked smart and is going to be just as capable as his sister. But his skin still has that touch of baby softness to it. I can still lift him on my shoulders. Peek-a-boo may be over but tickle fights aren’t. He says “Daddy! Let’s git each other!” And how can you say “no” to that?

And my daughter is about to go into high school. Some day soon I’ll convince her to put in her contacts. She’s wearing makeup and some time ago decided on her own to get her ears pierced, long after most girls already had. She’s growing up and I’m perfectly fine with that. I love this stage as much as I have all the others. It doesn’t mean I won’t be a weeping puddle of patheticness at her wedding, but that’s just me in general. For now my kids are who they are meant to be at this moment. She still calls me “Daddy” instead of “Dad” sometimes. And she holds my hand just the same way she did all those years ago when she grasped on for the first time. Maybe this, and hugs, and I-love-you’s, and music, and laughs are things we can keep doing without a “last time” for many more years.

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