At the time of writing, I have a seven-year-old son who doesn’t yet read fluently and a two-year-old son who doesn’t yet walk steadily. In our family, milestones don’t matter.
Upstairs in the bedroom, following a dizzying shower, those words filled the space between the midwife and me. Down below, in the dead of night, my husband cradled our new baby in his arms. Flappy-footed, spindly-legged, wide-eyed and alien-faced, this newly landed creature mesmerized from first sight. Earlier, held captive by his beautiful face, I’d briefly wondered how those legs would ever hold him. Our son—an unexpected delight who arrived just two months after I turned forty-one.
Declining all but a dating scan, I waited to welcome whomever had the tenacity to turn up forty weeks after contraception failure and a miscalculation of ovulation dates had me scurrying to the doctor like a sheepish teenager. Knowing people who struggled to conceive or suffered the misery of miscarriage, I felt blessed that I had fallen so easily. Whoever was coming our way was here to stay, and information from an ultrasound wasn’t going to change that; this unborn child was already family.
Love struck, I calmly drank in the upward turn of his eyes, the stubby hands with the pointed pinkie fingernails—a throwback to ones I had tended as a student nurse. The odds were one in a hundred—99% unlikely to happen—but the presence of an extra chromosome was written all over his body. I held this secret discovery close to my chest.
In the hush of the living room, our daughter looked on as every last fiber of placenta was examined. The cord, instead of rooted deep in the belly of this tree of life, was a loose-limbed branch barely clinging to the extremity; the connection of this knotted cable, this rope of existence, could have been severed at any moment.
He’s special. He’s meant to be here, said the midwife. I didn’t realize that she was letting me know that she, too, knew the truth about my son’s hidden extra.
As I lay on the sofa, fresh flesh snuggling into me, husband and daughter leaning in close, the midwife turned to me and asked, “So, have you looked at him, Angela?”
“And what do you think?”
“He looks a little downsy to me.”
In the bedroom, she said, “It’s okay to grieve for the baby you didn’t have,” but I hadn’t been expecting any particular child. With no imaginary baby forming in my mind for nine months, nothing was lost. There had been no mourning sickness.
“He might take longer to reach his milestones,” she said.
“Then he couldn’t have chosen a better place. We’re a home educating family; milestones don’t matter.”
The pediatrician worries that our son might fall far behind—that he will never bridge the widening gap, a legacy borne of living in a world of diagnosis and dread. We see a different picture, know that the only gap to bridge is a sea change into a world that sees beyond the shape and form of him to the human heart within. Since birth, our son has been growing his own way; an ordinary unfolding guided by the innate intelligence that resides within all life.
Once mole-like, his eyes soon lit up beneath a solitary arched brow as he examined his steepled fingers; upstanding for the morning sermon. He babbled on, speaking fluently in a tongue we could not understand but which seemed to make sense with inflections and pauses in all the right places. Belly down, head up, arching as a bow. Arms outstretched, he looked like a skydiver falling in free flow. Nothing could deter him from moving forward, from discovering his edges and what lies beyond.
The physiotherapist puts a basket of blocks on a low table to entice him to stand on his own two feet. Another block box sits upon a stool. The idea is that my son will hover betwixt and between, freestanding, then walking. We do not do these exercises at home. He has his own way of achieving the same end, does so of his own volition, no gimmicks or enthusiastic encouragement required. When home, he pushes dining table chairs along like a miniature furniture removal man. Straddling stool and piano, he stretches up to tickle the ivories in a gentle, melodic manner simply because he loves experimenting with sound. His body wisdom, preparing him for independent travel, knows that this will lead to stronger legs.
These movements have purpose. In trying to reach some tantalizing object or eye-catching place, an inner impetus propels him. He is growing from the inside out; behavior follows thought. This insightful unfolding must impact his development. In my experience, learning that has come from quenching my thirst is never lost to me. Standing at the helm of his own earth ship, my son knows his power. Rather than reaching some unmoving target, what matters is having the freedom and space to respond to this inner drive. This instead of pushing towards, and forever never measuring up to, a developmental pattern he wasn’t designed for.
We see beyond the shape and form of him to the genius potential within.
Nearing the point of ripe readiness, my seven-year-old is on the verge of reading by making out short words. Surrounded, as he is, by language and storytelling and a love of books, his desire to decipher the mysterious black patterns is a given. With a drive to master his own physicality, it is inevitable that my two-year-old will walk. He is right on target, steered by the same spirit that makes grass grow, flowers bloom, and the earth turn. Though they may need kind words and a gentle hand to hold when the path of life gets a little tricky to navigate, the way is already known to them.
I watch my son, grin planted on his face, arms up, hands fist-balled at his shoulders. He readies himself on his unsteady legs and launches free of the chair’s safety net. He lurches forward, staggering like a drunk and takes a few steps. He catches my eye and claps himself. I can’t help myself. I join his celebration and clap along with glee.
Maybe milestones do matter after all.
Angela Dawson is a thought-less mother, home educator, word weaver, spirit lifter, hope spreader, way shower, spark finder and inveterate instagram snapper who celebrates the ordinary moments in life. Her writing about raising children, natural learning and what it means to be human can be found over at A Spacious Life.
large flocks of spring geese
made themselves at home this year
their goslings grew, learned
flight, the art of fall-leaving,
like our children, college-bound
Catherine Harnett is a poet and fiction writer from Virginia who has published two books and whose work has appeared in a number of places. She writes many coming-of-age stories which illustrate life through the eyes of children as they experience the world. “Her Gorgeous Grief” appears in a volume of Coming-of-Age stories from the Hudson Review.
I am not my mother’s daughter…but I want to be.
When I wrap my fingers around my daughter’s pink hands
And feel my pulse snake through my wrist into her heartbeat. When mine
Is frantic, hers skips and I am tired with the day that’s gotten itself over me
Wielding a missed deadline and a crumpled paper and a memory of my mother’s endless patience.
She swam in an ocean of unfinished picture books because the young me fashioned messes,
And when my daughter wriggles her nose and turns my briefcase upside-down to create a tornado
Of reasons onetwothree why I have ignored her today,
I remember my mother’s job WAS me.
And I paid her terribly, I forced her into slavery overtime, and the benefits
Were reaped by me rather than the other way around.
I am not my mother’s daughter…because I’m not clever enough to let the wrong things
Go down the drain with the rancid food.
And I live in a time where her sacrifices aren’t acknowledged anymore.
They’re relegated to antique stories with curled edges, Betty Crocker aprons, and the tsks
Of the modern age, a shining gleaming inadequacy of doing everything
And doing nothing simultaneously.
I am my mother’s daughter because I can throw the voice she gave me
Like a ventriloquist onto my daughter’s sparkling eyes
And she sees beneath the me who is haggard and unforgiving.
She will one day watch my sacrifices like a sociologist nodding and dissecting the way we live,
And with her own silvery voice will cry
She possessed a mother who was her grandmother’s daughter
And that like all of the women before her brandished the only thing that mattered.
Sarah Clayville’s fiction and poetry have been featured in The Threepenny Review, StoryChord, Literary Orphans, Central PA Magazine and a number of other journals. A teacher, author, and single mother of a toddler and a teen, she often contemplates what she’s doing wrong and not often enough what she’s doing right. Visit Sarah at SarahSaysWrite.com.
When my husband and I were expecting our first child, we bought “The Book.” A 633 page trade paperback, by then in its 3rd revision, of Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care. We quickly nicknamed it “The Bible.” We couldn’t believe things like “spitting in infancy,” “fretful baby” and “green stools” (three categories) were in the index. Whenever we found ourselves looking with concern from baby Justin to one another, one of us would say, “Let’s look it up.”
It wasn’t a book you read from cover to cover, like today’s parenting books. It was more like an encyclopedia, or a garage mechanic’s shopworn engine manual. You quickly found your problem, and Dr. Spock led you through a soft-spoken “Ah yes, that does happens sometimes, let me explain” discussion of why, and what you might try, and how most things resolve themselves anyway if you can’t find a solution at the moment. And good for you for noticing.
Not so today’s parenting books. A quick check on Amazon shows over 34,000 options under parenting, the titles taking a much more specific approach to child-rearing: raising emotionally intelligent, or self-confident, or empathic children. Choose the adjective you want most for your child, and that’s the book for you. The other adjective-driven approach is parent oriented: Conscious parenting, parenting without power struggles, parenting with love and logic. I feel overwhelmed just looking at the titles. Is there one I wouldn’t want to apply?
Not only is it hard to choose but the variety seems like a recipe for parenting angst: Do I want to be a Tiger mom, driving my child toward excellence at any cost? Or am I creating a tiny narcissist, certain he is extraordinary and entitled to be treated that way? Competing titles challenge each other, undermine our confidence, and make us wonder if our children’s problems are our own creation, the bad result of subscribing to the wrong theory.
A decade of self-esteem books that advised universal praise and trophies-for-all has given way to a new approach: Avoid praising the product, and shift to process, praising grit, and determination and hard work instead. But what does that mean? Can I never again say “This picture is beautiful! I love it!” to my granddaughter? I wonder if Mozart’s mother settled for “You really dug into that chord progression, and I’m proud of you.”
Benjamin Spock’s #1 rule for parenting was a simple one. “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you know.” It was a comforting undertone, one that left the reader feeling encouraged, more capable. Learning new facts always left room to engage your own intuition and trust that as well.
That intuition led me to strap Justin to my chest in a soft flannel carrier and talk to him nonstop as I did household chores. He curled contentedly inside the Snugli, tucking his head under my chin and peering out with wise blue eyes that understood everything I said. My mother was unconvinced but I had no doubt.
I wouldn’t dare trust that instinct today. Too many books would make me doubt. Was I stifling his exploratory need? Making him too dependent? Should I be finding him a playgroup, or letting him manipulate the latest educational toy?
Now, after 35 years of clinical psychology practice, I rarely recommend parenting books when someone comes for help with a child. “Let’s figure out who she is first, and why you two are struggling, then maybe we’ll know if a book might help” I’ll say. It’s a psychologist’s version of Dr. Spock’s rule. Listen to your child, listen to your intuition and believe in what works. Learn to read your child’s behavior. It will tell you much more than any book about what is working and what is not. Trust yourself, and each other.
Children come pre-wired. Each year we learn more about how sophisticated that wiring is, how much they perceive and feel, and how genetics and epi-genetics determine who they will become. They are not blank screens, waiting for us to write on. They are more like flower buds filled with receptors, waiting for the world to stimulate the ones that will generate a blossom. And like flowers, each one is different, blooming in its own time, to a feeding and watering schedule unique to them. Too much praise for one is just the right amount for another. Firm discipline feels like safety to one, and stifles another. The conditions for growth have similar outside edges, but come in lots of different versions. The parenting manual we really need is inside our child, waiting for us to stop and listen and look closely enough to trust that it will teach us what we need to know.
Justin was in kindergarten when his little brother was born. I happily took out that frayed Snugli and gathered Matt’s tiny body inside. He squirmed, he fought, he could not get comfortable. He pulled his head out from beneath my chin, and craned his neck, swiveling his tiny face left and right. Finally, I listened.
I turned him around, and arms free, legs kicking, face to the world, he led me forward.
Mary E. Plouffe raised three children in beautiful South Freeport Maine, where she lives, writes and practices clinical psychology. She writes essays, memoir and creative non-fiction, and has been published on NPR, On the Issues Magazine, and Survivor Review among others. She is currently seeking a publisher for a memoir, I Know It In My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child, and a book of essays, Listening Lessons: Reflections on the Grace of Being Heard. Additional information can be obtained at www.maryplouffe.com.