The girls are home. I cried while they were gone. A lot.

I walked past their bedrooms trying not to get caught up in the twisted sheets and discarded clothes all wrapped up in their summery scent of cut grass, lake water and cheesey-snack dust. Then the first morning without them came and the room pulled me in. I ran my fingers along the blocks they’d connected.

“Mom, did you see how we made rooms and how the ones sticking out by the planet come together and make a chair? You make chairs with blocks, so we did it like you. Do you love it most of all?”

I stood inside the block kingdom and let the sunlight that had drawn me in wash over my feet.

The timing of their departure coincided with a huge jump. Potty-training, reading, requests for responsibility—transforming over the course of the day. Finley is sporuting, I can already see the neck and neck game all three girls will play as they surge and catch up to each other’s heights like some nail-biter quality horse race. This is different though. Finley is reaching for dad, using new words and wanting to do things she’s never wanted to do before.

Avery is different too, pushing back, not against us, but Briar. She is asserting herself, readying for the time when autumn and a yellow bus carry them to the same place. Yearning already for an identity of her own. We don’t interfere, laughing and cheering when she’s sneers, “I did it ’cause she was annoying at me.” I tell her that’s fine. Good. Healthy, it’s what sisters do, but that beyond that there is friendship. She smiles.

And Briar is full on coltish. What was once too-long bangs is now flirtation and head tilt. Our push and pull is less as I begin to comprehend how some of the things that I have lamented passing on to her, and other things all her own, will propel and protect her as she grows into the Briar that will stand and say her own name, announce who she is, rather than be introduced.

I wobbled a bit as I went through my day without the responsibility of their safety or their happiness. The cocoon of their need buffers me from the assaults that come during the day. The hours without them replaying this or that proved perilous. I ached for the way they grounded me. I wanted to tend to them, to wash away everything but how I deftly manage their requests and needs. The silence sparked reflection I didn’t want.

So many friends chimed in, understanding my ache, encouraging me in notes and giving me a moment as I worked through the stinging tears rapping on my eyes in the simplest conversations. Then, as Sean whispered with a shaky voice in our too-quiet house, “It doesn’t seem fair that with them it seems impossible and without them it seems worthless,” I loosed the tears and acknowledged that this is a moment we needed. I needed to realize that I am a really, really good mom. I needed (and loathed) that they went three days without calling for me. I survived running over to their camp to deliver something I thought they needed and having Fin stand at seeing me and then respond to my “How about a kiss?” with a raised hand toward my face and “Mom, I don’t really want a kiss now, I am doing circle time.” She marched back to the circle with purpose. I walked to the car with my shoulders wracked with sobs.

My hurt meant my triumph.

I never lie here, so I’ll tell you that tonight when Fin asked for nail polish and then dragged me outside to look at “how I am sparkly in the sunlight” I choked back a tear and thought that maybe even as I teach them (and me) how to grow up, we can still find times to sparkle together. I want them to help them grow up, but I am going to enjoy the hell out of this time.

And, with any luck, I’ll get a little better at enjoying the times when they are hanging out without me.