I Blinked And Missed The Moment My Daughter Left Childhood Behind

by Elaine Roth
Teenage girl with long hair in a winter jacket with headphones on
Catherine Delahaye/Getty

My daughter is eleven, nearly twelve. A very mature eleven going on twelve, if you ask me. (Yes, I’m biased, but also, the trauma of watching your father lose his battle to brain cancer tends to age you—at least in heart and mind.) For the last few years, I’ve been watching her try on the role of young woman as she prepared to leave childhood behind. Glimmers of the young adult she would be shone through, but mostly she was still a child. Until yesterday. Yesterday, I blinked, and the child was gone.

Yesterday, I asked my daughter if she wanted to get her nails done with me while her little brother was busy. Like always, I let her choose which place she wanted to go. I expected her to say the place with “rainbow water,” because she always says the place with rainbow water. (They have a light that changes color in the foot tub.) Instead of “rainbow water,” she looked at me and shrugged. She said, “eh, whatever’s closer.”

My daughter’s been playing at “grown up” for a while, going through the motions of caring about teenage things. Sometimes she’d say she didn’t care about the “rainbow water” but then at the last second she’d change her mind. She’d put toys in the donation box, but then pull back that one teddy bear that she couldn’t part with at the last second. She’d say she was going to hang out in her room alone, but then after a few minutes, creep back downstairs to see what her brother and I were up to.

But yesterday, she wasn’t playing grown up. Something about the way she said “whatever’s closer,” the indifferent shrug, the take-it-or-leave-it approach to the “rainbow water,” which once sparked so much excitement, struck me. Something had changed. And somehow, it had happened in the span of a breath. I had blinked, and I’d missed the moment she’d stopped playing at being a young woman and had become one.

This moment’s been a long time coming. For years, she’s been doing all the things she should be doing to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. She’s been growing up, like I knew she would, and I was determined to savor every second, to pay attention to the last bits of childhood because I know that “lasts” are as important as “firsts” and so much harder to remember in the end.

There are already too many “lasts” that I didn’t commit to memory. I don’t remember the last time I rocked her to sleep, the last time she lifted her arms to ask me to pick her up, the last time she said, “I love you,” but her speech delay made it sound like “abubu.” All those times I didn’t know were lasts are lost in my memory. I wasn’t going to miss her last moment of childhood.

Still, I did. I blinked and I missed the moment she switched from child to young adult.

That afternoon, we didn’t go to the nail salon with rainbow water. It was more convenient to go to a different nail salon. I can’t tell you if there were lights in that water. My attention was too focused on the young woman beside me who just the day before had been more little girl than young woman. For the first time, rather than a bright color, she chose a muted gray. For the first time, rather than look to me to speak for her, she answered on her own. Even the way she talked, the things she talked about and the inflection in her voice, had matured.

It felt like a loss. I loved the young woman in front of me, was already proud of her, but I missed the child she’d been just yesterday. Parenthood is always a balance between missing what was and looking forward to what will be.

At the end of the day, my son looked to his sister, his forever playmate. She didn’t want to play. She hasn’t wanted to play in a while, but I can usually talk her into, even if just to indulge me. This time, I didn’t ask. She had grown, and it was time I respected that. Instead, I told my son I’d play with him. We created a game that was one-third soccer, one-third basketball, one-third dodgeball, and invited her to play. She said “no,” and sat on the sidelines watching, more young adult than child.

Until she stopped watching. She stood up and joined the game. It wasn’t a return to childhood—that young woman was still there, shrieking and laughing. But it was a glimmer of hope that maybe we still had time for a few more childhood “lasts” as we entered a world of young adults “firsts.”

It was a sign that even though I’d blinked, maybe I hadn’t missed it all.

They, whoever they are, say “the days are long, but the years are short”. They say to cherish the days when your kids are small, because too soon, they’ll be teenagers and adults with lives of their own, which you get invited into, but often watch develop from the outside. Even though sentences like that made me want to growl at that ubiquitous “they” while my threenager was having a temper tantrum in the grocery store checkout line, some part of me knew they were right. Too soon, the temper tantrums at the grocery store would be gone. (And I don’t miss those.) Too soon, they’d rather text me a grocery list than accompany me to the store.

They just forgot to tell me that I’ll miss it no matter what I do, that I won’t be able to capture the moment they cross from child into young adult. Maybe because it’s too gradual, it happens too slowly for the human heart and eye to see it. Maybe because it’s a blink and you’ll miss it fraction of a heartbeat. Or maybe, because it doesn’t matter. All that matters is making sure she knows she’s loved in every moment.