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.

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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.

Made to Do Hard Things

When Ellie (my spunky, fearless, furious oldest child) was four, we moved to a new city in Argentina, along with a couple of other families who were going to work with us. There was a lot going on–I was pregnant and we adopted a puppy–but my first priority after finding everyone a place to live was to figure out where the oldest children were going to go to school.

It was a daunting process.

One of the hardest things about living in another country isn’t the language or the weird customs. It’s that everyone around you knows how the system works, and you don’t have clue. I asked around. I tried some internet research. I drove through the city looking for the schools I had heard about. I discovered it was late to be looking for a school, so my options were limited. I finally found a couple of choices that looked promising.

My daughter was going to be in pre-K, and my friends’ son was going to be in kindergarten. Luckily most places offered both in the same building. We all went to visit the potential new kinder together. It was in the heart of our city, on a bustling street. They buzzed us inside and gave us a tour of the tiny upstairs classrooms. We saw the calendars and colorful posters on the walls, all in Spanish, of course. Our kids trailed after us silently as we chatted with the teachers. My friends, who were new to the country, struggled to ask their questions in limited Spanish. I tried to help translate the answers. It was a pleasant enough experience, but I felt the full weight of what I was doing for the first time.

Even though we’d lived in Argentina Ellie’s whole life and she’d been exposed to Spanish regularly, we spoke English at home. Ellie spoke and understood a handful of Spanish words but mostly, she didn’t understand what people were saying unless I helped her. My daughter, the spunky, talkative four-year-old, was going to go off without me to this strange place where no one spoke her language. They would ask her questions she couldn’t answer. They would tell her what to do and she’d have to figure out what they wanted. She’d be alone in that way you are when there are lots of other people but you can’t quite reach them.

It was only a few days before classes started. We went ahead and registered both kids. I passed the end of summer trying not to think about that one moment in our visit when Ellie’s new teacher asked her what her favorite color was and Ellie just ducked her head and didn’t answer.

The night before Ellie’s first day, she was excited and nervous. I talked cheerfully to her and tried to contain the anxiety that was eating me up inside. I barely slept, thinking of what faced her the next day, imagining how tiring and lonely it would be, worrying that my life choices had put her in a situation that would lead to long-term social insecurities and maybe academic setbacks, too. I tried to remember the truth, that the God who loved her more than I did was always with her and was doing his work in her life, but I kept swinging back to the guilt of asking her to do such a hard thing at such a young age, of sending her to face something that much older people would dread to face.

Day finally came. Heart in hand, my friend and I went together to drop off our children. We drove home fighting back tears.

That afternoon, we went back together to pick them up. We were both so ready to see them, to reassure ourselves that they were okay after a long, undoubtedly confusing day.

Let me just say that I don’t really think the stereotypes about men and women are all true, but that afternoon was like the perfect setup for an out-of-date sitcom.

My friend’s son came out first.

“How was your day?” she asked eagerly.

“Good,” he said.

“Did you like it?”

“Yes,” he said.

Then Ellie emerged.

“How was your…” I began.

“It was so great, Mami. They have this playground out back, and we all went out, and I got to climb these monkey bars, and the other girls showed me where the crayons were, and we colored pictures, and they have a snack and it was cookies! And the teacher let me have three and…”

She continued to talk without pause all the way to where we had parked our car. I opened the back door. She climbed in, still talking. I didn’t want to cut her off, so I held the door open for another minute.

Traffic was whizzing by on the busy street. Finally, I had to say, “Hold on one second,” so I could close the door and open mine and hop inside. “Okay, go.”

She went on, telling me every detail of her day all the way home, like every word she hadn’t been able to speak all day was pouring out her at once.

My friend looked at me with wide eyes. Her quiet son happily looked out the window, memorizing the route to his new school. We shook our heads and drove home holding back our laughter.

We still laugh about that day. It may not be a commentary on gender, but it certainly was a good indication of the personalities of our two kids.

Everyone is wired differently, which is a thing I always knew and appreciated. I like variety. I like that we’re all bringing something different to the table. What I never thought about before I had kids was how the personality that God gives us goes hand in hand with the life he has planned for us.

That day didn’t go anything like my son’s first day of preschool. Or my youngest daughter’s either. It didn’t go like my first day of kindergarten so many years ago. That day, with its challenges and its joys, was for Ellie. And she handled it like herself, like the person God made to have that day.

Recently I was talking to Ellie about her high school class schedules and she said, “I just can’t think of any reason not to do the hardest thing I can possibly do.”

I smiled so big. In that moment, I didn’t feel proud of my good parenting or smug about her good qualities. (I’m all too aware of how little control I had over any of that.) I just remembered that terrifying day eleven years ago, the first one on this journey, and I felt amazed at this person God had made, a person designed to do a certain set of very hard things.

I don’t know yet what all those hard things will be, but experience tells me I’ll get to hear about them all in detail.

That will be my favorite part.

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.

The Christmas Potato

Of all the Christmas traditions we’ve tried to institute over the years (that pickle ornament, for example, which seemed so fun but never quite seems to get hidden in the tree) I wouldn’t have guessed the Christmas potato would be one that stuck.

The Christmas potato doesn’t have its basis in quaint folklore or family history. No, it germinated in the well-manured soil of network television sitcoms. I don’t even know which TV show it was. All I know is that the year Ellie was in third grade, a short promo for some family sitcom came on at least two dozen times a day, and the bit that caught our attention was a surly grandma who stalked into the room on Christmas day, tossed an uncooked spud at her grandchild and said, “Here’s your Christmas potato.” My kids thought it was hilarious.

That year, Ellie had moved into a harder math class, and she was a little behind on her math facts. All fall, she had worked hard to memorize her multiplication tables, and by Christmas, she was fully caught up. We had been planning to reward this extra effort with a special present at Christmas: her first iPad. She knew about the reward. It had helped to motivate her in the long memorization process. But still, Christmas is a little more fun if you pretend to be surprised, you know? So we all pretended. Every day, I told Ellie that she’d be getting a Christmas potato. Her dad said she was getting a Christmas potato. We told her siblings she was getting a Christmas potato. We told other family members she was getting a Christmas potato. They laughed, but we stuck to our story. I’m sure no one thought we were weird.

By Christmas morning, I know Ellie was half afraid that it was true. She thought she was getting an iPad. But, I mean, what if it really was just a potato? Or, you know, socks?

Socks, as it happens, also have a special place in our family Christmas traditions. Specifically, stinky socks. When the kids were little, we were determined to teach them gratitude, starting with the fake but polite kind that you express for gifts even when you hate them and extending through to a true understanding of how absolutely privileged their lives are. (The beauty of fake gratitude is that when you’re truly grateful for your life and the people who love you, your gratitude is never really fake because it never had anything to do with the present itself.)

So each year, in the days leading up to Christmas, we would have variations on the following conversation:

Nate: Now what if we are all opening presents and all you get is a half-burned candle? Are you going to cry?

Kids: No.

Nate: Are you going to throw a fit?

Kids: No.

Nate: What are you going to say?

Kids: Thank you so much!

Nate: And what if your cousins all get huge Lego sets and all you get is a stinky sock? What will you say?

Kids: Thank you so much!

Nate: And when we come home, who will take care of you?

Kids: You will.

The stinky sock conversation gets repeated every single year, and even though it’s no longer really needed, sometimes the kids still initiate it, just for fun. They like to vary their answers. (This is the best stinky sock I’ve ever been given! I’ve always wanted a stinky sock!) We try to steer away from too much sarcasm, but I couldn’t totally vouch for our success.

On the Christmas potato morning, we let the kids open all the other presents first. And then, we handed Ellie the special box that had been waiting at the back. I experienced a brief moment of worry. What if, in spite of the preparation, she was super disappointed? What if Christmas morning nerves made her burst into tears? She was barely containing her excitement as she reached into the box and pulled out…a raw potato.

She did cry. Because she was laughing so hard that she couldn’t stop.

We were all laughing. The younger kids may have even fallen on the floor.

When our delight in the Christmas potato died down, we gave her the real gift, of course. She squealed and clutched it to her chest, but even so, it didn’t garner half the excitement of the potato.

Naturally, the iPad got a lot of use over the next few years, but the thing the kids still talk about is the potato. And whenever they reach an age where they know to expect a certain big present for Christmas, they insist that all they want is a Christmas potato.

It turns out that when you trust that someone will give you good gifts, you’re free to laugh at the weird crap that comes with it. In fact, the weird crap becomes a reminder of your certainty that good gifts are still to come. It becomes a reminder of your confidence in this person who loves you.

And on the rare horrible day when all there is is stinky socks, you say thank you even though you don’t really mean it. Because the way you choose to be doesn’t have to depend on the gifts you’re given. And because you know in the end, your dad will take care of you.

When You’re Frozen

When the kids were little, we spent way too much time at McDonalds.

I have no real justification other than to say that the combination of cheap edible food and giant indoor playsets was too enticing to resist. I know most McDonalds don’t have those play places anymore, but fifteen years ago, they were a staple of our life. They even had them in Argentina. They were warm, they felt like home, and they gave our monkey of a daughter the space she needed to climb, climb, climb, climb.

That girl loved to climb. Even when she could barely walk, she’d scoot up the plastic tubes, bracing her bare feet against the sides to get up and out of reach of anyone taller than five feet. That’s why, when she was three and Scott was one, I didn’t think anything of letting him follow her into a set of hollow plastic blocks that rose twenty feet into the air.

At that point, it just seemed like a thing kids did.

What I didn’t calculate was the unique blend of determination and fear that my son inherited from his father. I didn’t plan for him to push himself to his limit. I didn’t know that when he discovered it, his fear would overtake him in a place out of my reach.

We were finishing up our cheeseburgers when Ellie came to tell us that Scott was stuck. The play place had clear plastic sides, so it wasn’t hard to spot him, four blocks up the climbing tower, perfectly safe but also perfectly frozen.

At first it was a little funny. He wasn’t crying and he wasn’t in any danger. He was just a little guy, laying his chubby cheek against the blue mat and holding perfectly, and I mean perfectly, still.

It seemed like an easy problem to solve. We sent Ellie up to encourage him. We called up to tell him that he was safe, that we were right out here and he could climb down to us. That we wouldn’t let him fall. Ellie tried to show him the way. Scoot back. Dangle one leg down. Find the step with your foot. Climb down.

It wasn’t enough. He didn’t move. We could see in, and he could see out. He could see how high he was. He could not convince his brain that he was not about to die.

We tried comforting him. We tried coaxing him. We tried commanding him. We offered incentives like ice cream and a trip to the dollar store. We tried waiting a bit.

But his fear was just too great.

So, finally, Nate folded himself up and squeezed into that play place. Ellie and I watched from below as he slowly made his way up to where Scott was clinging to the blue plastic step. When he arrived, he started to talk, his voice too low for me to make out the words.

They were there for a long time. So long that Ellie and I ran an errand and then came back for them. When we arrived, we saw Nate helping Scott off of the bottom step.

They had come down together.

I used to think of myself as someone with very little fear. But now I think maybe Scott didn’t get that blend of determination and fear only from his father. Maybe I also push myself to my limits and then find that I want to cover my eyes and pretend that I’m not where I am.

I can’t tell you how many times I have needed someone to calmly reassure me, to talk me through each step so that I can move again.

I can tell you that shouting instructions from a distance doesn’t help. It’s the quiet voice, the person you trust who’s drawn close, that makes a difference in the end.

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.

The Goofball is Otay

It was 90 degrees in La Plata, Argentina, and I was cooking a turkey. I was three months pregnant, and my house had no air conditioning. And I was cooking a turkey.

Because it was Thanksgiving, thankyouverymuch.

My kids, wise beyond their years, were spending most of the morning in their little pool on the patio. When the heat in the kitchen was too much, I joined them, sitting in my plastic patio chair with my feet in the water, feeling thankful for the coolness but also thinking about how this was NOT the way Thanksgiving was supposed to feel.

When it was time to get the pies ready, I went back inside. I pulled a precious can of pumpkin from the place we stored the food we’d brought with us from home. Sweat trickled down my back as I opened it and mixed in the sugar and spices. I leaned over the bowl to catch the smell of my childhood. It was barely discernible through the tang of sunscreen.

My two-year-old son burst in, his t-shirt stretched out over something lumpy and distinctly animal-shaped.

“What’s under my shirt?” he demanded.

Not feeling particularly like playing along, I answered factually. “It looks like your lion.”

He grinned. This wasn’t the game I thought it was. “Nope,” he said. “It’s my belly!” He laughed the laugh of someone who has successfully told a terrible joke. I had to smile. He got his sense of humor from his dad, who can always make me smile with those same awful jokes.

“You’re a goofball,” I said.

Pleased with himself, he trotted off to try the joke on someone else.

I rolled out the pie dough to something resembling a circle and then tried to force it into the pan. In all my years of cooking I’ve never been able to shape a pie crust neatly. My mom used to make them with those perfectly crimped edges. I’ve watched her do it a hundred times, but mine still turn out…rustic. I pulled some extra dough from the bowl to finish off the uneven edges. A piece of hair slipped from my ponytail and clung to my sweaty neck.

Bang. Bang. The sound in the dining room brought me running, flour-covered hands held up in front of me.

My son had a red light-saber which he was using to attack the table.

“No banging on the table!” I yelled over the noise.

He stopped, grinned, and began hitting himself over the head with the plastic toy instead.

I decided to just be thankful that he had technically obeyed my instructions. Then he poked himself in the eye.

He stopped, blinked rapidly for a moment. I braced myself for wails. But he looked up and said, “I otay! I otay, Mommy. The goofball otay!”

I knelt down and laughed as I hugged him close, floury hands and all.

Maybe Thanksgiving isn’t supposed to be 90 degrees. Maybe the smell of sunscreen doesn’t trigger the right kinds of memories. Maybe pies aren’t supposed to have bits of crust stuck on to the edges.

But also maybe there are lots of ways for Thanksgiving to feel.

Maybe this goofball can learn to just be thankful, and it’ll be otay.