One afternoon when my younger son—who we affectionately called “Mr. Bump”— fell down and cut his knee, I scooped him up into my arms and kissed his sweaty toddler head, trying to soothe his howls of pain. I brought him inside, cleaned him up, and distracted him with his favorite toy and a snack, making everything all right again. He looked at me as though I were made of magic. His problems were so easy to solve.

Me and Little T

Sometimes, I miss those days. The labor of them was repetitive, all consuming and often depleting. But the ease of the reward was something of a miracle.

Now that I am mothering a young teenager and his tween of a little brother, everything has grown much more complicated.

Some happiness can be achieved only through permissions I cannot afford, both financially and logistically, and sometimes I have to be resented for that. Christmas presents of small stuffed animals have given way to desperate pleas for iPads and cell phones. Treats of Baby Einstein videos—an easy “Yes”—have turned into, “No, you can’t watch The Walking Dead.” Some problems—many of them social, it seems—I simply cannot solve, and I ache right along with them, even more than I did with that bloody knee. I can’t fix everything. I am no longer made of magic.

I miss those babies who only needed my arms to feel safe. I miss singing, endlessly, as they slept on my chest in the rocking chair. I miss how unconditionally and passionately they loved me.

And yet . . .

As my children grow and change, they’re still the same, and they’re still mine. The affection I receive may not be as blind. But man, it’s all the more precious because they show that moment of vulnerability only to me; I’m still their soft spot to land.

Solving their problems is monumental—often impossible—but they still want me to try because they still believe, after all these years, that I still can. They may not want my undivided attention nearly to the degree that they used to, but they still love my company. It requires more effort now, but I am still the one with whom they want to talk. To tell things. To share themselves. To laugh. To cry. I am still their Mama, and while I may not be as perfect, I still have magic within me.

Everyone tries to define the hardest stage of child rearing, when the truth is simple: there isn’t one. Every stage has its own challenges and rewards. Once, my reward was seeing a baby taste a banana for the first time. Now, it’s taking a thirteen year-old to his first fancy Italian dinner. Once it was a stick figure drawing from a chubby crayon. Now, it’s an eleven year-old designing his own board games and illustrating the cards. Before, there were endless nights with crying children, praying for just a little more sleep. Now, I have to pry them out of bed on the weekends, knowing they will love the taste of my breakfast sandwiches, imagining them the best in the world.

And yes, parenting struggles have grown more wrenching, and my patience is much more tested. But parenting has also grown funnier and warmer and more intricate, filled with the experience of sharing more and more of the deeper parts of myself with my kids. Ours is now a two-way conversation about life and love. I have paid up front, and now I reap the benefits of having children I not only love, but that I truly like.

So, to new moms, snuggle those babies close. Hold those toddlers tight. Those magical days won’t last. But know this: they will pull away from you in their need to discover themselves, but if you have built something strong with them you will not be forgotten. They will still need your hugs. They will always need your support. To them, you will still, in many ways, remain as magical as ever. And your changing relationship, I promise you, is evolving into something truly wonderful.

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