Earlier this summer, my husband Andy took his parents and siblings on a tour of Italy. Being five months pregnant, and having been to Italy before, I decided to skip the trip. So while they visited ancient ruins and art museums, ate pasta, drank wine, and hiked the Mediterranean coast, I stayed home and took care of our year-and-a-half old niece, JB.

With no childcare experience under my belt, I was going from zero to Substitute Mom. Luckily I had gotten through the constant nausea and exhaustion of my first trimester. I did my best to prepare, shadowing my sister-in-law before she left, learning how to change diapers, fill bottles, and put JB down for naps and bedtime. I scheduled playdates with my friends who had children close to JB’s age. And I toddler-proofed our house, covering outlets and putting away breakables.

But there’s a big difference between being ready and being ready. I’m not even sure it’s possible to be ready. You just have to dive in and do it.

So I did.

For the first few days, I tried to be “perfect.” I talked to JB constantly, used every little moment as a teaching experience, and tried to limit her time in front of the TV. I also packed our days full of activities that I thought would be fun and stimulating. The park, the grocery store, the library, the mall. JB seemed to enjoy everything, but the nonstop schedule left us both crashing hard at each naptime and at the end of every night.

On our playdates, I watched my friends and saw that their parenting styles were more relaxed. They didn’t follow their kids around to feed them, or worry about every sharp corner or big step, and their kids were still doing great. I wondered if I should ease up with JB, but I was scared to.

There’s a big difference between knowing that everything is (most likely) going to be fine, and actually being responsible for making sure that’s true.

The turning point came when my mom made a last-minute decision to visit for a few days. As soon as she arrived, everything felt more manageable. Having extra hands and eyes really helps when it comes to taking care of a bright, energetic toddler. My mom also encouraged me to pull back, to give both JB and myself more down time. She reminded me that I watched plenty of cartoons growing up and turned out just fine.

Throughout it all, JB was a delight. Brown-skinned and curly-haired, with pensive eyes and a sunny disposition, she charmed everyone we encountered. In public, dozens of people stopped us to say hello and tell me how beautiful JB was. At home, she found joy and wonder in the smallest things — a shiny lamp, a spray bottle, my husband’s guitar, the stairs. In spite of my exhaustion, and occasional frustration, I felt my heart swell with love whenever she pulled me over to play with her, or cuddled with me on the couch, or clung to my neck as I carried her in my arms.

When the ten days were over, and my husband and his family returned from Italy, I was relieved but also sad. I knew that pretty much as soon as they drove away, JB’s memories of our time together would begin to fade. It made me think about my own aunts and uncles, and all the special things they may have done with me or for me that I had no memory of. It made me sad to think of how little I appreciated them while growing up. And it made me glad that starting in college, I’ve gotten to know most of them so much better, developing my own relationships with them that don’t depend on my mom or dad being there too.

Hopefully JB will seek that out with me someday too. But even if she doesn’t, I will always strive to be a loving aunt to her, and I will always treasure our ten days of learning and laughing together.

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