I was crossing the playground during recess on my way to the school office last Wednesday when Jacob’s permanent teeth ran by.
Jacob was, of course, attached to his permanent teeth, and I’m pretty sure my little boy’s other body parts ran by as well. But all I saw were his two front permanent teeth. In a strange split second of a mental hiccup, my brain grabbed images of my son at every stage of his life, and I saw baby-toddler-preschool-second grade Jacob all at once. Running towards me was the 1995-model Jacob I had originally been given, except now a couple feet taller and with two large teeth where his tiny baby ones had been.
The infant I used to carry tucked snugly in the crook of my arm is now a kid who runs around at recess with permanent teeth. The thought is startling.
I am beginning to realize this growing thing isn’t temporary. It keeps happening. Just when I get used to a new phase of parenting, it ends and turns into something else.
For me, parenting started very slowly. I was aware of each day of both my pregnancies’ first trimesters; every morning, the clock would creep toward 11 a.m., when the nausea would finally pass. Once the babies were born, an hour pacing or rocking in the middle of the night seemed to contain ninety, rather than sixty minutes.
But things started picking up speed after the one-year mark for each of the boys. Rather than anticipating milestones, as I did when I waited for baby Jacob to roll over or for baby Liam to grow hair, the milestones started crashing into me.
Baby books told me what to expect that first year. Peeking ahead, I knew I was supposed to take note of my sons’ first smiles, babbles and steps. I waited for these events and duly recorded them on the appropriate pages. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure why I was writing them down. How much difference is there, really, between a baby who rolls over and one still working on that skill?
Permanent teeth are endlessly more significant than rolling over, and no one warned me about them. Permanent teeth mark the beginning of the end of cute. While kindergarteners, still awaiting their first visit from the tooth fairy, are darling, and first graders, with gaping toothless grins, are simply ravishing, second graders are growing out of cute and into good-looking. You can’t easily scoop a second-grader into your arms.
My son’s permanent teeth are his first outward sign of a still-faraway adulthood. While his arms and legs will continue to grow and his face will change as he gets older, his two front teeth are as big as they’ll ever be. And it makes me wonder what else about him is “permanent.” His quiet, thoughtful personality seems pretty well set. He’s not one to grab center stage, and I doubt he ever will be. He’s loved learning about undersea life for about three years now; I used to think dolphins and whales were a passing phase, but I’m not so sure anymore.
I’m realizing the milestones of childhood that stand out to me are those moments when I glimpse — if only for a moment — the people my children are becoming. They are the moments I sense “permanency”—when I know that I’m not seeing a developmental period that my sons will grow out of, but rather a personality or passion that they’re in the process of growing into. Milestones now have less to do with mastery of skills and more to do with emerging values I see — those times when my sons make a choice in behavior that comes not from a fear of a time-out, but rather from a desire to do right. And these moments are not listed in the baby books. They’re left for parents to discover at odd times; in unlikely places.
When I left Jacob’s school that day, recess was ending, and my son was lined up with his class. The magical baby-toddler-kid was gone, and I once again saw Jacob as I usually do — a skinny seven-year-old with a sprinkling of freckles and smiling hazel eyes. But as Jacob walked into the school, I couldn’t help but think about those permanent teeth. And wonder about the other permanent things I could not see.