The way I opted to cope was to spend every waking hour that we were together with MaryAlice literally attached to my person, thereby freeing up at least one arm — two if I bothered with some kind of babywearing apparatus — to coddle Stuart into submission. (My proprietary technique involved equal parts Kiki’s Delivery Service and Dum Dum Pops). I affectionately thought of MaryAlice as my little piece of luggage. Not like some mildewy nylon gym tote. Maybe … a vintage, bubblegum pink train case. There. Suitably cute?
The take-away lesson from Round One of my experiment in parenting was this, written on Mother’s Day in 2007: “Being a mother to an infant is a little bit like caring for the world’s most exotic, demanding, and time-consuming pet. A pet you feed with your boobs.” I arrived at this conclusion in the otherwise-fruitless wake of my obsession with trying to articulate, in hard-and-fast terms, trying to apply meaning to, the miasma of emotions that overtakes one’s sense of reality when contending with a colicky baby whose interests are limited to emitting raptor-like shrieks and staring at ceiling fans (while his dislikes include kisses and … kisses). “All you have to do is love him,” I remember a nurse telling me shortly after Stuart was born. I mean, I knew there was the implied addendum, “… and feed and clothe and bathe him.” Still, I was incredulous. That’s all? Like, all-all?
Without rehashing the bumps in my road to acceptance of this nurse’s guidance, I can say that, by the time MaryAlice arrived, I was a true believer. And, thusly, MaryAlice was transformed into the living, breathing equivalent of an overnight bag. Her demeanor definitely helped seal the deal. I can’t say whether she was so calm and tolerant and content to observe her surroundings because I treated her like an exceptionally precious appendage, or whether her general agreeableness just cemented my faith in this approach. Whatever the case, it was “no harm, no foul” as far as I was concerned.
Same goes for Stuart and those suckers. He “passed” his first dental exam with flying colors!
(Okay. Maybe I do feel a little guilty about that one).
Except, even as MaryAlice was, by all appearances, blithely thriving, it was hard for me to let go of the equation of, say … highlighting meaningful lines in Wislawa Szymborska poems and poring over pediatric malady-of-the-day web sites … with Caring. With Love. It still is, sometimes.
For example, the other week, the discussion in an online forum for parents of toddlers born around the same time as MaryAlice turned to milestones. Among the accomplishments one of the moms on this forum cited, with regard to her 22-month-old, were possessing a 200-word vocabulary, being able to count to ten, and knowing the alphabet.
MaryAlice … is not there. She doesn’t know the alphabet (this in spite of my mom’s claims that I could recite the alphabet at 15 months. I’m still incredulous). She can count to two. I have no idea about the size of her vocabulary, but I do know that her favorite words are “awesome,” “dude,” “poop,” and, uh, “damnit.”
So, yes. She’s not there.
A part of me worries that the reason she isn’t is that we don’t “do” milestones anymore. Sure, they’ve all happened so far, in spite of our non-effort: some probably slightly behind schedule, some probably slightly ahead of schedule. We just don’t pay much attention or give a lot of credence to the standard timeline. (Whereas, again, if Stuart wasn’t tracking lateral motion at two months on the dot, my fingers were itching to dial the pediatric triage nurse line).
The informal measuring stick I try to use, with regard to milestones, assesses the whys rather than the whats. Look at it this way: being able to name colors isn’t really about being able to name colors — it’s a touchstone to indicate how the brain is processing visual information. If a child is able to demonstrate this ability in other, general ways, why let yourself get bogged down in the specifics? Does being “behind the curve” portend some kind of functional difficulty for the child, or does the child have all the skills they need to exist, happily and safely, within their environment? (And, piggybacking on the latter part of that question: If not, is it the environment that needs changing instead of the child?).
When I apply these criteria, MaryAlice is doing just fine.
The temptation I need to avoid, then, is using my children’s milestones as benchmarks of my own success as a parent. I have some control freak-y tendencies (a fact that has been reinforced in this very post!). I have wished, at times, for a manual that dictated “Practice A” + “Practice B” = “You win at parenting!”
We’re dealing with the virtually limitless variables — “unknown unknowns,” to quote (gulp!) Donald Rumsfeld — that are kind of integral to … well, the beauty of the human experience. Paraphrasing a friend’s observation: “I can make parenting choices that I know to be healthier for her, based on empirical evidence. But there’s no guarantee that it will make her a smarter or more accomplished person.” (And, tangentially, “smarter” and “more accomplished” don’t mean “better,” either).
It’s hard work, this intellectualizing my way out of the fear that I’ve ruined my daughter.
Of course, in the time I spent hatching this argument, I could have been grilling her with vocabulary-building flashcards.
We’ll reach 200 words yet. Damnit.