I noticed the clock this morning as Rodney closed the garage door behind him, the silhouettes of two tow-headed little boys moving and wriggling and adjusting, visible through the windows of the car as it pulled out of the driveway. I waved, my coffee cup in hand. I yelled out what I had already told them a half dozen times already this morning: “Be brave, be wise, be kind!” But the windows were up, the car was on, their attention on buckling their seat belts. I’m not sure they heard me. I went inside and scanned the counter tops to make sure all lunches had been grabbed, all water bottles retrieved, all backpacks remembered.

I looked at the clock and then I turned to the sink where I gathered one child’s breakfast bowls left on the counter, and moved the other child’s Lego creation from its precarious position on the edge of the counter.

Eight hours until they would return home.

I rinsed off the dishes. I rewarmed my coffee. I put away the bread and baggies left out from lunch making. I started the dishwasher. And then I looked at the clock again.

Only three minutes had passed.

Last night when I went to bed I was like a kid waiting for Christmas morning. Giddy. Anticipation settling into my stomach. Because the next morning would be the start of a season seven and a half years in the making—and I could not wait.

For seven and a half years I’ve had a baby, toddler or preschooler at home while also trying to manage working part time. When my oldest was born I adjusted my work schedule but didn’t want to give it up completely. Every new mom is different, but I clung tightly to some outside work, like it was a lifeline. And for me, some days, it was exactly that. It allowed me to be home and be present and get away and exist outside what sometimes felt like a confining and maddening mommy bubble.

I actually remember being pregnant with my first and wondering how many years it would be before I got that sense of freedom back, when I wouldn’t be tethered to schedules and diaper bags and incessant demands and needy hands. I could hardly imagine that day even existed. Let alone that I would eventually get there.

That day, for seven and half years, has sometimes been like a mirage in a desert— making me wonder if it was even real, and if it was, playing tricks in my mind about how close it might be. And then, the past couple of weeks especially, it became clear it wasn’t a mirage at all. It was an actual oasis, a real destination, so close I would almost feel the shade and taste the water.

Up until last night, I was trying to keep the growing excitement inside in check. There was no hesitation or nervousness or qualms from my youngest as he prepared for full day school. There was only enthusiasm. But I felt, as the mom, it would only be right to feel some sentiment over the change in seasons. The only problem was, I couldn’t muster any up. If my kids were good, I was good. Which is why I could hardly sleep last night, imagining what I would do with all of the time today. Work from Starbucks? Work from home? Work from a local bakery? DO ALL THE ABOVE BECAUSE I CAN??

But then I noticed the clock this morning when the boys had so easily, so incredibly easily, piled in the car and closed their doors and directed their attention to one another, laughing and poking and making inappropriate jokes about bodily functions. I noticed the clock, and there was the excitement still. The giddiness, yes. But also, I discovered, this small—but growing—pressure behind my eyes. I hadn’t expected that.

“They’re gone.”

I said it with amazement. Tucked into the words, a sense of accomplishment. I had made it. And then, following closely behind, a sense of sadness. Sadness I hadn’t yet felt at all as the day approached. Sadness I was unprepared to feel. Sadness I couldn’t quite name the reason for.

I’m not a baby person. The only thing I enjoyed more than watching my own kids grow out of this stage was watching other people’s babies grow out of this stage, so I could stop pretending how much I enjoyed their children. It bothers me when people can’t say what’s upsetting them, and that pretty much sums up having a baby in the house. There are no words and lots of crying—from mother and child—which leads to lots of anxiety and lots of uncertainty about whether you were cut out to be a parent at all. So, baby stage? Good bye. You are dead to me.

So, when I noticed the clock this morning, in a house so quiet I could hear the nearly silent hum of a running dishwasher, and the occasional thud of ice being made in the freezer, and the buzz of a lawn mower down the street, it wasn’t that I wanted to go back to the stage we have now left forever. It was that it had come and gone as efficiently as it had. That just like that, a stage of life that feels forever, that is imagined and thought about, that is planned for and absorbing, is over.

It isn’t that I want my babies back. It’s that they aren’t even close to being babies anymore and I can’t remember when that happened.

When exactly did Asher stop sucking his thumb?

When exactly did Pace stop sleeping with his bottom in the air, all tucked in and tucked under?

When did they stop asking to be carried?

When did they stop asking me to be involved in every game of imaginary play?

When did they start getting their own cups of water and making their own bowls of cereal?

When did I start reminding them to give me hugs on the way out the door, because otherwise they’d forget?

When did they begin preferring the company of each other at night, laughing, and scheming and not even trying to fall asleep, to my tucking in, my singing over, my rubbing their backs?

I noticed the clock this morning and was suddenly amazed. And also sad.

 Because I have been waiting for this day. And because it actually arrived.

The clock brought into sharp clarity the reality of life. Good things may be up ahead, things we anticipate and long for and were made to do and created to experience, and it can still be just the tiniest bit heartbreaking when they happen. And that’s okay.

I was probably foolish to think this day could come and go and all I would feel was pure, unfiltered joy. And a part of me is glad there is some sadness mixed in—I would have experienced intense mom guilt if there wasn’t just a little. But I’m thankful for the juxtaposition of the emotions as well. Because the older I get, the more I realize that the best stuff in life is never all of one and none of the other. That the parts of life most deeply felt and most intimately experienced are the ones where we acknowledge the tension. The joy of it. The sadness of it. The expectation of it. The fear of it. The wonder of it. The matter-of-factness of it.

When it doesn’t make sense, when it catches you off guard, when you can’t reconcile the conflicting feelings and emotions, you know you have caught life by the horns and are living it to it’s fullest. You are in it. You are feeling it. You will be better for it.

At least that’s what I’m telling myself, every time I steal glances towards the clock. The passing minutes contain a world of emotions it’s okay to feel, and that don’t always work well together. That’s alright. Really. It is.

Because starting today, I have eight hours of silence, of uninterrupted time before me and zero demands and maybe a stop—or two—at Starbucks to process it all.

I’ll be fine. For lots of reasons. But mostly because it’ll be quiet.