Driving in the car on the way to work the other morning, Dormouse was drinking a juice box in the back seat. She pushed the straw down inside the box - she does this a lot and I usually have to fish it out for her or open the box and pour the juice into a cup when it gets down too far. I said, "Hold on baby, I'll get it for you when we stop."

A few minutes later came a triumphant yell, "I did it! I got the straw out all by myself and I didn't need any help." More rejoicing was not heard at the last Red Sox World Series win.

"Yay," I encourage. "That's great - you're so capable!"

"Uh, huh... Because I'm a big girl... and big girls always, always do it by themselves."

It's hard to believe how much she's grown up this year. When she turned two, she was still in diapers, just putting sentences together. Still dependent on us for almost everything she needed. Now she's sleeping through the night in "big girl underwear" and pulling a chair up to the counter so she can help cook by cracking eggs and throwing the shells over my head into the sink like she's seen Daddy do so often. Who took my baby and left this little girl in her place?

Today, she is three. I need to stop using the word "toddler" to describe her.

Truth be told, it's been well over a year since she "toddled", but I've felt comfortable in the delusion that as long as I can put her in the toddler classification that I don't have to face the realities of life... where will she go to school? will we still be living in this county-so-crappy-for-education when that happens? will she have more siblings or not? can we face another pregnancy and all the things that could go wrong? is it fair to her? is it fair to her not to? what would we even do if we did have another? She's starting to mimic everything she hears from us and on the radio or TV. Am I being a good example for her? Am I teaching her what she needs to know about God? To love and accept people and treat them right? Do I show her that there's joy in life? Am I teaching her the things that will make her a happy healthy adult? what will she want to be for Halloween next year? how can I keep her from smoking, drinking and having sex until she's well over 30 and married? Who will she date? Will he be nice to her? Will KingofHearts and I have to drive to the woods some moonless night with a shovel and bury his cold, lifeless body after he's dumped her?

Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.

When a child is small, they're a blank slate of unlimited promise. They could be anything, do anything. They could be the next Nobel Prize winner or the next crazy dictator that the Bush administration refuses to talk to. So the scary thing for a parent is: What if I do it wrong? What if I'm not encouraging her in the right way or allowing her the right opportunities and she misses her chance to be the next Mozart, the next Marie Curie, Winston Churchill. And how do I do that without making her crazy or losing her childhood now? How do I do that without becoming crazy myself?

I guess I have no idea.

What I do know is that I sure love her.

I know it sounds cliche, and everyone who knows me and is reading this is already rolling their eyes and making gagging noises, but I wasn't aware that I would be capable of such love. I have a stepson who I adore and another daughter who wasn't able to stick around with us very long... so I get love... and loss. But this is somehow different. I never really got to experience the highs and the lows with those two. Someone else takes care of them most of the time now so I don't deal with the day to day grind. And because of that I've missed out on those little fleeting moments, the excitement at seeing things for the first time, the unsolicited "I sure love you, mom"s. Despite how tedious, painful, scary and difficult it is to be a mother - anyone's mother - I haven't laughed as much or cried as much in my whole life as I have in these three years. I haven't had more fear or more hope. As much joy or as much heartache. Exasperation as satisfaction. It seems that my life is somehow... bigger than it was before she came along. Not happier, definitely not easier, just more full. It's the extremes in my life now that are the most difficult to handle... and that make me realize how really important this work is that we're doing - raising a person.

And I wouldn't trade it for anything.