At the Party

She wanted to play with Barbies. Having loved my own Barbies as a little girl and eagerly hoarded tiny glittery shoes and traded away stuffed animals for miniature ball gowns, I understood the appeal. Sure, I had some feminist qualms. I’ve lived long enough to be concerned about real issues like body image and female stereotypes. But she was two and liked shiny things and make believe. I liked making her happy.

And she was my third child, so let’s face it, I had learned to pick my battles.

We sat on the floor with the pile of dolls and clothing. Lucy meticulously chose each outfit, rejecting my advice and opinions. When they were deemed sufficiently fabulous, I asked where they were going.

“To a party,” she said, the “duh” unspoken but still very clear.

I tried not to read anything into the overly stereotyped way she had them fuss with their hair one last time before heading out on the town. I mean yes, pink was her favorite color, and yes she couldn’t think of anything more important for her dolls to do than dance around in sequined dresses, but that probably didn’t mean anything, right?

Or did it? Had she so thoroughly absorbed cultural standards that she conformed to them without even knowing why? Had I already failed at protecting my daughter from the world’s bizarre expectations of women?

The dolls were just finishing a very bouncy dance when Lucy sat up and began to direct my movements.

“Now make them dance, Mommy, but watch out. Now monsters are attacking them! Kick the monsters! Fight them! Here! I have the dog!”

She produced Barbie’s floofy pink poodle.

“Now the puppy is fighting the monsters! We’re all fighting them! And here comes their dad!”

Ken appears, dressed business casual.

“Now he’s fighting the monsters, too! But it’s too late! They’ve already killed all the monsters!”

Pile of Barbies do a victory dance, along with their dog and their dad. it was nothing compared to the victory dance inside my head.

The adventure having ended, she asked if she could watch some Sesame Street.

Sure, baby. And for the record, we can play Barbies anytime you want.

I Dealt with All the Other Messes, Now Where Do I Find the Bleach for My Brain?

For the last eight months, I’ve been working on a book called Laughing at the Dark. It’s a memoir of sorts, stories from my life and some thoughts that go with them. It’s not ready for publication yet (hopefully you’ll see it sometime next fall) but this chapter that I wrote months before a pandemic confined us all to our homes just keeps sticking in my head. Some of us may still feel physically safe, for others our fears are for parents or for compromised family members or for ourselves, for still others our anxieties center around the emotional and the economic impacts as we face real consequences. But never in my lifetime has it been so obvious that we are all ultimately vulnerable and not nearly as powerful as we’d like to think. So hopefully this little excerpt can be a small moment of laughter and a reminder that you aren’t alone. Here’s to accepting together whatever comes and to doing the next thing and then the next.

When you are blessed to have a contented baby who also happens to be your third child, the little darling will spend a lot of time on the floor. (At least, I like to assume I’m not the only one.)

Lucy was born right at the beginning of the current baby-wearing trend, and since we lived in another country and were at least ten years behind all trends, I didn’t have any nifty slings or wraps. I had one very uncomfortable “baby backpack” that contrasted starkly with the many cute baby blankets that could be tossed on the floor for Lucy to roll around on.

And she was just so happy to lay there and look at the world go by.

There were always things to watch. A whirlwind of a big sister. A snugly big brother. A puppy exactly six months older than she was and very interested in dashing about licking things. Guests in and out. Noise and action in the neighborhood. More than enough stimulation for one introverted baby.

When Lucy learned to crawl, she was right there on the floor to have all the room she needed to do so. She explored our tiny house right next to the pup, slowly going after the things she had formerly just observed. She wasn’t particularly adventurous, but at home where she was familiar with everything in sight, she owned her world.

Which is how she began the habit of sticking her fingers in every crack and crevice to see what was hidden there. The door frames and window wells. The space under the couch. Behind the TV.

I think that last one is where she found the dead cockroach.

But then, does it matter where she found it? What matters is that I walked into the room to see my sweet little baby girl on the verge of putting a dead roach into her sweet little baby mouth.

I have never moved so fast in my life. I have never touched a roach so willingly, either. But I’m proud to say that I stopped her just in time.

Then I washed her hands and my hands and swept under and behind every piece of furniture in the house. I only wished there was some way to wash the memory from my brain.

If you’ve ever worried about the germs your child is exposed to or felt guilty about not keeping your house as clean as you should, congratulations. You now know that you are not doing as badly as you could be.

In all seriousness, though, while I still cringe when I think about that day, it’s only a drop in the bucket of dirt and germs that my kids encountered daily. During their early years, we lived in neighborhoods on the edges of those temporary shanty-towns you see on the news. Ellie wore the sweet little dresses her grandparents bought her to play on the cement floors and packed dirt yards of her neighborhood friends. We took walks next to the open drainage ditches that lined our streets, and when the rain made drainage back up into our house, the water smelled of sewage. Sometimes we’d be without water for hours or even days at a time, which meant no bathing or, you know, flushing toilets. Yes, that is as bad as it sounds.

I don’t say any of that to evoke pity or scorn or admiration or any particular response. It was just a fact of life where we lived, as it is for millions of people around the world. We did what everyone does: the best we could. I tried to keep my kids away from the open sewers and mostly succeeded. If I failed, I gave them a bath. I bathed them regularly, even though it was usually in a Rubbermaid tub. I made them eat their vegetables and drink their milk, and when we got food poisoning from the choripan we bought on the side of the road, we drank a lot of Gatorade and got through it.

Once, our teammates rescued a tiny kitten from a nearby field. Our kids all loved that cat. They played with it. They snuggled it. We didn’t discover that it had ringworm until all three families on our team were infected. I spent the weeks before Lucy was born spreading cream over everyone in an attempt to get the red splotches totally healed before we had an infant in the house. It almost worked. The tiny spot on my right arm didn’t disappear quite enough, and while nursing Lucy, I transferred the fungus to her sweet newborn head. I know, right? But in the end, we went back to the pharmacy, got more cream, and a few weeks later, she was healed.

Every time something like that happened, I felt all the sickening feelings of disgust and shame that you might imagine. I don’t think anyone is so laid-back that they get to escape the disgust and shame. But whatever we might feel, we parents are the ones in charge of dealing with the mess. So we do the next thing. And then the next. And then the next.

As far as I can tell, that’s really all there is to adulting. It’s not knowing what you’re doing. It’s not being prepared or having a plan. It’s figuring out the next step and then doing it, even when you feel like crawling into a hole and giving up.

For what it’s worth, these days my kids are all healthy.

I could try to take credit for that. I could say that it was because I exposed them to so many germs that they have strong immune systems. Or that it was because I brought them home to a cleaner environment partway through their lives that we avoided the worst dangers. But I don’t think either thing is true.

I know kids who lived in those slums who had asthma from the pollution and chronic health issues from malnutrition. I also know kids in the same exact households who licked ashes off of rusty nails when their parents weren’t looking and grew up as strong and healthy as the proverbial horses. I know kids in middle-class America who have life-threatening allergies and others who have almost died from complications of the flu. I also know some who can run three miles without breaking a sweat and scarcely ever have so much as a cold.

It turns out that the human body, like everything else in life, is incredibly complex. Its health is affected by such an intricate mix of genetics and environment and random chance that we would be arrogant to take too much credit when it goes well and foolish to take too much blame when it doesn’t.

I’m not saying I don’t need to make healthy choices when I can or that it makes no difference what I do. Some parts of our life and health do lie within our control, and I certainly want to tip the odds in my favor if I can. I’m just suggesting that so much of my kids’ well-being is not up to me. Some things I can’t change and some things I can’t predict, and when I start to believe I can, I’m setting myself up for serious anxiety. I’m also setting myself up to judge others in the most unproductive way.

It doesn’t sound particularly high-minded, but in a fractured world, our physical vulnerability is one of the few things that we all truly have in common. However different our values, our customs, and our beliefs about the world, we all live in fragile bodies and navigate a world over which we don’t have nearly as much control as we’d like.

You and I and the moms in rural Ghana and the moms in the slums of St. Petersburg and the moms in ritzy Fifth Avenue apartments all have children whose arms break when they fall, whose bodies are susceptible to viruses, and whose hair makes a welcome home to lice. We most certainly don’t all have the same access to prevention and treatment of those things, but we all have to deal with them when they happen.

If we could learn to accept our mutual weakness, I believe we’d find it easier to give each other more grace, and give ourselves more grace, too. Our frailty is a place where we can meet with compassion. Our bodily pain is a reality we can feel with true empathy. Our gross physicality is a thing we can laugh about together.

And in that place of vulnerability, we can help each other find the strength to do the next thing.

And the next.

And the next.

 

 Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

 

 

 

Do You See What I See?

Lucy has always been a flincher.

When she was a baby, she’d flinch any time the dog ran toward her, even though he was one of her favorite things on earth. Once she began to walk, she would jump back from moving vehicles that were nowhere near her and pull away when anyone opened a door too fast. For the longest time she was terrified of automatic doors and would only go through them if carried. At age five, she started playing softball. It’s taken years to get her to catch the ball without looking away to shield her face.

For the first few years of her life, I chalked all the flinching up to her being fearful. She was shy. She was cautious around anything new. She was afraid of heights and water and small spaces and men with beards.

It never occurred to me to question why she found certain things terrifying. I just accepted that she did and set about reassuring her that those things wouldn’t hurt her and encouraging her to be brave and face her fears.

Then one day when Lucy was three we visited the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and I had an epiphany.

If you’ve ever been to our Children’s Museum, you’ll remember the giant work of art that dominates the ramp area. Stretching from the basement level all the way up to the ceiling four stories above is a gorgeous, colorful blown-glass sculpture by artist Dale Chihuly. It’s made up of thousands of individual glass pieces, it’s breathtaking, and Lucy adored it.

She couldn’t take her eyes off it. She wanted to touch it, which wasn’t possible, but I knew that if we went down to the lower level there were plastic reproductions of several of the individual pieces that she could play with. She was thrilled and could barely be made to keep hold of my hand as she strained to go down the ramp as fast as possible. We got to the bottom, rounded the corner, and there it was: a little cavern under the sculpture, where the beautiful glass was lit up right over our heads and whole racks of reproductions were waiting to be touched and held and rearranged to her hearts content.

Lucy stared with longing at all of that color and shape. But when I tried to walk toward it, she planted her feet and wouldn’t take another step.

“Right over here you can play with them,” I said. “Come over here.”

She shook her head.

“Don’t you want to touch all the pieces?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s go then.”

“No.”

That’s when I realized that she was no longer looking up at the glass or forward at the toy reproductions. She was looking at the floor, and there was fear on her face.

I saw that she was standing on the edge of the carpeted section and that the ground between her and the beautiful toys was covered in shiny black tiles.

It was clear that for some reason, she didn’t want to walk on those tiles.

“It’s okay, baby,” I said. “They aren’t slippery. Look, I’m walking on them.” I took a few steps to demonstrate their safety.

Lucy shook her head. Then she looked longingly again at the beautiful glass. Then, slowly, very slowly, she lifted one foot and tapped the tile in front of her. When her foot hit solid ground, she left it there for a minute, then carefully took another step. She reached for my hand and when I gave it, she hung on tightly as she took one delicate step after another over to the bank of beautiful toys.

While she played, I sat on a nearby seat and watched. Other kids came and went around her, but she was focused on the arrangement of colorful pieces she was making. I looked at the floor again, wondering what had sparked her fear. Lots of people were walking on the tiles. Nothing looked dirty or moved weirdly or was in any way dangerous.

Then I thought about the way she had so gingerly tested the ground with her toe and I looked at the tiles again, trying to see what she must have seen. Suddenly it all made sense. Those tiles were so polished and so dark that in that dim light, they didn’t look like tiles at all. They looked like holes in the ground.

Once I knew the right questions to ask, Lucy confirmed my theory. Yes, it looked like a hole, like nothing at all, and it was hard to believe it would hold you up. This perception of hers was so strong that even though she saw other people walking on it, she still couldn’t fully believe it was solid ground.

It was one of those moments that makes you re-evaluate all the other things you’ve experienced. It dawned on me that she had her own way of seeing everything. The dog. The escalators. The automatic doors. Her dad when he put a hat on.

Her unique combination of acute visual sensitivity and overexcitable imagination made her perception of the world different from what most people experience, and her perception was more real to her than anything explanation anyone could give.

I haven’t always reacted perfectly to her fears since that day. I haven’t always been able to see things the way she does. But it’s pretty wonderful to try. Her mind is a fascinating place.

As it always is, her blessing and her curse are the same. She can see experience the world on a level beyond the ordinary, but to get to the beauty she longs for, she has to find the courage to walk across the holes that open up in the earth.

She doesn’t need me to hold her hand for that any more. Instead I hold my breath as I wait to see where she’ll go.

I Have to Tell You Something

She was three years old when I sat her down and tried a new strategy.

“When Mommy is talking to someone else or busy doing some work and you have something you want to say, don’t just start talking. That’s called interrupting. You may get my attention by saying, ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Mommy, I have to tell you something,’ and then you wait until I finish what I’m doing and tell you I’m ready.”

“Okay!” she said, perpetually cheerful when she wasn’t furious.

She took to this new method right away. Sort of. She found it hard to wait for me to finish and focus on her. Often, she didn’t wait at all. But she DID always preface everything she said with, “Mommy, I have to tell you something.”

“Mommy, I have to tell you something…I am so hungry!” “Mommy, I have to tell you something…I can’t find my Hello Kitty!” “Mommy, I have to tell you something…my bandaid fell off!”

She became the expert in having to tell me something. In fact, sometimes she would say it without any follow up plan at all.

“Mommy, I have to tell you something.”

“Okay, I’m listening.”

“Um…um…look at my shoes! They’re red.”

They are indeed red. They’re also a year old, sweetie. Not exactly breaking news.

“Mommy, I have to tell you something.”

“Just a minute, babe, I’m on the phone.”

“Mommy, I really have to tell you something.”

“Please wait patiently.”

“Mommy, I HAVE to tell you something.”

“Okay, I’m done. Go ahead.”

“Um…sometimes Luke Skywalker wears a helmet.”

Well, I respect your Star Wars knowledge, darling, but I’m not sure if I see the urgency of that communication.

“Mommy, I have to tell you something. Mommy, I have to tell you something.” It took me a couple of weeks of the endless refrain to finally catch on to what was happening. Sometimes I’m a little slow.

“Mommy, I have to tell you something.” She may have just been repeating what I told her to say, but the words were exactly accurate. It wasn’t “Mommy, I have something to tell you.” It was “Mommy, I have to tell you something.” Something. Anything. It’s not important what I have to say but just that I get the chance to say it. To have your attention. To talk to you and know that you are listening.

Annoying as it often was, she was definitely onto something. She instinctively understood the heart of communication. The point isn’t the exchange of information. The point is the relationship.

I mean, think about it. Anything she truly needed, I would give her without her having to ask. Regular meals. Clean clothes. Exercise and activity. Naps and cuddles. Correction and discipline.

But she still needed to tell me things. Lots of things. Big things and little things and things that were barely even things at all. Because that’s how we connected. How I came to know her and she came to know me.

How we’re still coming to know one another, actually. She doesn’t use the whole sentence any more, but there’s still usually that little intro. “Mom?” Pause. All the thoughts and questions.

After all these years, I still sometimes forget to slow down and listen. I still sometimes think I’ll lose my mind if I hear the word “Mom” one more time. But I’m learning. I’m learning Stranger Things trivia and more about the wives of Henry VIII than I ever wanted to know. But I’m also learning about this wonderful person that lives in my house. How her mind works and what she loves and who is inspiring her today.

Okay, sweetie, I’m listening. Go ahead.

Noo

Scott was one and already he was the master of many words, most in English and a few in Spanish. Papi. Mama. Hi. Chau. No. Yes. Ball. Juice. Cookie. Mas. All the really important things.

Except one.

“Can you say Ellie?” we would ask, pointing at his beloved older sister.

“No,” he’d answer, and run off to play.

“El. Ly,” we’d coach. “Can you say Ellie?”

“No. Mas juice?”

“I’ll give you more juice if you say Ellie,” I tried.

No.

And then one day, I heard him calling for her, and I stopped, not sure if I had heard correctly.

“What did you just call her? What’s your sister’s name?” I asked like it was no big thing.

“Noo.”

Please read that correctly. He didn’t say “no” in a long and drawn out way. He said “noo” pronounced like “new.”

And I kid you not, he proceeded to call her that for the next several weeks.

“Say goodnight to Papi and Ellie,” I said at bedtime.

“Chai Papi! Chau Noo!”

And at play time, “Noo! Noo! Tum here!”

Noo? Really?

For those who contend that kids are blank slates and are formed into who they will be solely by the environment around them, I submit to you my son. Being absolutely his own self from the moment his little mouth could form words.

Kids are weird, people, weirder than you ever imagined.

Luckily, that’s the way we like them.

Loopholes

If I had to list the top five skills of my children as preschoolers, packing would easily make number one. Through some freak of genetics, they inherited their father’s instinct for collecting things and my predisposition to be constantly mobile, and they combined these traits into the habit of stuffing every toy they owned into any bag they could find and carrying them around wherever they went.

Sometimes they wouldn’t even play with the toys. Just pack and carry. (And leave in an unlikely place so the next time you want a particular toy it can’t be found by any logical method.)

When Ellie was four and Scott two, the habit was starting to wear pretty thin for me. Anytime we were trying to leave the house, I’d look over and two little people would be stuffing things into purses, no shoes on, no coat on, no time for hair combing. The bags must be packed!

One day, after previous unsuccessful attempts at reasoning with them, I put my foot down. We were headed to the swing set outside our apartment building, and Ellie began packing for a two-week vacation.

“We don’t need to take toys with us,” I said. “We’re just going outside to play for a while.”

“I just need a few little things,” she begged. “Please. Just a few little things.”

“You may bring one thing,” I relented. “Only one. And you are responsible to bring it back inside when we’re done.”

“Three things, just three things.”

“One.”

She began to cry. “I really need these two things,” she sobbed, holding up two overstuffed purses.

Please note that each purse was filled with a myriad other items, so I felt that I was being generous when I said, “You may bring one purse.”

The tears went on for a few more seconds and then stopped abruptly. Ellie jumped up from the floor. “Mommy, I just need one minute!” she said cheerily and disappeared into her bedroom.

A few seconds later she reappeared with a giant purse, quickly stuffed both smaller purses inside it, then added a few random toys for good measure. “Okay, Mommy!” she said, holding up the purse that was now half her size. “I have my one thing!”

You know what? I let her take it. In fact, it may have been one of my proudest parenting moments.

I just figured, if you’re smart enough to find a way around the rules without hurting anyone, you should get the rewards of your cleverness. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll soon learn on your own that all that crap you’re carrying is only slowing you down.

In the mean time, enjoy the win, kid. You earned it.

She Walks In Front

When I was pregnant with my first child, and still young enough to be overly invested in my own cleverness and originality, I used to tell people openly that I hoped it would be a boy. “Of course,” I would say. “I will love whoever this is and be grateful either way, but you asked what I’m wishing for, and the honest answer is boy.”

I would give you the even more honest answer if you pressed, which was that I was terrified to have a girl. I have one brother and no sisters, and I always felt more comfortable around boys than girls. If I had a daughter, she might want girly things like the dreaded pink clothing or dance classes attended by other little girls and their <gulp> dance moms. And then there’d be hairstyles, my Lord, the hairstyles, which I was incapable of creating and not inclined to censure. Then she’d grow up and I’d have to teach her all the things, and frankly, I’m not that good at all the things. And what if her friends were petty and horrible? Of course they’d be petty and horrible. I’d be lucky if they weren’t vapid and giggly. I really didn’t think I was up for giggly. And most likely we’d have other kids someday, and then she’d be a a big sister. I’d never had a big sister, but what I’d seen didn’t impress me.

On the day of our first ultrasound, I was nervous. I really wanted to know who this little person was, and I suddenly realized that while I’d been half joking about the gender thing, I actually cared. This day was the defining moment, the big reveal.

Except that it wasn’t. The baby was strategically positioned to hide anything revealing, and the tech told us we’d have to wait another month. Then right at the end, he tilted his head and pointed at the screen. “It’s not clear at all,” he said in Spanish, “but from what I can see, if I had to guess, I would say that it’s a girl. Don’t hold me to that, but that’s what it seems like. But, you know, only paint one wall pink, just in case.”

My heart sank. A girl. Most likely a girl.

True story? That night I cried a little. It was partially from my fear of being a girl mom but mostly, if I was really honest, it was because I’d had a neat little picture in my head of our family (first boy, then girl, then another boy for good measure) and this turned my picture on its head.

I admitted this truth to Nate, and he was sweet and didn’t make me feel guilty for it. He did laugh, though, when I sat up and said, “Screw one pink wall. Boy or girl, this baby is having green walls.”

She had green walls. And stars on her ceiling. And lots of pink clothes. And a little black onesie with baby jeans that made her look like a tiny hipster. And there were no dance classes but the hair struggle was real.

When she was two months old, I was invited to be the visiting missionary at a ladies’ prayer circle. I took my daughter with me. I sat on an overstuffed sofa in a sweet grandmother’s living room and drank tea with a bunch of women in flowery dresses. I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable, except maybe if one them had accidentally seen my tattoo. When the baby fussed, I took her out of her car seat and held her close, and realized that I was once again by myself in a crowd of strange ladies, but I wasn’t alone anymore. “It’s you and me, little girl,” I thought. “We can make it through this.”

We did. We have. And then some. Because, spoiler alert, I had two daughters in the end, and the girl power in our house is set to high.

This fall, our family went for a walk in the woods as we often do. I found myself trailing behind while Nate and Ellie set a slightly faster pace, as they often do. There was this one moment when I looked up and saw her ahead of me and thought how there was nothing more perfect and right than walking behind her. There is something uniquely awesome about having girls in my life who just…get it. I could walk behind that girl forever, watching her move confidently forward into the world.

I won’t lie. There have been a lot of giggles and a lot of tears. There have been a few complicated braids and more nail polish than I ever hoped to see. But I’m eternally grateful that I didn’t get to plan my own life. Because those are the smallest, most insignificant parts of having daughters, these firebrands who fascinate and inspire me. These girls who are my people in any crowd of strangers.

The Kindness of Strangers

In keeping with the stereotypes about youngest children being portable by necessity, I suppose it’s no surprise that many of my memories of Lucy take place in grocery stores.

When she was little and we lived in Argentina, we did our weekly shopping as a family because wrangling three small children on our day off was a two-person task. We would use two shopping carts, one for Ellie and Scott, which Nate would push, sometimes picking up necessary items and sometime just playing games to keep them occupied. I would push the cart with Lucy, often getting separated from the others as I systematically filled the cart with everything on my grocery list. Lu was a little cherub, complete with a cap of blonde hair and big blue eyes, and she drew a lot of attention. Argentine’s adore babies, and a toddler who looks like the Gerber baby was a show-stopper for them. Strangers approached us at least three or four times on every trip to the store. They wanted to talk to Lu about what was in her cart or comment on her button nose. They wanted to gush over her blue eyes or squeeze her fat fingers. I was pretty used to this kind of behavior. It had been the same with Ellie and Scott, both of whom bestowed smiles on strangers like they were royals on parade.

Lu was having none of it. To call her shy doesn’t do it justice. Though she had outgrown her baby habit of screaming in terror every time she saw a man in a hat, she was still very suspicious of strangers, even at a distance. When they came up close, she literally froze. Some sweet old lady would stop me to comment on her beautiful hair. Thank you, I’d say, as Lu sat tense and unmoving in the shopping cart. What’s your name, hermosa? the grandmother would ask. Lucy would slowly lower her head and stare fixedly at the ground. I’d answer the question and try to excuse us and get away, but no matter how determined the visitor was to keep talking or what sweet thing they said, Lucy would play dead until they walked away.

I won’t deny that I found this behavior hilarious. But I also felt bad for my sweet little introvert. She just wanted to tag along with her mama, and these weird, kind strangers insisted on intruding into her personal space.

When Lu was two, we moved back to Indianapolis. When she was three, her brother started Kindergarten, so it was just the two of us all day at home. We ran a lot of errands together, and she was a wonderful shopper. She would chat to me as we went in and out of different places, and she had endless patience for stores, as long as we walked down the Barbie aisle and the shoe aisle at least once. We didn’t need to buy anything, but looking was the price of her cheerful companionship. It was a price I was happy to pay.

One day about halfway through that year, we were in Target together picking up a few things (you know how you do), and we were just taking our usual pass at the pink toy aisle, when a friend called me crying. It was an important call, a truly horrible moment for my friend, so I pulled the cart out of the traffic flow and listened to her crisis. Unfortunately, Lucy had a question for me at a just that moment, and while she might have had endless patience for shopping, she had zero patience for Mommy ignoring her questions. She got louder and louder and crankier, as I tried to gesture that I’d just be a minute and maybe fumble a snack out of my purse. Just when she was ramping up to a full-on tantrum, which I could not deal with while on this call, a stranger approached us.

She was a sweet middle-aged lady, and she did not give me a look of judgment for being on my cell phone while my daughter screamed in the Target aisle. She just started asking Lucy questions. Lucy froze. She wasn’t quite as shy as she had been before, but she wasn’t going to show the weakness of tears in front of this stranger, either. The lady asked her which of the toys was her favorite. Lucy did not deign to answer. The lady pointed out which toy she liked best, and Lucy couldn’t help but smile. Amazed at this miracle worker, I turned all my attention back to my phone call. When it finally ended, I hung up and listened to my daughter explaining the merits of Hello Kitty hair bows to a stranger.

“Thank you so much,” I said. “I really had to take that call…”

Before I could even explain, the woman smiled and said, “My pleasure. You both have a wonderful day.” And then she walked away.

The kindness of strangers, you guys.

The same kindness we had once found so intrusive was a lifesaver that day. The kindness of a stranger who didn’t just smile sympathetically and walk by but actually stepped in and made things better.

Maybe the kindness of others is scary and overwhelming sometimes, but maybe it’s also exactly what we need. At the end of the day, there isn’t much difference between stepping in and intruding, except in how it’s received.

I hope I’m learning to accept the kindness that comes my way, even when I didn’t ask for it. I hope my daughter is learning the same thing.

I’m pretty sure we’re both going to need it.

Helpless

From 2003 to 2007, we lived in a second-story apartment in one of the poorer neighborhoods on the south side of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Both Ellie and Scott were born while we lived in that house, so all my earliest motherhood memories are contained within its cinderblock walls.

There isn’t space here to describe the apartment in detail, but a few relevant facts will be helpful. Our apartment was above a storefront, which at one point contained a verduleria (vegetable store) but while we lived there contained only old rusty equipment, dirt, and cockroaches. When you came in our front door (before walking up the stairs) a door on your left took you into that scary domain. We had a key to that door for two reasons.

One, the fuse box to the whole building was located in the downstairs, and since we blew the very inadequate fuses often, we needed access to it. Two, the water tank for our house was on the roof, two stories above the street, and frequently the water pressure was not great enough to pump water up that high. Out behind the old verduleria a second pump at ground level could get us much-needed water if we went out and manually turned it on for a while. The pump was surrounded by a jungle of weeds and fenced in with old corrugated metal siding that was at least seven feet high. Below the spigot was a barrel of water that, in the summer, was the breeding ground for millions of mosquitos. It wasn’t a fun place to visit, but if you’ve ever had to live without water in your house for more than a few hours, you’ll know why we were thrilled to have the key to this unsavory paradise.

One hot day in the summer of 2005, I strapped Ellie into her high chair with some cooked noodles, cheese chunks, and fruit pieces for her lunch. As I’ve written about before, feeding my baby was a major stressor for me, but I had also discovered that when she was contained and distracted with food, I suddenly had a few precious minutes to accomplish something without her underfoot. That day, I was hoping to tackle the pile of dishes in the kitchen, but when I turned on the sink to get started, I only a few drops gurgled out. The tank was out of water.

I should have taken this as an excuse to sit down instead of washing anything, but I knew that there would be no water until someone flipped on the outside pump, and I was in desperate need of a shower later. So, I checked on Ellie, saw that she was still happily eating, and grabbed the key to run down to the pump.

I hurried through the insect-infested verduleria, used the key to open the back door, pushed through the weeds, and flipped the switch on the pump. Immediately, I could hear it begin to send water up to my house. Slapping away mosquitos, I turned to go back upstairs and saw that the door had swung shut behind me.

And the keys were in the lock on the inside.

As you might have guessed, the door locked automatically. It was metal and one of the only things not rusted in the whole place. There was no way I was getting through it.

At first, I was only mildly annoyed. I knew Nate was working in his office upstairs. His window looked onto our patio which was right above my head. So I yelled for him to help. I yelled and I yelled and I yelled. When my throat started to hurt, I finally conceded that he couldn’t hear me.

Fine, I thought, if he isn’t going to free me, I’ll free myself. I knew on the other side of the fence, the empty lot next door was open to the street. I pushed through the weeds to where some cinderblock were piled by the metal walls of the enclosure. I scrambled up them, and found handholds on the corrugated metal. I tried to pull myself up.

Don’t laugh. For a second it actually seemed possible. Then my arms gave out and I slid down the wall, getting a small scrape from a protruding screw along the way. I ignored it. I was pretty sure my tetanus shot was up to date, and anyway I had more pressing problems. My arms felt shaky from the attempt, sweat was pouring down my back, and the mosquitos were relentless. Plus, my baby was upstairs unattended in her high chair.

I yelled again. I banged on the metal door, hoping the sound would echo up to Nate’s ears. I yelled some more. I even tried to climb out again.

No luck.

Finally, I sat down on the pile of cinderblocks, miserably uncomfortable, worried about Ellie, and completely disgusted by my own stupidity and weakness. It was like a slap in the face of all my capable, independent notions of myself. There I was, trapped in the most ridiculous manner, and completely helpless to do anything about it.

It was everything I hated. Plus mosquitos.

I started to laugh, a little hysterically maybe, but also just incapable of any other reaction to such an absurd predicament.

That’s when I heard Nate call my name.

“Here!” I shouted. “I’m down here! By the pump! I’m locked out!”

It took a few minutes for him to follow my voice onto the patio and understand what I was saying and a few more minutes to get downstairs and unlock the door with the key conveniently waiting for him.

As soon as the door opened, I darted inside, shaking, laughing, crying a little, too, I think. He had Ellie in his arms, perfectly safe but a little mad from being trapped in her chair so long. I knew exactly how she felt.

“I heard Ellie crying and when she didn’t stop, I saw that she was in her chair, and I couldn’t find you anywhere,” Nate said.

I explained what had happened. He laughed at my silly blunder, and I laughed with him. But inside I was shaking, too. I had only been out there maybe thirty minutes, but the adrenalin made it feel like hours.

Well, the adrenalin and the unwelcome reminder that it only takes the stupidest little blunder to render me completely helpless. Being human is such a weird tightrope walk of courage and competence over this chasm of our limitations and frailty. I try not to look down too often.

But when I do, you’d better believe I’m going to laugh. It’s the only way I can keep my balance.

Life Doesn’t Go on Vacation

In retrospect, the dog’s disappearance should have been my clue that life wasn’t going to take a break while we celebrated the birth of our third and final child.

My c-section was scheduled for Monday morning. My mom arrived the Friday before, ready to help with the older kids. When we walked to the corner store the first day of her visit, she stumbled over Ellie while carrying Scott on her back. She was pretty banged up but seemed to be okay. I tried not to take it as an omen. I probably should have.

On Sunday, we let the puppy out for his morning run, and he never came back. Nate hunted the neighborhood for him but found nothing. We asked the neighbors. No one had seen anything.

That afternoon, I took my mom and kids to Wal-Mart to buy supplies and distract the kids from the missing pup. When we came out of the store, the tire was flat. I was pregnant, and my mom was sore from her fall. We only had the one car, so Nate couldn’t come to help. Instead a friend came and changed the tire, but not before getting soaked in a sudden rainstorm. Eventually we made it home. Nate dealt with the tire. I snuggled the kids and prayed the puppy would find his way home. By bedtime, we were forced to admit that he’d probably been stolen.

Then the next day we woke up early, drove to the hospital, and had a baby!

Lucy was wonderful and snuggly. A friend drove my mom and the big kids over to see her. Scott was pretty freaked out by the IV in my arm, but we had some cozy family time in the hospital before visiting hours ended. Nate and I were left with one quiet night.

The next day, after making sure I was supplied with contraband donuts, Nate swapped places with my mom, letting her stay in the hospital with me so he could be at home with the kids. The puppy still had not returned, but with all the excitement, the kids hadn’t had time to process the sad news yet.

In the morning, he called to check in. His night had been less than restful. Just as he was putting the kids to bed, they heard a loud POP, and all the lights in the house went out. He checked the neighborhood, but everyone else was fine. It was just us. A friendly neighbor recommended a relative who was an electrician. The man came and discovered that half the house needed new wiring.

In the hospital, waiting for my doctor to arrive and discharge me with my new baby, I could barely process the news. I was glad it had happened on the night he was home and not when my mom was alone with the kids. I was glad he had handled things. Mostly, I just couldn’t wait to get out of there and have my family all together.

We arrived home around one in the afternoon. I was walking slowly, still sore from the incision. Baby Lucy was fast asleep. I stopped in the doorway as my mom and kids greeted us with a Welcome Home! sign and a craft they had worked on together. Moving carefully, I knelt down to give Ellie and Scott a hug.

Permiso,” said a voice from behind me.

It was the electrician. I was in his way.

We moved our family reunion to the couch. I nursed Lucy for the first time at home while Ellie and Scott told me all about their day and while a stranger pulled wires out of our wall.

He was there for the rest of the day. Working quietly while I sat on the edge of Scott’s bed, telling him a story until he fell asleep for his nap. Soldering wires while I followed Ellie to the back patio to watch her latest cartwheeling tricks. He was just packing up to leave as we sat down to dinner that night.

By then it was clear. Lucy’s birth was a moment. It was special and life-changing. But we were going to have to process that special, life-changing moment without breaking stride. The tide waits for no man, and tires, wires, and older siblings wait for no baby.

So life rolled on, and we rolled with it. Scott snuggled against me while I nursed the baby. My mom held Lucy while I wrangled Ellie through an epic meltdown. Nate changed diapers while I read bedtime stories and took kids to the park while I attempted to take a nap.

A few days later, in response to an offered reward, a neighbor kid took Nate a few blocks away to a house where he’d seen a beagle puppy. Sure enough, there was our Toby, chained up and covered in fleas but so happy to see Nate. After a brief negotiation, Nate brought him home to two very excited children and one sleeping baby who didn’t yet know that this animal would grow up alongside her and become her best friend.

I guess that’s the way things work. The irreplaceable and the irritating come hand in hand. The magical and the mundane are mixed in together. Sometimes a stranger plays a role in our defining moments, and sometimes we sleep through the introduction to the thing we’ll talk about nonstop for a decade.

Maybe life is less about sorting things out and more about taking it all in.

Maybe that’s all the break we need.