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A hot wind was blowing in from North Africa the day we arrived at my sister's palacio, a grand but faded town home built by Spanish merchants in the 1700s. In the outer courtyard, water-stained walls shaded a blue-tiled pool, and the kids jumped in fully clothed, happy to be with their cousins again. Stephanie ushered Ethan and me to the space she had secured for us on the second floor. Formerly an architect's office, its entryway had glass floors that looked down into a shared inner courtyard, meaning we'd have all the privacy of zoo animals. But the rooms were charming, with wood beams and a view of the medieval castle across the street.

That night, after putting the kids to bed in a small room that doubled as our only closet, Ethan and I banged elbows as we brushed our teeth in our tiny bathroom—and reality began to sink in. "You realize we have no kitchen, no hot water, and only a half bathroom, right?" Ethan asked. We did a little do-si-do so he could grab the dental floss, and I nodded. It was true: To shower, we had to run to my sister's floor.

After a few days spent bouncing, jet-lagged, from tapas bars to fiestas (my sister wanted to immerse us in the culture), we awoke on our first Saturday—at 4:17 A.M., to be exact—to disco music pumping from a nearby nightclub. "We could get our own place," I whispered to Ethan, as we lay awake, a streetlamp casting shadows. "We had our own place," he replied, and I couldn't tell whether he was irritated or amused.

After our positive experience in L.A., we'd decided to split expenses like food, gas, heat, wine, and toilet paper; Ethan and Stephanie met regularly with piles of receipts. But because Todd was the only one with a steady paycheck—Steph had been a full-time mom since moving to Spain; my writing earned a fraction of my former salary; and Ethan, who had flipped houses in L.A., was now investing our savings—we knew we'd need to cut costs. Manicures and dry cleaning became luxuries of the past. Ethan and Todd, both caffeine hounds, began ordering green coffee beans online and roasting them themselves.

We'd also agreed that every adult would have disciplinary power over every kid, and my sister wasted no time flexing that power. When Griffin hit his 5-year-old brother, Adrian, she ordered him to pull 20 weeds in our dusty car park before I could even react. Stephanie also made my boys, with her girls, responsible for three cats, two hamsters, a lovebird named Blueberry, the dinner dishes, and one daily chore each. One night when Griff didn't clean the dinner table to my sister's standards, she said, "Suz, you need to teach him." Her tone with me was flat but firm, the same one she used to reprimand the kids, and as I silently wiped the table myself, I felt my hands shake with anger and shame.

My heart suddenly ached for my mother, for whom pretty good was usually good enough. I slipped into the dark stairway leading up to our floor and sat staring out at the fairy-tale castle and listening to Spanish voices drift up from the street, choked by a homesickness that bordered on despair. When I heard my sister's footsteps, I wanted to hide, sure that she was coming to further scold me. Instead, she knelt beside my chair. "Are you okay?" she asked. The heaviness inside me eased, and I knew deep down that she was right: I often didn't take the time to teach my boys well. I also knew that Steph's naturally intimidating style had been tempered by 25 years of teaching in inner-city schools, where she found that calm consistency helped kids learn.

Before long, she even taught Adrian to clean a bathroom, and while I cringed when he wielded the toilet brush like a sword, I knew that if it weren't for Stephanie's influence, I might be making his bed into his teenage years. Instead, after dinner, as I played guitar outside under our olive tree while the kids cleaned the kitchen, I felt more like a queen than a servant.

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