My husband and I recently attended a county fair with friends who have a daughter the same age as ours. While their 21-month-old ran around saying impressively complicated things like “Sheep too loud. Go outside,” and “See
alpaca again!” our daughter – who is a few days older – merely said “Poo” over and over again.
This is what she said a few weeks ago when we stopped by the side of the road after picking raspberries to scope out some cows, too.
“Are they big or little?”
“Do you see that baby cow drinking milk from her mama?”
“What does a cow say?”
Apparently my daughter has inherited my sensitive nose and my none-too-subtle aversion to the scent of animal dung. Apparently, too, I’ve been misjudging her verbal prowess.
Here I’d been going around thinking that my child was a little bit advanced because she now calls Eliot, her best stuffed feline friend, Ya-yat instead of the far more babyish Ya-ya. But maybe she’s actually a little slow? Or is it just that we need to get some friends with less genius – and chatty – children?
I know I’m not supposed to compare my kid to other kids, that it will only breed bad feelings all around, but it’s SO HARD. I want to know that my daughter is okay, that she’s on-track, and that we’re not missing some crucial developmental milestone that will leave her scarred for life and unable to hop or form attachments to loved ones or attain gainful employment as a finger-puppeteer, cat feeder, or blankie hoarder. Do you know how many people/internet sources will tell you that if you child never crawls – a la mine – she’ll never be able to read with ease? (Can you imagine how much I adore our pediatrician who considers “myth debunking” and “crusading against fear-mongering” two of her primary tasks?)
I don’t want to fret about what my daughter can’t do yet relative to her peers, any more than I want to secretly gloat when she can do something her peers can’t, like name all her colors or magically intuit when the moon is thirsty and in need of some wa-wa. But the tendency of the human brain – this human brain – to perform a quick little compare-and-contrast when presented with two vaguely alike items is unavoidable. We’re wired to notice similarities and differences. To exclaim “Moon!” every time we see anything remotely crescent-shaped and to be able to identify that Bert is the one with the pointy yellow head and Ernie is the one who is rounder and orange.
For most of my child’s life, we’ve been attending weekly gatherings of a mom-and-baby group, thanks to an awesome program in Seattle that hooks up groups of new parents, gives them a volunteer leader for a few months, and occasionally provides speakers on topics like, “Will my baby’s linguistic development benefit from, or be stunted by, teaching her baby sign language?” and “Is it really true that if I leave socks on my infant all winter, he’ll develop a sensory integration disorder?” I could do without the speakers, but the camaraderie has saved my spirit, especially during those early months of sleep deprivation and tedium and endless swaddling and re-swaddling. It was comforting to ask a room full of moms of babies the same age whether anyone else ever cracked open a bottle of wine at 3 pm, or for Mother’s Day desperately wanted a night at a hotel all alone?
It was so nice, so necessary, to be surrounded by women going through the same thing and to be able to assure each other, Yes, me too. And, If we’re all experiencing it, it has to be normal, right? And, Wine at 3 pm is definitely legit. But even back in those sweet, hazy days, the mere act of laying our babies side-by-side led to comparison – of gear, technique, philosophy, or approach, if not development.
As every parent quickly learns, “How are you liking those cloth diapers?” is code for “You’re such a better person than me as I sit here single-handedly ruining the environment due to my lazy reliance on disposables.” Or it’s code for, “You poor schmuck-even big greenies use disposables. Life is too short for washing out poo by hand.”
Somewhere along the way, the positive support turned into, “Oh, she’s talking already! How : cute.” And “When did he learn to climb stairs : so quickly?” And “Did she just say, ‘May I please have some more?’ Impressive.” We all mean well, but if you listen closely, there’s usually an edge in the asker’s voice.
I attempt to soothe my own ragged, competitive edges with pleasant mantras like, “All children develop at their own pace,” “The differences even out eventually,” and “So long as she’s happy and healthy,” and finally, “Oh my god, Wilson, get over yourself!” But they all ring a bit vacuous. The only way I could truly stop comparing is to stop letting my kid be near other children, which is problematic in its own obvious ways.
My husband is even worse than I am, so I generally keep him in the dark about what the children in my mom’s group are doing and just tell him what the handout from the pediatrician’s office says a child our age should be able to do – the basics.
“She has way more than 75 words!” I enthuse while going over our daughter’s speech level. But neither of us has ever settled for – or been able to tolerate – “average.” I mean, average is fine for other people, it’s just not for either of us.
This approach is motivating for sure: my husband’s and my collective academic r’sum’ is impressive. We have many degrees from many fine institutions, and we’ve both gotten some decent jobs as a result – especially him, academic emergency medicine doctor that he is. (This is me playing the “Creative Writer” card.) Perpetually holding ourselves to the highest, or at least next-higher, standard keeps us from becoming complacent, bored, bogged down in our own mucky mediocrity. As difficult and exhausting as it is to self-motivate, it would be way harder in a vacuum.
It’s a sickness, this competitive thing. I genuinely believe that my kid is awesome and amazing and super smart and attentive and silly and has the capacity to do anything she wants in life (save for being a professional athlete, which does seem pretty unlikely, given her lack of innate physical prowess-e.g. when climbing the stairs she has to be reminded to move her hand forward on the railing before ascending the next step-says her mother as she trips over her computer cord on the way to the bathroom). When it’s just us two hanging out at home, I have no concerns about her intellectual or verbal or animal-naming abilities at all. I know she’s fine. More than fine, even.
But show me a child her age talking in complete sentences, and a terrible, familiar feeling begins to settle in – an itchy, uncomfortable feeling of not measuring up, not being quite right, not being okay or worthy or able.
“Can you say AL-PAC-A?” I ask my sweet little curly-haired girl as I cross over into the realm of the obnoxious stage mother, shellacking my child’s hair with spray and her teeth with Vaseline, chastising her for tossing her baton a moment to late – on the beat, ON the beat, dammit.
With great certainty, my baby shakes her head no, buries her face in my shoulder and says, “Poo.” Then she points to the nearest exit and gets us the hell out of there.