Iím not sure when it happened.

My chubby-cheeked oldest daughter, whose once-round face was framed by brown ringlets, is no more. Standing in her place is a lean, string bean of an older child, her face oblong, a sharp heart-shape jawline that mimics my own, or at least mimics the one I had 30 pounds ago.

When she smiles, thereís the gleam of colored rubber bands and hardware. It wasnít that long ago that it seemed the tooth fairy was visiting our house weekly and that two Christmases ago the tooth fairy forgot to come at all (Oops!). Those baby teeth have been replaced by adult teeth, now adorned with braces, which my daughter is quite proud of ó and Iím quite proud the braces are paid for.

The dress-up clothes that I used to pick up off the floor daily now largely go un-played with. The plastic dress-up high heels, which I can still hear the clomping sound they made down the hardwood floor in our hallway ó were thrown away, broken and outgrown. The Beany Boo stuffed animals, which our daughter collected impulsively for more than a year, sit largely forgotten, stuffed into an old doll crib for storage, underneath an oversized Chewbacca toy and a Ninja Turtle stuffed figure.

Those items have been replaced by Minecraft on the iPad, soccer and time with friends. Weíve entered a new stage, an untested phase of parenthood for my husband and me: Our first-born is no longer a little kid. Sheís not a teenager, either, but at almost 9, the pre-teen years are imminent.

The change can be jarring.

Itís like when you donít notice the seasons until you look out your window and realize that the leaves have changed color; and a week later, you look out again only to find that the branches on the pecan tree outside are now bare and thereís snow on the ground (Which can happen in the same week, with Alabamaís unpredictable weather).

Itís little moments I notice the imminent change. Like when Iím driving around town, my oldest daughter is still in her booster seat in the middle row of our minivan, and I hear her talking to her brother, then hear her laugh. Thereís still that bubbly, infectious giggle thatís been there since her very first laugh. But thereís also a maturity there, too. Itís not easy to pinpoint, but as she laughs, itís like getting a glimpse of whatís to come.

Itís the subtle things that are the most noticeable. I used to pick out her clothes each day, but sheís does that on her own, putting her dirty clothes in the laundry, unprompted. Itís how, on a Saturday morning recently, I offered to change the channel on the TV to cartoons, only she wanted to watch the Food Network instead. Or, when she gets hungry, she no longer asks me to make something for her, but instead gets it herself, walking back to the playroom, snack in hand.

I think about all the times Iíve been needed by my three kids ó the kissing of the boo-boos, holding hands to cross the street, pouring a cup of milk or tucking them into bed each night. Part of me rejoices, for each step of independence means less work for me. But thereís some sadness, too, as I know that each day, she needs me a little less.

On the day after Thanksgiving this year, our family spent a couple of hours on the beach at Tybee Island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, picking up seashells and looking for shark tooth fossils on the islandís northern shore. The rest of our family had gone in to pack up the rest of our things as we got ready to head back to Alabama. But my oldest daughter and I remained, hunched over the crushed shells on the beach, the cold wind beating across our flushed faces. When we finally decided to go back to the house, we navigated the narrow footpath between the sand dunes, my daughter walked behind me. And then, unprompted, she grabbed my hand.

I stood there, for a brief moment, surprised. I realized it had been so long since Iíd held her hand in mine. We walked together, hand in hand, alone on a deserted beach, and I was so grateful; grateful to be her mom; grateful for the wonderful, fearless, funny person sheís growing up to be; and grateful that even with those changes, she still wants to hold my hand.

Iím going to make more of an effort to reach out and grab her hand more often, too.

ó Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News in Alabama. Reach her at lydia.seabolavant@tuscaloosanews.com.