This week John and I went to an orientation meeting for high school, because apparently it is only a matter of months until we are the actual parents of an actual high school aged human? I am putting a question mark there because no part of that sentence feels remotely real, despite the physical evidence I see on the daily (looming, snarky, wispily mustachioed).

I felt SO many feelings at that meeting, just waves of disbelief that it’s already time to start thinking about program choices along with a mix of hope (so many earnest teens on the panel to address parent questions) and abject terror (so many options! So many possibilities! So many paths that feel so hugely important even though eventually high school becomes a mostly-vague memory for us all!). I didn’t even truly realize how much I was affected until later, at home, when I watched myself robotically devour a bag of crackers followed by a series of holiday-shaped chocolates dipped in peanut butter: Ah, I see our self-medication choice for the evening is food, then.

There is of course the whole childhood-slipping-away, time-barreling-forward side of things to get worked up over, but there’s also this very real and unpleasant feeling of being HUGELY unqualified to be the person who’s supposed to provide guidance and support for another person navigating a system I myself completely failed at.

I mean, I dropped out of high school when I was a sophomore. It’s something I’m not remotely proud of and I have all kinds of messy regrets about, oh, nearly every choice I made between 5th grade and my mid-twenties, and it turns out having older kids is really stirring up a lot of negative self-talk (you’re a loser and you always have been) and I’ve been through enough therapy to recognize when my brain is being an asshole but recognizing a thing doesn’t mean you don’t have to feel the thing before you can maybe, ideally, combat the thing. Sometimes with a whole lot of Trader Joe’s mochi rice nuggets.

I am so proud of both of my kids and grateful that they don’t seem to be dealing with the same garbage I went through/caused for myself when I was their age. I do feel like between John and I, we’re going to be able to handle whatever comes our way — our family unit can be dysfunctional as hell sometimes, but we are tight. We’ve got each other’s backs, no matter what.

But this shit is scary. It’s scary, raising older kids! It was scary before when they were little and it seemed mildly criminal that I had anything to do with keeping helpless infants and suicidal toddlers from death which felt like it was constantly CLOSING IN ON ALL FRONTS (here have a grape OH GOD I FORGOT TO CUT IT IN HALF) but this is worse, man.

It reminds me very much of the time I took college algebra only to show up for the first class and realize that I had absolutely no idea what the instructor was talking about, much less the alien letter-filled scribbles on the chalkboard, because I had dropped out of school and had barely progressed past long division.

Parenting is an ever-shifting landscape and I try to tell myself none of us really know what we’re doing, we’re all just hoping for the best and relying on love to get us through the hardest parts. Even so, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m in over my head — and unlike that terrifying class which I dropped like a hot potato, the only way out is through.

I feel deep in the thick of holiday near-overload these days, somewhere between being swept up with Christmas spirit and glad for enjoyable-to-me things like gift wrapping and pine-scented candles and those powered-sugar peppermints, and humming with a low-grade anxiety about estimated shipping dates and the upcoming Visa bill and wondering, as I do every year, if it’s weird that I have no idea what it’s like to be faced with the fashion dilemma of what to wear during “holiday dinner party season.” (Honestly I can’t remember the last time I went to a fancy dinner party at all, much less closet-mused my way through a SEASON of them.)

Also, I notice that this year things really seem different in terms of being a parent during the holidays. The kids have grown so much recently, particularly Riley, and one by one, once-beloved traditions have crumbled away into Thanos dust. Pumpkin farms: no thanks. Tree-lighting ceremonies: eh. Fake snow and hot chocolate at the local mall: c’mon, Mom, that’s for babies.

We still have plenty of family rituals and things we all enjoy, but … it’s not like it used to be. It’s not quite accurate to say I am surprised by this, it’s just that you can know a thing is coming and still be thrown off kilter by it. When you’re in the midst of the magic and mayhem of the little-kid years, you understand on some level it won’t last forever, but the reality sneaks up on you. It’s hard to realize that some moments are now forever lost to the world of memories — the last time trick-or-treating, the last time enduring Christmas jammies, the last time believing with a full heart in Santa Claus.

“It goes so fast!” is such an unhelpful thing to be told when you’re, say, publicly battling with a salmon-thrashing toddler while he clocks you, repeatedly, with a well-aimed sippy cup, but god, it does go so fast, it goes ever faster with every year that goes by, and time is both a gift and a thief. It does not leave you where it found you, for good and for bad.

I am trying to remember this, to be glad for what was and to appreciate what is here now, because it won’t be exactly the same next year, or the year after that. Plus, I still have boys who are counting the days until the 25th and who exclaim with delight when their favorite ornaments come out and at least one kid who will watch the semi-creepy Burl Ives Rudolph special with me even though that “Why am I such a misfit?” earworm song is the actual worst.

Still, there is a sense of loss that seeps through, among the twinkle lights and stockings. My time of Christmas with littles is over, and now I have to hope I am lucky enough to experience it again, years down the road, if my children have families of their own.