My daughter Beatrice beat the developmental milestone charts almost every time. “Newborns smile at six weeks of age,” the baby books said. Beatrice smiled in five. “Picks up small objects at the half-year mark,” noted a pamphlet in the pediatrician’s waiting room. She practically flicked Cheerios in the air and caught them on her tongue at five months old. Beatrice walked well before she turned one.Experts had us expecting words around her first birthday, so my husband and I were surprised when she spoke at nine months. “Boo!” she said during Peek-a-Boo. The next day she said, “Thank you.” Soon thereafter, “Welcome.” Polite too, our girl. Her contemporaries at playgroup just sat and drooled.
And why shouldn’t Beatrice have been so advanced? I was doing everything right: breastfeeding exclusively, talking to her constantly. I carried her everywhere strapped to me in a sling, a crown of thorns balanced carefully on my head.
My husband and I marveled at her exceptional development and obvious intelligence. And I think we marveled a bit at ourselves: good parenting, great DNA. Let’s do this again, we decided.
Here comes Frances. Or, more aptly, there she sits. Our fifteen-month-old. Not walking. Barely standing on her own. Just perched on her haunches, clapping at a pair of strappy Weeboks still tagged and in the box. Frances has one word: “hot!” It means “scalding coffee,” sure, but it also means “touch,” “look,” “hey!” “can I have that?” “duck,” “light,” and “ceiling.”
Friends’ children, younger than Frances, say words and perform physical feats that might as well be sonnets and high-flying acrobatics compared to my girl. A boy in the neighborhood, born four months after her – which in baby time is like Gen Y to Frances’s Gen X – runs circles around her. Literally. What does Frances do? She sits in the middle of the floor, pointing at him, saying, “hot, hot, hot!” She’s a chubby-kneed Paris Hilton.
There’s nothing clinically wrong with Frances. Her pediatrician is not concerned. But according to the charts, she’s below average. My child? Below average?
“Is she walking yet?” one mother at the park asked me the other day while her younger daughter toddled toward the slides shrieking, “Up! Up!”
“She’s thinking about it,” I said defensively, bouncing my big girl on an aching hip. “Hot!” Frances yelled at a passing duck. Then she drooled.
I know the milestone charts are not there to compete against (unless your kid is winning). I know that each child develops in her own time. Realistically, some babies have to be the average, or even below it. But why my daughter?
Like everyone else who grew up watching Oprah, I talk a good game about personal best and individual achievements. As if being good enough is, well, good enough. The truth is: we don’t celebrate the average Joe or Jane. We’re bored by Average. We pity it. We’re in a world of super stars, stunning beauty, unquestionable gift, real genius. Average is bland and difficult to market; it doesn’t pop on a resume. Experts and coaches and teams of handlers are hired to kick Average up a notch, to give Average a makeover, to give it an edge. And we cringe for Below Average, which gets eliminated in the first round or swiftly voted off by its peers. Most of the time, Below Average doesn’t even compete.
So, I wonder: what does this mean for my youngest daughter? What if she tracks the curve for the rest of her life? Will she even get a chance?
Let me be clear: I am not ashamed of Frances. She’s Kewpie doll cute and deliciously rolly-poly. She isn’t, euphemistically speaking, slow. She has a clever sense of humor, albeit subtly and wordlessly expressed. (The way she circles her index finger across the colored pages of Goodnight Moon pretending to search diligently for the mouse, for example.) Plus, she’s my kid! Mine! Of course I’m proud of my big, fat toddler with weak legs, bad balance! Her mum’s-the-word policy just indicates a trustworthiness to come! (Or am I being defensive?)
Still, a confession: I have winced more than once at the . . . how shall I say it? . . . casual pace of her development. Not because of what it may say about her; rather, what it says about me. When my patient, schedule-imposing, by-the-baby-book friend’s daughter sat her fourteen-month-old self down for fake tea and some girl talk while the older Frances flung Touch and Feel Kitten books around the room, I considered the contrast between the two girls an indictment on my parenting, the loose structure of our household, my inability to keep to any kind of feeding/sleeping/park-visiting schedule.
My niece could manage sleepovers away from her mother when she was just a couple of months old. Not my Frances. Even after more than a year, she wakes up in the middle of the night looking for me. Is that normal? Should she be doing overnights? Are my expectations too low? Too high? Do I nurse her too much? Do I hold her too much? Ignore her too much? Pay attention too much? Should I have done something differently when she was an infant? Should I change something now? Should I have spent my pregnancy listening to Mozart or eating line-caught salmon and saut’ed greens instead of watching back-to-back episodes of Law and Order and knocking back a plate of brownies every night? Why, oh why, is my baby such a baby? Is this really her personal best? (Is it mine?)
I could get her some outside help and sign up for so-called enrichment classes, I suppose. Some Mommy and Me Science Walks (I’ll carry her), a season of Kindermusik classes with supplemental Baby Einstein tapes at home. I can crib a pre-K lesson plan from some a do-it-yourself preschool website, or read up on self-direction techniques from the Montessoris. But that sounds like a lot of work. Sure, I would meet other parents who are also in a quiet panic about their children’s intelligence and, therefore, future. We could commiserate and compare notes. But I already regularly run into a mother who “works on colors” with her twenty-month-old and is training her disinterested three-year-old to read. Her fervor is draining, as is the fear that I should be doing that too. And let’s face it: when she starts school, Frances could very well be the worst in the class. Then what would I do?Frances will walk some day. Eventually, she’ll add “cold” to her lexicon.
Another option is to quit wincing, hide my concern, get over myself, and stop worrying. So she’s developmentally average, or even below it. She can make up for it in other ways: kindness, grace, a total and unshakable indifference to what other people think of her.
Maybe my babe will show some pluck and kick other kids’ asses in long division or dodgeball (I just hope it’s not when she’s sixteen and the other kids are six). In any case, I should keep my gaze on her and ignore charts that determine how she sizes up with her age group. I should stop scanning her big sister’s baby book to see how they compare. I am not a judge, or a fellow castaway, or a member of the audience. I am her mother. And what I really want for her – for Beatrice, too – is that she achieve her personal best without regard to her peers or how it plays to a focus group, college admissions staff or even her insecure and impatient mother.
Of course Frances will walk some day, probably soon. Eventually, she’ll add “cold” to her lexicon. But Frances is developing in Frances time into the Frances she will inevitably be.
I’ll just wait.