I never wanted to help raise someone else’s kid. Quite the opposite, really. Although I’ve always been fond of children, and have the most awesome nieces ever, I confess that for most of my adult life, I was perfectly content to enjoy the company of other people’s kids in small doses and a nicely controlled setting. When I ran into my now-husband 15 years after we were high school friends, he was a new dad and pretty excited about it. I thought it was cute, but not necessarily come-hither cute. More like, enjoy that at a safe distance from me, and show me some photos which I’m likely to find sweet but not nearly as appealing as dog pictures.
A few years later, we ran into each other again, commiserated about being single, and then promptly commenced dating. Funny how that works. Although I met Lilia early on, it took a while before she and I had any alone time. The first solo day I spent with her, I discovered that I had absolutely no idea what to do with someone else’s toddler. My nieces and I had done plenty of hanging out when they were Lili’s age, even a good deal by ourselves. But I’d known them from birth, and was familiar with their preferences, so it was pretty straightforward. Trying to entertain someone else’s two-year-old (who was still eyeing me somewhat suspiciously) was a different ballgame.
During our first visit, we mostly sized each other up. It was impossible to deny that she was extremely cute, but she was not in a hurry to warm up to me, so we stayed in safe, neutral territories: the playground and the bakery. We didn’t have any big hiccups, apart from diaper changes, which baffled me and infuriated her. After nearly losing a tooth to her foot during one attempted diapering, I found myself thinking that I should probably just stick to guys with dogs. In the months following, though, I dutifully soldiered on, and she definitely grew on me, but I didn’t really find myself feeling attached to her. Until she met my mother.
Lili was a reserved little kid. Not quite standoffish, but like most toddlers she had her people, and didn’t want to be handled by anyone who wasn’t very familiar to her (and even some who were). Once she’d gotten to know me, she would let me hold her hand to cross the street, but she did not let me pick her up except to put her in her carseat. And if she got a little boo-boo, she ran away from vs towards me for comfort. While it didn’t hurt my feelings, it didn’t help me feel bonded to her, either.
Once Jeff and I were getting more serious, we decided that since he already knew my parents, maybe we should introduce them to Lili. I arranged to meet my mom one day near a doughnut shop in town, and worried for the several nights prior about how it would go. My mother is great with little kids, but I’d only ever seen her with ones she was related to. This was not my kid, which had its own implications and potential issues. And, of course, Lili was not a child who vaulted onto strangers’ laps. How could it possibly end well? Oy.
The day of the big event, I picked up the curly-haired kiddo and told her we were going to meet a special person. Lili walked at eight months and talked very early too, so despite her young age, we were able to have the following conversation:
Karen: We are going to have a doughnut with my mom. Lili: I love dat! Karen: Doughnuts or my mom? Lili: Doe-nuth! Karen: My mom is very nice, you’re going to like her too. Lili: No. Karen: We can wave to her from the car first if you like. Lili: Wha she name?
I didn't get a chance to answer, though, because my mom knocked on the window and I went around to take Lili out of her carseat. I figured I’d walk in with them and then see if Lili would let me leave her to order while she eyeballed my mother. My mom is not very reserved, though, and also highly susceptible to small cute things. So after I unbuckled Lili, she reached around me and scooped her right out of her carseat. I closed my eyes and waited for a blood-curdling scream. One never came. When I opened my eyes, my mom was almost to the door of the doughnut shop, holding Lili who was smiling from ear to ear. I couldn’t believe it.
They went up to the counter together while I sat and watched in disbelief. My mom sat Lil on the counter while they ordered, where she beamed and swung her legs contentedly. Once they’d gotten their doughnuts, they proceeded to the table (where I sat in complete shock) holding hands. In between enthusiastic bites of her doughnut, Lili pointed at my mom and said “Thas Gramma. I like she.”
Until that day, I had never been able to envision what it would be like to have a blended family. It had felt overwhelming and complicated and impossible. When Lili decided that Grandma was her people, though, she became one of ours. I never had to make the big decision, she made it for me.
That was more than six years ago. Since then, Lili has been a central figure in my life. Instead of bridesmaids in our wedding, we had a glorious herd of flowergirls, featuring Lilia. She’s been with us for many firsts, most of them magical and happy. First room of her own, first puppy, first international flight, and first caribbean vacation with my nieces who are now Lili’s cousins. There have been some tough firsts too. Three years ago this week, she broke her arm on a weekend trip and required a surgical repair. So, her first hospital stay was on our watch as well. I’ve had the pleasure of watching her go from an impy little mop of curls to a lovely girl with a huge heart and bright smile.
She is absolutely the best big sister to little T, better than I could ever have hoped for. She is a patient, kind, creative, and tireless playmate for him, despite a 5 year age gap that means her interests are in a different league entirely.
Lili never ceases to impress me. Today I am thankful for her parents, who brought her into this world and let her be part of mine. Most of all, though, I am thankful to Lili, for choosing my family as an extension of her own. Happy 9th Birthday, Lilia. Love, Karen