12 april 2007
Choosing My Words
By Patty Selly
My daughter Lucy, at 19 months, currently says fewer than a dozen words clearly.
Although I like to think of myself as a confident, relaxed mother who takes things in stride, I often fall woefully short of that ideal. I’m ashamed to admit I went through a phase recently when I’d try –a little overzealously- to coach Lucy into talking. She’d point, and I’d say something like: “What do you want, honey, can you say, ‘juice?” While reading together, I’d spoil the pleasure by trying to get her to tell me about the pictures: “Come on, say ‘baby’, can you say ‘baby’ ?” I’d prod. Lucy would look at me and say “no”, or just move on to some other activity, which didn’t include me. I’d sit there, shunned, feeling like a jerk.
I like to think I’m immune to the insidious influence of “Popular Parenting Culture,” but I do partake in parenting-related media. I keep parenting magazines tucked under the bed, as if they were pornography. I surf parenting websites and discussion forums, at night, when my husband isn’t home. All of them, it seems, agree that by 18 months “the average child is speaking about 25-30 words clearly.” When I really want to indulge my anxiety, I read further: Delayed language development, I learn, “… can be a sign of something more serious. If your child isn’t speaking at least ten words by the time she is 21 months old, it’s time to see a specialist.”
Stuff like this sends me into a downward spiral: What if she doesn’t talk until she’s 5? What if she’s autistic or has some sort of disorder that is only now beginning to show up? What if something’s wrong with her hearing or her vocal chords?
But what it really comes down to, the bigger question I finally get to, after the hand-wringing and fretting, is, Why can’t I just relax and let her be?
When I shield myself from popular media, and make an effort to ignore the chorus of well-meaning advice, I do relax a little bit. Lucy’s got a better grasp on communication than some adults I know. The truth is, her health is fine, she understands most everything, and most people understand what she’s communicating.
She is fluent in “baby sign language” and knows how to ask for “more,” “blankey,” and “food.” Sometimes I think she just has no real need to talk, she expresses herself so well in other ways. She says “yes” and “no.” She claps her hands when she wants to hear music. Gets a box of crackers out of the drawer when she’s hungry.
Hands me her shoes and jacket when she wants to go outside.
I never wanted to be one of those mothers who kept a mental calendar of milestones, who measured my kid’s development against the “norm.” That I do this disappoints me deeply. I’m ashamed that I’ve worried about it, pushed her, obsessed. I haven’t been the mother I wanted to be, who’d just sit back, smiling, letting things progress at their own pace. Sometimes, I hate myself for this—I’ve let both of us down. I want to be easygoing, relaxed, non-judgmental.
I want my daughter to know that her timeline, as it unfolds, is just fine. I want her to know that she is perfect the way she is. I wish I could let go of my expectations and just let things happen.
But what I also want, desperately, is to allow myself the space to develop at my own pace. I hold so many expectations and ideals of myself as a mother, many of which I only realize when I come up short. I wish I were better at quieting my self-criticism, my internal critic. I wish I could stop judging myself so harshly.
I wish I could take a lesson from Lucy, a lesson in choosing my words carefully.
—Patty Born Selly is a mother to Lucia Rose. She has a second baby due in early August. She is a part-time environmental educator and freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.