Forever Baby

One day your daughter stops growing up. You notice right away. Her fingernails are the same exact length that they were yesterday. You count her eyelashes, you count the freckles on her cheeks, you count her teeth. All the same. She is two years old.

When you were pregnant, other mothers would tell you that the baby stage was the best. You and your child, raw together in a bright, new world. They told you to savor those moments, that you’d miss them once they’d passed. But even after she was born, you couldn’t wait for your baby to grow up. You ached for the day when she’d be old enough to speak. Old enough for you to teach her things. Like how to catch a Woodskip in the secret woods, or how to pan gold from the lakes, or how to make friends with the Krobus in the tunnels beneath the cemetery.

You’d spent your life tilling fields, fending off the encroaching weeds and fallen logs, looking for ways to grow your tomatoes fatter, your grape vines vinier. You’d raised buildings. Incubated eggs in beds of hay. You’d taken your sword and pickaxe into the caves, found the end of every secret passageway. All you knew was a life of ambition and forward movement.

On the day your daughter stops growing up, she spends an hour staring at a beam of light traveling across the floor. You watch her from the kitchen and try to make a mental list of every word she knows. The average two-year-old can speak about seventy words. Does your daughter know more than that? Less? Are there words you don’t know to count? Maybe ones she’s spoken only to herself, alone at night in her bed.

You decide not to worry yet. Maybe this is just a phase she is going through. Maybe all children stop growing up at some point, and then start up again. Like a plant hibernating in the cold.

Summer moves forward. Your daughter dashes through the house like a bird caught in a gale. Every morning you count her freckles, measure the length of her hair. One night, after her bath, you trim one of your daughter’s thumb nails with a pair of scissors. You want to prove that your daughter is still capable of change, or capable of being changed. You trim the nail so short that you accidentally nick the skin. As your daughter wails, you dab at the blood with a tissue. You kiss the top of her head and apologize until she’s lulled to sleep and you can tiptoe to your own bed. The next morning, the first thing you do is go to your daughter to check the cut. But it has healed. Or, more accurately, it has completely disappeared. The trimmed nail is exactly the same length as it had been the morning before. You touch the spot on her skin where you’d made her bleed. She doesn’t flinch at all.

Autumn comes. Your daughter falls asleep in her tiny, four-post bed, like a sea maiden floating out to sea. Spiders flee indoors to build cobwebs in corners. Leaves change colors from the inside out. Your house fills with pumpkins big and small, and your daughter likes to stack the smallest into tall, teetering towers. All day, she wanders around the house in nothing but a diaper, completely unashamed. Unaware of the difference between being naked and being clothed.

Later, raking leaves around the chicken coop, you think of a time when you were fifteen and drunk for the first time at a party. Your ride had left without you, and you had to call your mother to pick you up. Sitting in the front seat of her car, you felt exposed and embarrassed in your tank top, your mother’s eyes on the lacy bra visible through the fabric. You’d bought the bra with your own money at the mall last Saturday, had been hiding it under your bed, afraid of what your mother would think if she found it while putting away the wash.

Halfway home, you puked into the backseat. Ugh, I’m sorry, mom, you said. I’ll clean it up. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. The worst part was your mother’s silence. She didn’t speak until you were home and she was tucking you into bed. She hadn’t tucked you in for years. Your vision spun, and all you could do was look up at her as she placed your arms under the covers and propped your head up with pillows. As she turned off the lights, she paused in the doorway and sighed. “I wish I still had my baby,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

You understood in that moment that you were no longer the daughter your mother wanted, had in fact replaced her. Your mother had wanted a child, but she didn’t want this adult you were becoming. Every day you grew farther away from the fantasy she’d had of you. This thought made you sad for yourself but also sad for your mother.

When you learned you were pregnant, you swore to never mourn the versions of herself your daughter left behind. You wouldn’t mourn the sound of her laughing alone in her crib in the early morning. You wouldn’t mourn her letters to Santa Claus, signed in awkward cursive. When your daughter got her first tattoo, you wouldn’t mourn the skin she covered up. You wouldn’t just love these new versions of your daughter, you’d welcome and like them.

But now you find yourself mourning all of these future versions of your daughter you will never meet. Your mother had wished for a forever-baby, and now her wish is your curse.

Fall becomes winter. Every day for the past six months, your child has woken up as the same child. On the morning of the first snow, you bring handfuls of white snow into the house and your daughter eats it. Stuffs her mouth full, then cries when it melts and dribbles down her chin.

You read in a child development book that children don’t start growing kneecaps until age three. That toddlers are ambidextrous. That two-year olds don’t understand yet that their mind is separate from other people’s.

You understand now that this is how it will always be. This isn’t a phase. You will grow old, and your baby will continue to be your baby. Continue to stack pumpkins like blocks, continue to take handfuls of snow in her fists and expect it to stay snow forever. Just as you can count on the Krobus to always be in the sewers, and the dwarf to always be in the caves, and the wizard to always be in his tower. You hope those other mothers were right. You hope the baby stage will be the best.

You wipe away the melted snow dripping down your daughter’s neck with the end of your sleeve. Then you take her hand. You notice that her fist fits perfectly inside your own, like a nut inside a shell.

“Want to see more snow?” you ask your daughter.

“Snow,” she says. Neither of you are wearing shoes or jackets, but you lead her outside onto the front porch anyway. The warmth of the house still sticks to your skin and your clothes, and it will be a minute before you feel the cold. Your daughter reaches out, waiting for the snow to find her open palm, and you do the same.