Five years ago today I did this thing with my body that seemed completely impossible. I gave birth. If you’ve given birth, you understand. If you haven’t, trust me when I say it’s bizarre. I’m not saying good or bad, because I know plenty of people who’ve had miraculously joyful or excruciatingly awful birth experiences. But I think most women would agree it’s a sensation unlike any other.

So it is with parenting. I remember when I was pregnant and Randy wondered if he was ready to be a dad. You’re never really ready, but you just do it anyway.

Zoe constantly surprises us. She knows things we can’t fathom how she learned (my sister used to be the same way, and did an amazingly accurate impression of Dr. Ruth when she (my sister) was about five years old). She is alarmingly self-aware. She can be absurdly dramatic and absolutely silly (which shouldn’t be a surprise given that her dad is pretty darn silly). She will soon be teaching her grandparents how to use their computers and the iPad.

Zoe is mostly joyful and sometimes petulant. She argues. She is often a good listener except when she completely ignores us. She can be careful and meticulous except when she makes a giant mess and refuses to clean it up. She usually wants to be the center of attention and–as much as I don’t want to be a helicopter parent–she wants me to follow her around on the playground and watch her tricks. I struggle to find the balance between serving as an enthusiastic audience and encouraging her to be more independent. She almost always asks for permission before doing things, even things she knows she’s not supposed to do, which I really appreciate and don’t really understand. I guess at heart she is a rule follower, which she gets from me for better or for worse. She has lovely manners–usually–although she gets frustrated that other kids ignore her on the playground when she says “excuse me” and politely asks for a turn. She’s doing exactly what she’s supposed to do, but they don’t care. This is also a challenge I’ve long had. According to my mom, she watched with concern when I was about Zoe’s age and I was repeatedly pushed out of the way at the water fountain. Of course I was taught not to push back, but certainly I deserved a drink too. This is something we’re trying to figure out together. And one of the reasons we are glad that Zoe is so excited about martial arts.

Yes, I said martial arts. She’s taken ballet, which was fine but she’s really more of a modern dancer. She’s doing soccer this spring at school and she’ll begin her second session of gymnastics after spring break. But she also just finished a two-week trial at Creative Martial Arts, up the street from our house. She was inspired to try it after attending the tae kwan do birthday party of a friend who, at 7, just earned her brown belt (the level just below black). I wasn’t sure how an actual class would go, but she took to it immediately. Amid a group of five- to seven-year-olds, most of whom were much more experienced than she was, she fell right in line. She caught on to the commands, persevered with her jabs and crosses and front kicks, yelled “AIYAH!” as loud as she could muster. I was slightly surprised and a little awed at how well she did for a beginner, this girl who loves to be a princess and wanted to get a manicure and pedicure for her birthday, and often tells us when she’s tired that she’s feeling “fragile.” But she demonstrated you can be tough and tender at the same time.

Another point of pride, although it seems inevitable coming from two families of devout readers and professional writers and editors, is her reading and writing. Randy and I both have a harder time enforcing bedtime when Zoe is reading to us. On the way to our excursion to Baltimore today, Zoe read me Henry and Mudge: the Sparkle Days, which was not seasonal but nonetheless lovely. On the way home she read me Henry and Mudge: the First Book, the first installment in one of our favorite series. Henry has a cousin Annie who has her own series, which we love to read as well. Today in the art studio at the Port Discovery Children’s Museum, Zoe wrote this description of a picture she drew. It says “A young girl playing with her baby sitter who gets lost in the woods and she can’t find her parents and does not find them.”

Perhaps that raises some strange issues of babysitter abandonment or separation anxiety, but we’ll deal with that later. To be fair, in real life her regular babysitter’s last day is tomorrow, and right before she wrote this she had become separated from me while climbing on this three-story structure (I could see her but she couldn’t see me).

So who knows what five will bring, and whether we are ready. We know that she will have another eye surgery (hopefully the last) in May. She will no doubt expand her already large medical vocabulary. We know kindergarten is fast approaching, although we are trying to hold it at bay as best we can because it brings anxiety for everyone. And we don’t know yet what school she’ll be attending. Meanwhile, we will enjoy every last moment at Zoe’s wonderful preschool and try not to think about how none of her preschool friends are likely to be in kindergarten with her. She will make new friends. She is a social girl. She is brave. She is kind. And we are very proud. Happy birthday Zoe! We love you so much.