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.

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.

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.

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.

Captain Annie

I was thirty-two when my last baby was born, not old by any current standards but without a doubt past the invisible line where your body can do anything it wants and make it look easy.

I did not make that pregnancy look easy. I didn’t make anything easy that year, actually.

Two days after the doctor called to tell me I was pregnant, Nate and I boarded a plane with Ellie and Scott, flew to Argentina with everything we owned, stayed in a friend’s house, and begin looking for places to live for ourselves and our new teammates. I have all-too-vivid memories of driving the bumpy streets of La Plata searching for the addresses we had marked on maps, drinking homemade lemonade from a giant bottle in an attempt to keep the nausea under control.

When we found a house and got all moved in, we got the puppy we had been promising Ellie for months. Lack of a yard meant we couldn’t get a big Rottweiler as planned, so we adopted a beagle instead. Did you know beagle puppies are known for being the most incorrigible breed of puppy? It was summer in South America, and I spent it trying to keep cool in a kiddie pool on our patio and simultaneously potty-training a two-year-old and an incorrigible puppy.

In the fall, I finished up the last of my massive project of finding our teammates houses and making them somewhat livable. Our friends arrived. Ellie started preschool. I tried to focus my energies on Scott for the hours she was gone each day, knowing this was a very short window of one-on-one time with him.

But I was so, so tired.

My brain didn’t work right. My body wanted much more sleep than it got. I was huge and uncomfortable and blurry and dull.

Instead of the science experiments and long walks I had imagined, I would lie next to Scott while he watched multiple episodes of Little Einsteins. When my conscience couldn’t take any more, we’d turn off the TV and go sit on my bed, which we pretended was Rocket. He would be Leo and I would be Annie. We clapped our hands to make Rocket take off, and when it landed on far off planets, I sent him out to explore while I stayed behind to guard the ship. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

We played Rocket aka Mommy-sits-on-her-bed so often that Scott began to refer to the two of us exclusively as Captain Leo and Captain Annie. Like, even when we weren’t playing. I’d be in the kitchen making dinner and he’d come bounding in.

“What’s for dinner, Captain Annie?”

It was adorable, but I sometimes wondered if it was secretly a badge of shame, a clue to how much television was influencing his life.

But the thing is, just now when I typed that, I smiled so big. It’s been almost eleven years since the two months I spent being Captain Annie, and it’s still one of my favorite memories.

As horrible as I felt that sitting on that bed was all I was able to do with Scott, we had the best time doing it. I never could get him interested in the big construction trucks working across the street, and now that I know him better, I don’t know that the science experiments would have been much better. But when we sat down and imagined ourselves on whole different worlds, he was completely absorbed. So absorbed it never even bothered him that I sent him to do the active parts on his own. As far as he was concerned, we were having real adventures.

A wise man once told me, “All you can do is all you can do, and all you can do is enough.”

I didn’t believe him at the time, but I should have.

Captain Leo didn’t care if his co-captain was fuzzy-brained and half-asleep; he hardly even noticed. In his imagination, Captain Leo and Captain Annie explored the universe together, even when we were going nowhere.

I Think We’re Alone Now

My son, the second of my three children, was born in a lovely hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The decision to have him there was a relatively easy one. We lived nearby and had lived there for four years. We’d gone home to Indiana for the birth of our first child, but because of that experience, this birth would be a scheduled c-section. We would know the exact day weeks in advance and could plan for my mother to visit and help take care of things at home. I had a wonderful doctor, sort of a slightly older George Clooney type whose deep voice was incredibly reassuring, even if he did mention my weight gain a few too many times.

We were ready for a cross-cultural birth. We were excited for our son to be fully Argentine (not to mention how his citizenship would help us end our years-long paperwork process and achieve the coveted status of permanent resident).

Unsurprisingly, the experience was wildly different from our first one.

In many ways it was way better. I would never have chosen this route, but the truth is that scheduled c-sections are a dream. I got up and took a shower. I kissed my daughter and my mother good-bye. We drove calmly to the hospital and checked in. Instead of a long sleepless night of induction, followed by horrible hours of pitocin-induced contractions, followed by an emergency c-section featuring way too much anesthesia, followed by horrible tremors and nausea as a result of said anesthesia, we had a few bad moments while they put in the epidural followed by a quick and painless delivery with no anesthesia side-effects at all. Instead of my daughter’s smashed nose that had to be taped in place, my son had the perfectly smooth, round face of a much older baby. (He was also a whopping nine pounds. Thank you, c-section.)

Physically speaking, it couldn’t have been better.

Emotionally, though, I was off-kilter and unprepared. Here’s a little life tip: If you decide to have a major life experience in a foreign country, it’s probably a good idea to do some research before diving in.

The first clue that this was not going to be what we expected presented itself right after we arrived. Someone had warned me that the hospital wouldn’t provide diapers or blankets or anything for the baby, so we had come prepared for that, but when the nurse asked if I had brought supplies for my own recovery, I had a moment of panic. It had never occurred to me that I would need that. This was a hospital, right? In the US, you arrive with an extra pair of sweatpants in an overnight bag and they take it all from there. Here in Argentina, the nurse sighed as I told her that I did not in fact have all the necessary pads and girdles already purchased. She gave me the look you give to a flighty, thoughtless young thing when you are trying to be patient with her. She told Nate there was a pharmacy across the street and gave him a list of what was needed. I waited around feeling foolish while he went to have an extremely awkward conversation with a pharmacist.

Though the birth itself was great, afterwards, we found ourselves alone with our baby and a whole long afternoon before the brief visiting hours in the evening. When our daughter was born, the hospital was packed with friends and family anxiously waiting for her. She didn’t come until late at night, and I have photos of a crowd of people peeking in the nursery window to get a first glimpse of her. After they all went home for the night, I held my daughter and then the nurses gently suggested that they take her for a while to let me sleep. I gratefully agreed. From then on, any moment that I wasn’t feeding my daughter or sleeping, we had visitors or nurses buzzing around offering help.

Here, most of our people were far away, and those that were close were only allowed in during the evening visiting hours. Other than my parents and daughter and one friend, we didn’t see anyone that first day.

We didn’t see much of the nurses, either. The baby was healthy, alert, and quiet, and they pretty much left us to enjoy him. It felt a bit anticlimactic, but I was still okay until night fell.

It got dark about the same time the anesthesia wore off, and the painkillers they gave me weren’t strong enough. I was in pain. Nate was trying to get comfortable on a reclining chair. The baby started to cry.

After this went on for a while, I asked Nate to call the nurse. I had already asked for more pain medicine and knew I wasn’t going to get it, but I figured if the baby could go to the nursery for a while, I could try to get some rest at least.

He pressed the call button. After a few moments the nurse arrived.

“The baby is a little fussy, and I’m feeling exhausted,” I said, remembering all those nurses anxious to help me rest up from my last birth.

She looked at me sympathetically and waited for more.

“He just doesn’t seem to want to sleep, and I need some rest,” I explained.

“Would you like me to bring you a bottle to give him?” she asked.

I was confused. “No, I already nursed him. He’s just awake and I need to sleep for a bit.”

Now she looked confused. Nate was holding the baby.

“Could you maybe just take him for a little bit?” I asked more directly.

She stared at me. “I’m not allowed to do that unless there’s something medically wrong,” she said.

Nate and I looked at each other. The truth began to dawn. This hospital had no nursery. This baby was not going to leave our room.

After an awkward pause, the nurse said if we didn’t need anything that she had to go. We nodded tiredly. She left.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. No Argentine would ever voluntarily send their baby to be watched by strangers in his first few nights on earth. You keep your kids with you. It’s just how it works.

At the time, though, tired and in pain and already feeling lonely, I experienced a moment of despair. My sweet baby who had been quiet and sleepy all day was clearly now going to be loud and awake all night.

And we were on our own.

Maybe you’ve had this moment. The moment when you look around for someone to rescue you and realize that no one is coming. You’re the adult. You’re the one who has to do the rescuing.

That day, September 25, 2006, was my first time. It wouldn’t be the last.

I’d pretty much spend the next decade having moments like that. The only thing that’s different now is that I know better than to waste time looking around for a miracle.

This is being a grown up. I know I said earlier that research would have helped, and it probably would have, but the truth is that in adult life, and parenting especially, I have never found a way to avoid having my expectations turned on their head. You don’t have to travel to another country to find that you don’t know what you’re doing. Things often don’t go the way you think they will, and they almost never look the way you imagined. Feeling overwhelmed and scrambling to figure out what to do next is part of the deal.

There’s no guide book for this. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

I honestly have no memory of how we survived that first night. When you look for rescue and it doesn’t come, you just do the best you can. When you’ve been cut open and sewn back together, and somehow it’s someone else who is crying, you grit your teeth through the pain and you take care of them.

I can tell you this. My husband was a rock star. He got very good at dozing with a baby balanced on his chest. I can tell you that we went home as absolutely early as the hospital would release us, and that my son, who would eventually be my best sleeper, had his days and nights confused for the first weeks of his life, and that my mother saved my sanity by holding him during the wee hours of the night so I could get a little sleep.

Because in the end, we were not actually alone. We were loved and supported by many people, as we have been in every crisis. There is no one to ride to the rescue any more, but there are often people to have our backs.

And for those dark nights with no help and no rest, there is the reminder that we’ve had other nights like these. That we lived through them. That we’ll live through this one, too.

Fifteen Years Later, I Still Have A Cat

On this day after Christmas, I give you the gift of laughter. Laughter at my long-ago pain. You’re welcome.

It’s 2005, a year of very little rest, but at 4 am in the Dunlevy house tonight, everyone is soundly and thankfully asleep. 

Suddenly there is a loud screaming.  Nate and Deb jerk awake.  The baby?  No, there it is again…it’s a cat yowling.  In our hallway. 

Nate jumps up.  It’s not unheard of for us to leave the window in the office open so our cats can go outside at night.  It’s not unheard of for a stray cat to come in the window and try to steal cat food or dig in the trash.  Nate will just shoo the cat out the window again. 

He tries this.  The cat runs to the office.  It leaps for the window.  It totally misses the opening and crashes into the window.  It tries again.  Crash, into the window.  Desperate, it tries one more time.  Still can’t seem to find the opening.  (Is this a cat or a bird?)  In utter terror, it runs…into our bedroom and under our bed.  How stupid is this cat? 

Deb gets up and goes to the bathroom while Nate attempts to fish the cat out from under the bed with a broom.  He finally concludes it must have run out because he can’t see it anymore.  Deb returns to the bedroom, just in time to encounter and step on the cat as it emerges from under the bed. 

They both yell. The cat runs.  In a vain attempt to escape the two cats who live here and are spitting at him, he runs straight at Ellie’s door (which is fortunately shut) climbs nearly to the ceiling before falling.  Deb quickly closes the bedroom door so the cat can’t return to his hiding place under the bed. 

Thump, thump, thump, slam, thump. 

After two more unsuccessful attempts on the part of the cat to escape out the window, Nate grabs him and throws him out the wide opening. 

Shutting the window, Nate returns to bed, and all attempt to salvage a night’s sleep. 

I have a baby to steal my sleep now. Remind me why we wanted to have cats?

Oh. Yeah.

You Know You’re a Mom When

It had been a long day.

A day with toys all over the floor. A day with a dozen repetitions of the words “Because everyone has to wear pants, that’s why.”

A day when I questioned whether I was even capable of this mom thing.

But even on long days nap time eventually arrives. With torturous slowness, maybe, but it arrives. The older kids would only “rest” in their rooms for “rest time,” but the baby would sleep. I could wash the dishes. Or read a book. Or sit and stare at the wall thinking about the dishes and the book, which is sort of the same.

I gave her some milk and read her a book, thinking how particularly snuggly she was today. I tucked her pink blanket into her arms and laid her in her pack-n-play bed. I turned toward the door.

And then I heard a suspicious cough.

I recognized that cough.

With lightning speed, I turned back and scooped her out of bed. Just in time for her to throw up all over me.

And I didn’t think, “Ew, gross.”

And I didn’t think, “Oh, my poor baby.”

I thought, “Thank God she threw up on me instead of the bed. I can change my clothes in five minutes. It would have taken hours to clean puke out of a pack-n-play.”

So that pretty much put my earlier questions to rest.

Obviously, I was a mom through and through.