The elephant was cuter than most of the toys I’ve made for my son on the 3D printer. Designed by a puppeteer, it had a segmented trunk that seemed about to wave and moving legs that allowed it to lie flat on its belly. It would cost $1.50 to print, and it just so happened that my husband had purchased a spool of gray plastic that was perfect for an elephant.

So I threaded the plastic into the extruder and watched as, over a 12-hour period, it melted and dripped onto the print bed to form the elephant: first the legs, then the trunk and body, then the head and ears. After breaking the support material around the joints so the legs could move, I presented the elephant to my 3-year-old son. He grasped it in his hands and trumpeted.

My husband bought the 3D printer when I was pregnant. At first I didn’t grasp its potential. The world is full of plastic crap, I thought. Did we need to make it at home, too? Then my husband fixed our dishwasher by printing out a part that had broken in the machine, and I began to see the potential of 3D printing – especially for a parent.

When our son’s proprietary train set didn’t come with the one piece that let it connect in a circle, instead of buying another $44 set, we printed the missing piece. When we needed a drink holder for our stroller, we simply made one and snapped it onto the handle. When our son seemed interested in the ukulele, we printed one out, bought tuners and strings, and ended up with a cheap, toddler-safe instrument.

Then there are the toys. To date, we’ve printed our son cars, trucks, blocks, shovels, bath toys, scores of animals, cookie cutters, glow-in-the-dark stars, a bust of Lincoln, anatomical skeletons, a barrel of monkeys, and even a pair of shoes. We keep them in a tub that he likes to drag around the house, dump out on the floor, and categorize according to type, color, and size.

The day I made my son the elephant, he walked up with it and another, smaller elephant that came with his Duplo set. He held up the printed toy and said, “This is Daddy.” Then he held up the smaller one and said, “This is a baby, like me.”

“Oh yeah?” I said.

“Yeah. But where’s the mama?” he said, pushing his palms into the air.

I hesitated. My son had already received a toy that day, and in general, I try to space out how often I print things for him. I don’t want him to get the message that he can have presents whenever he wants.

On the other hand, 3D printing does foster creativity. I love that my son believes that if he can imagine something, whether it’s a mama elephant or a rainbow robot or a toy cow, we (and someday he) can make it.

Besides, I liked the innocent assertion that without the mama—without me—the family couldn’t exist.

“You’re right,” I told my son. “You need a mama elephant.”

So I began to print out a second elephant. At first, it seemed to print as easily as the other one. The machine made the legs, moved onto the body, and then…stopped. On closer inspection, I discovered that the extruder had clogged, and the plastic was blocked from coming out. When that happens, there’s nothing to do but start over.

So I did. This print failed, too. This time the elephant’s feet disconnected from the bed. Unanchored, the nozzle squirted out a long string of plastic, leaving behind a pile of gray spaghetti.

I don’t know what it was about that second elephant, but print after print failed. This was especially frustrating because each attempt could go on for hours before it stopped. I would have given up, but now my son was attached to the idea, wandering around the house repeating, “There’s a daddy and a baby, but where’s the mama? There has to be a mama.”

So we pressed on. The garbage can filled with mangled bits of elephant: legs, broken trunks, a body sliced neatly in half. Finally, a perfectly formed elephant was standing on the bed. We removed it and broke the material on the joints to free the legs.

This is a delicate operation that requires jiggling the leg so that the thin plastic around the joint breaks and the leg can move. The first three legs worked fine, but the last one snapped completely off the body.

At this point, I may have stomped my foot and thrown the broken leg out the window. It’s hard to remember. My husband, a calmer type, assessed the problem, tinkered with the printer, and set it to try one more time. 

At last, the elephant printed successfully. The resulting toy had taken almost an entire roll of plastic, which means that instead of costing $1.50, it cost around $20. I felt silly when I considered this, but it was worth it when we gave the elephant to our son. He hugged it, wrapping it in his arms and squeezing.

I’m always surprised by how much my son loves the toys I make him. He doesn’t care that the prints can look primitive or that they don’t flash or beep like toys from the store. He treasures the 3D prints above all other toys because they come from me, and because he can watch me make them.

In that respect, 3D printing is not unlike traditional toy making, the parent carving wood or sewing fabric. It doesn’t take the same skill-set, of course, but it’s still making toys in your home from raw material. It’s a strange mix of the old-fashioned and the cutting edge.

My son has internalized this in the sense that, while he loves the toys I make him, he also views them as replaceable. In his bedroom, he organized all his 3D-printed animals in tiny versions of our family: cats, frogs, sheep, and dogs grouped as moms, dads, and toddlers. Together we went around the rug and admired each family.

When we got to the elephants, I noticed something was wrong.

“Oh no,” I said. “The daddy is broken.”

I picked the first elephant up. While we’d been busy printing the mama elephant, the daddy’s trunk had snapped off its face. What had been a cheerfully lifted appendage was now a sad stump. I turned the elephant over in my hand, wondering if I could find the missing piece and glue it back on.

My son patted my shoulder comfortingly.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” he said. “We can always print another one.”