Resisting Transformation

The conversation started at bedtime as Stump, my five-year-old, was climbing into bed.

“I don’t want Smoke to be a teenager,” he told me, “because then he’ll be almost a grown-up.”

This was the first time he had told me this, and I didn’t know what to say. Stump tells me often that he doesn’t want to grow up. He wants to be a child forever. He wants to keep his life. And now, apparently, he was connecting the dots to his brother. If he was going to always be a child, then Smoke would need to always be a child too.

“Well,” I said, testing the waters, “he won’t really be a grown-up until he’s eighteen, and that’s nine whole years away.” This felt insincere, and I sensed that Stump was onto me. Smoke has already been alive in this world for nine whole years and then some. And while that feels like an eternity (who was I before him?), it also feels like barely any time at all. An eyeblink. Just one more eyeblink and he’ll be a man.

Stump sighed, exasperated. He knows his brother’s transformation is inevitable.

“Why don’t you want to be a grown-up?” I asked him.

“I don’t want to go to work,” he groaned.

I listed many jobs for him, but he wasn’t interested in any of them. “Do you want to be a builder?” I asked.

“No, I don’t want to build things.”

“You could design buildings.”

“No, I don’t want to design things.”

“You could sell toys.”

He rolled his eyes like I’d insulted him. “I don’t want to sell things. Ugh.” Mommy was full of bullshit tonight.

“I guess you’ll just have to be rich somehow.”

He perked up at the thought. “Yeah, I’m gonna be rich.”

“Will you take care of me then?”

He nodded.

“Will you buy me food and make me dinner? Because I’ll be an old lady.”

“What?” he asked. He looked startled.

I laughed. “Yeah, honey, I’ll be like a grandma.” I pictured myself with loose skin and gray hair. I pictured myself frail, tucked into bed, like the grandmas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which we had been reading the week before. Stump must have pictured that too.

“No.” Stump cried, and buried himself beneath the covers. I gave him a moment. “Hey,” I said. When I pulled the covers from his face, his eyes were red and tear-lined.

I was so sorry I had said that. I’ll be an old lady. He had started the conversation by telling me he didn’t want his brother to change, and now here I was requiring him to picture me transformed. It occurs to me now that he had never once imagined me changing. In the five years he’s known me I’ve gained wrinkles and pounds, but the process is gradual—invisible to him. I don’t compare to his brother who outgrows two pairs of shoes in a season.

Stump looked up at me. “I never want you to die,” he said.

“I’m not going to die,” I lied. And then I opened our bedtime book. Stump was asleep by page fourteen.

From Richard Scarry’s Naughty Bunny

Later that night, when I went to check on Smoke, my nine-year-old, he had already fallen asleep in his bed, mouth agape, book half-open where he’d dropped it. I brushed the hair from his forehead as I always do and this time it was damp at the hairline. He’d been sweating in his sleep. He squirmed a little, farted twice, and settled. I felt like maybe I had a teenager already.


The bathroom, for me, has lately become a place where I reckon with my aging, a place where I squeeze and examine the new stubborn pounds I’ve put on over the last three years, a place where I assess the bags under my eyes and the lines around my mouth, a place where I apply various lotions and pray for the best. This week, alone in the bathroom while my children sleep soundly, I keep thinking of what Stump said to me–I never want you to die–and for brief moments I see aging through his eyes. Somehow, when I’ve thought about my own aging, I’ve forgotten the most important thing: Death. Instead, I’ve seen aging as a cruel test to my vanity. I constantly wonder why, as I get older and more sure of who I am I have to be distracted by these details of my appearance that I’ve pretended not to care about.

But to Stump, the thought of me growing older doesn’t fill him with contempt. His fear is kinder than mine, grounded not in vanity, but in love.  When I picture myself aging through Stump’s eyes, there is sweetness there. In Stump’s eyes, me getting older means this: I head towards the light, and then I disappear.

When I locate death as the end point of my aging, everything changes. I think of my family and not my appearance. I think not about fighting my body, but about wanting to hold close to the things I most love.

Conversation of the Week: Life with Stump

Smoke and Stump many moons ago
Smoke and Stump many moons ago

When things change gradually, sometimes it’s hard to notice the shift.

Stump was terrified of the bath for about three weeks. He had pooped in the bath a handful of times over the past few months, and each time I’d simply pull him from the bath, scoop out the poop with my bare hands, drain, rinse, and start over. Okay, it might have been a bit more frantic than that, and I’m pretty sure that Stump and I cried “poop!” back and forth throughout the whole ordeal, but Stump had never seem truly rattled about any of it. Apparently, though, there was something about the most recent incident that set him off, because for days whenever I put him in the bath he cried “poop!” and immediately tried to scramble out. For weeks, bathing him was like bathing a cat. I’d try to lower him in the tub, and he’d splay his legs and push against the sides with all his strength. I could not get him in. I resorted to sponge baths. He was winning.

Last week I stumbled on my answer, which is so obvious it hurts: bubbles. He was willing to take a bubble bath, and by the time the bubbles popped he had grown reaccustomed to the water. He slid his body back and forth like a little baby swimmer.

And thus, I reinstated the evening ritual of shared baths: Stump and Smoke together again. And because it had been nearly a month since they bathed together, a shift in their relationship was clear.

Ever since Stump could sit up on his own, he’s been sharing a bath with his brother, and the problem has consistently been that they have too much fun. They get too loud, water goes everywhere, they make a game of harassing each other. About a year ago, Smoke made a habit of  filling a funnel with bathwater, plugging it with his finger and crying “Drink, my baby friend!” Stump happily ignored my protests and drank bathwater from the funnel every time.

But this most recent bath time was strangely…silent. Each brother quietly played with his own plastic cup. And as I noticed this, it occurred to me that over the last few months, Smoke has seemed less and less interested in his brother. So I asked him about it.

Me: It seems like you used to play with Stump a lot more than you do now.

Smoke: Yeah. That was before he started to annoy me.

Me: Oh, ok. But you still love him, right? (I know! I shouldn’t ask that! I can’t help myself sometimes!)

Smoke: Yeah. And I still think that he’s the cutest baby in the world, and the funniest.

Me: Do you think you’ll want to play with him again someday?

Smoke: I’ll play with him when he knows what he’s doing.

Given that this evening Stump beat him with a bottle brush until he was legitimately sobbing, I’d say Smoke’s assessment is fair.

What’s in this picture?


This is a recent illustration by Smoke. It might be my favorite picture he’s ever drawn. I’m guessing you might need a little help understanding the story, so here goes. The drawing takes place at Smoke’s best friend’s house, where there is a particularly steep flight of stairs. This staircase is an endless source of fun and fascination. Currently, Smoke and his best friend like to build forts at the landing. They’ve also been known to slide down these stairs on a sleeping bag. This picture features, from left to right, me, Smoke, and Smoke’s best friend shouting “No!”

Me, Smoke, and Smoke's best friend saying "No!"
Me, Smoke, and Smoke’s best friend saying “No!”

Who are we saying “No” to? Of course it’s Stump.

Stump saying "BYE!"
Stump saying “BYE!”

Stump is climbing the stairs because this is the first thing he does every time he enters this house. In fact, before we even the enter the house, he lights up in anticipation of these stairs. What I love most about this picture is that it so perfectly captures our dynamic. Look at all of us with our No’s, how ridiculous we are, how utterly powerless in the face of Stump’s determination. And then there is Stump, cheerfully oblivious, getting ready to surpass us all. His left hand, sword-like, points to the top of what I know is a staircase, but might also be seen as a mountain. Is he leaving us or leading us? Either way, the three of us stand with our arms in a gesture of helplessness, a trio of suckers.

Snapshot of the Week: Life with a Bobcat

This is a video of Stump who, at fifteen months, has figured out that if you swipe at the iPad enough, something will happen. I’m not sure how he managed to play this song by Phoenix, but apparently he likes it.

There’s something about Stump that I’ve been meaning to tell you. When I was pregnant, I thought he’d be one of those babies who might sit in a corner and play with a toy tractor for half an hour. I thought he might be uncomplicated, simple even, slow. He would live in the shadow of his older brother who is thin as a rail and smart as a whip, but we’d love him for being the easy one in a family full of strong personalities.

Do you hear that? It’s the gods. They are still laughing.

When Stump was about eight months old, as he was just beginning to acquire mobility, I asked my partner to dress him one morning. I had just finished changing his diaper and I was sick of wrestling him, trying to get him to hold still as he arched his back and bucked. Kellie had been out of town for a few weeks, and she wasn’t ready for these new tactics. “Oh my god,” she called out. “It’s like dressing a bobcat!”

Now that Stump is fifteen months, it’s like living with a bobcat. He is 100% wild. He throws his food. He poops in the bath. When he’s tired, or when he doesn’t want you to leave, he’ll scratch at your face. If you put him down when he wants to be held, he’ll channel all his feline strength and arch his back, daring you to drop him on the floor.

This morning he was standing on the kitchen chair doing squats and shouting maniacally. I said to Smoke, who was quietly finishing his Lego project “Are you watching this?” Smoke nodded. “He won’t do that when he’s older,” he reassured me. I hadn’t been seeking reassurance, but I appreciated it all the same.

Though Stump is wild, I don’t mean to suggest that he’s only a brute. I’ve never met another baby who so fully understands what it means to hug. “Hug your bunny,” I tell him in the morning, and he holds it to his chest and rocks it back and forth. Pick this bobcat up, and he wraps his arms around you, leans his head against your shoulder, taking you in.

But my point is this: he’s not the easy one. In a family of characters, he competes. At the end of the day, I often look back and wonder how I made it to bedtime. He climbed on the table at least two dozen times; there is food on the floor; my neck is scratched. But he is cute, and also he dances.

Meow! Image Credit:
Image Credit:



To my Second Son on his First Birthday


Dear Andre,

You don’t know this, but today is your birthday. That’s the reason we’ve been gazing at you with wonder all week, saying things like “I can’t believe it.” It’s true. We can’t believe it—not just that you’re one, but that you’re here at all, and next year you’ll be walking and talking, and before we know it you’ll be leaving your stinky socks on the bathroom floor and hogging the computer. I have trouble picturing this future you. All I see are long legs and big feet. Still, here are some things I’d like you to know about this year.

1. First of all, good job coming out. You came fast a week before your due date, before I even had the chance to moan about how huge I was. You were smaller than I thought you’d be (thank you!), sweet and sticky with vernix. The first thing you did was latch on to the breast like you’d  already been nursing for months. The midwife joked that you came out to eat, and it was true—you ate and ate and ate. We brought you home and all night you slept on my chest and ate some more. I left the light on so I could see you. You were so tiny that I couldn’t sleep. I had to stay awake to make sure you were real.


2. Did you know that your brother has always loved you? While you were born, he napped at our neighbor Kathy’s house, exhausted from waiting so long for your arrival. When he woke up, Kathy asked him if he wanted to go meet his new brother, and she told me that his face lit up like it was Christmas morning. Every morning since you’ve been born he says your name over and over in a crazy low voice, trying to make you laugh. It’s true that every day he comes close to knocking you over and in the bath he just can’t resist the temptation to pour water on your head and poke your butt, but he’s never once asked us to give you away. Image3. You spent your first summer in Colorado. Because of this, some things may be strangely familiar to you: thunderstorms and epic downpours, big changing skies, herds of elk, long slow walks. If later in your life wilderness feels familiar to you, more comforting than our sometimes busy, sometimes sleepy town, that’s why.  Perhaps it’s not kind of me, but I want you to long for wilderness, to be not quite happy in the city. Your other mom and I are both that way and I suppose we need our sons to feel a similar angst.Image4. Because you are the second child, you will never be the only one. Sometimes I grieve about this; I won’t come to know you in the same, undivided way I came to know your brother. Two days ago I spent the whole day with you alone. We read a book together, and you loved the picture of the lion, you loved it when I roared, and you roared too. That was new—your ability to see something, understand it, and apply it all within a minute, and I wondered if it was truly as sudden as it seemed. Maybe you’d been capable of this for weeks but I hadn’t noticed. How much have I been missing in this shuffle to get to work, to feed you, to put you to bed, to do all of those things with your brother as well?

5. From the time you were born, people have marveled at your super baby strength. You have a preternatural combination of will and muscle. For instance: One day I left you in your high chair with a snack, and then heard you wailing moments later. I ran in, assuming you had climbed out and tumbled to the floor. But you hadn’t. You had climbed to the kitchen counter, dropped your body down, and instead of falling hung on for dear life, dangling and crying but gripping the counter with only your bare hands. I have no idea how such tenacity will evolve as you grow older, but trust me: I’m certain this story is no accident. When you are a grown man, this will all make sense.

If you ever return to this letter, if you ever do read these words, know that all three of us—your two moms and one brother—have always adored you, even when we are pouring water on your head, or asking why you just won’t go to sleep, just as no doubt we will someday be shaking our heads wondering why you just can’t get your stinky socks inside the hamper.