“Look at my new alien person!” says my youngest kid, almost breathless. “Its name is Bubblegum and it comes from a planet that I named Planet Bubblegum.” Bubblegum of Planet Bubblegum has three eyes (later I catch her adding a couple more) and is part of a sketchbook that we got this immensely talented artist for her sixth birthday. Somehow the youngest Carlson Kid is six! It goes without saying that she’s extraordinary – a ray of sunshine, a bolt of lightning, a diehard fan of Taylor Swift, Madonna and Moana, and so much more – but then she’s always been that way. Since the very beginning, when she kind of willed herself into existence.

The road to being Carlson parents was a long one, mostly. We had been married for over a decade by the time we brought our oldest into the fold, and long story short, it took a lot of work to make it happen. Our middle guy showed up a lot faster than expected, and we had plenty of help along the way, but adoption is still a complex process and you have to put in the effort to make sure everything gets done. This time, we didn’t even know what had happened until it started happening. My wife woke up one day and said that she was feeling kind of off, but not the kind of off that comes from having a full-time job and two young kids, one of whom was just a few months old. She said she hadn’t “felt like this since I was pregnant. But that couldn’t be it.” I suggested, well, why not check with the people who can tell us these things? She went to the doctor while I took the boys to the kids museum. That afternoon I got a text that just read “11 weeks 2 days. And it’s a girl.”

An ultrasound of baby girl, or as we called her then, Baby Pink Bird.

I should have known something was going to happen. About six weeks after his brother was born, our oldest kid suggested that we have a daughter so that the baby could be a big brother too. And a coworker of mine, knowing that said baby boy had showed up about a year before we expected him, said “Careful – knowing you guys just THINKING it could make it happen.” Welp. Our oldest said she would be known as Baby Pink Bird until she was born and got a proper name; one of our friends got her a wool hat that looked like a pink bird, which she was able to wear until she was like three.

The pregnancy was pretty quiet, fortunately, though not without some work of its own. The world is really geared toward families of four; try fitting a third car seat into a standard size car and you will cry all the way back to the dealership to trade in your vehicle for a minivan. You wait a little longer for tables at a restaurant; people who see you loading three kids into a booth are more likely to ask the server to be reseated. And people start making those jokes about how the parents are “outnumbered” and how, as a dad, I sure have my hands full now! Even the oldest kid asked one time, “Mama, why are you always pregnant?” (!!!)

The trick is to turn everything into a team effort, to get the whole family involved. I enlisted my oldest when it was time to put baby girl’s crib together, and even though he was not quite five and I was, um, a lot older, he figured out that I was attaching the pieces upside down and explained how to put them together the right way. When we finally went minivan shopping we plopped baby boy on the chair in front of the sales desk and he led the negotiations.

Two weeks before the December due date, my wife, who had fallen asleep on a chair in our oldest kid’s room, called out to me at four am to say that her water had broken. If there is one thing I wish I could take back in my lifetime, it is my response to this moment.  I said, when my wife told me it was time to get up and go to the hospital to bring our third child into the world:

“I need to take a shower.”

Now I had at least done a lot of the preparations for the new baby ahead of time. I had put together a bag of stuff to take with us to the hospital. I’d made sure there was a plan for the brothers to head to our friends’ house during labor, and I had a plan to keep family, friends and employers in the loop while all of this was happening. I even got her Christmas presents ahead of time; the biggest bro and I had bought her a stuffed animal of Grumpy Cat (we wanted her to have a strong female role model). All I can say is that at 4am I was in my sleepiest, groggiest state and my brain was falling back on my usual morning routine, which almost always starts with a shower. Still, this is an explanation and not an excuse. I cringe when I think of my wife getting two kids out of bed in the middle of the night in between contractions by herself because I was in the shower. I have apologized a lot for this, as you’d expect.

Mama holds newborn baby girl.

When our oldest was born, he came faster than the doctors had expected, so my wife didn’t get to have any pain meds. Her one goal for this pregnancy, aside from having a healthy baby, was to get some relief. The medical team told us that they needed to run one quick test and then they’d be able to give her those meds… except that by the time those test results came back and she was cleared to get the drugs, the labor was too far along. “This isn’t fair,” she moaned, but unlike her clean but clueless husband, she rose to the occasion. Our little girl was born at 6:50 am, and spent the rest of the morning saying “ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” the way someone who’s been standing all day at work says when they finally sink into their favorite chair. It was a fair reaction; she’d had a busy day too, after all.

The 10 month old is smiling next to Mama and newborn baby sister.

I brought her big bros to the hospital that night as well as the next. Baby girl slept most of the time when it was just her and her parents, but when her siblings stopped by she opened her eyes and stayed awake, as if she already knew when the real show had started. Little big bro was tickled to see her, and waved his arms frantically while he sat on the hospital bed with her and mama. Biggest bro was disappointed that she had to stay in the hospital for a few days, because “I want her right now!” He kissed her on the head and told her, “You’re the new member! You’re the key to our family!” He had also promised when his younger brother came along that he would feed the baby graham crackers; when told that babies didn’t have teeth and probably couldn’t chew graham crackers, he vowed “I will mush them up.” And his baby brother absolutely loved it.

We’d had some wild adventures bringing kids into the world, so having a by-the-book pregnancy and birth felt very strange. Where were the teams of doctors checking on the baby each morning? Where was all the adoption paperwork from the lawyer’s office? Sitting around in the hospital room, taking it easy, was a nice change of pace. The hospital discharged baby and mama after a couple days, and I picked up the boys from day care and brought them back to accompany the rest of the group back home. I also picked up two large coffees, which proved very useful.

The kids are all in the back of the minivan for the first ride home as a family of five.

We loaded all three kids into their car seats and before we drove off I was struck by what a strange year it had been. We started the year with one kid and out of almost nowhere we’d ended it with three, each of them showing up in very different ways. So as everyone settled in to drive home, I said, stumbling for the words to describe this marvelous run of fortune: “Look at us. A family of five! Pretty exciting.”

And from the back row of our van, the oldest kid pipes up, with perfect timing: “Just wait til there are six.”