On Love and Language
I have always been a word person. An avid reader and enthusiastic writer, equally committed to journals and journalism. I spent four years in Edinburgh, studying for a degree in English Lit; it was all long days in the library followed by evenings of conversation in the local pub. Afterwards – after an internship at a national paper and a summer job at a book festival – I secured a role in communications. It was the life I’d gazed out of windows and daydreamed about for years.
I fell in love with my husband, in part, because he was a poet and he loved words as much as I did. On Friday nights we’d go out to a play or a slam, and on Saturday mornings we would linger in bed with coffee and a crossword. When I had to travel for work, he would write letters on yellow legal paper, and slip them into my suitcase to be found later.
But then came motherhood and the words simply stopped.
I was twenty-six when my son Tom was born, and I chose to take a break from employment to stay at home with him full time. We were lucky to be in the position where that was financially possible, but I’d been so focused on pregnancy and birth that I hadn’t grasped what stay-at-home motherhood would look like on a daily basis.
Instead of spending my time with a group of articulate, interesting people, I was spending it with a single, pre-verbal dependent. Someone who grabbed objects out of my hand instead of asking for them and hurled things across the room instead of politely saying no. When my son screamed, I would hold him in my arms, but, unable to tell if he was hungry or exhausted or over-stimulated, I felt powerless to do anything except cry along with him. I had no idea it would be such a struggle.
My husband would come home, exhausted himself from a full day of work, and I would stumble into his arms weeping, telling him that our happy, fulfilling, word-filled life was over, and would never get better. But of course it did. For me and Tom, as for every mother and child, time moved on and made life easier. Day by day, week by week, Tom got older and I got calmer, and the screams and the tears became less regular. We started to fill the silence with more meaningful sounds.
Tom sat in the hallway, playing with his toy cars. I watched as he used the patterns in the rug as road markings and made soft engine noises under his breath.
Every so often, he chose one car to slam violently into another and made a loud screeching noise, followed by a siren.
I smiled and turned my attention back to the shopping list. Another day, another dinner. Sometimes it felt like the drudge of daily housekeeping would never end.
Suddenly Tom appeared in the kitchen doorway, all curly hair and smiles. He stretched out a hand and patted the door of the freezer.
“Chips please Mama,” he said. “Chips please.”
He patted the freezer again and walked off, confident that his meaning was clear.
Chips – our Scottish word for oven fries – were not what I would usually give Tom for dinner. But this was the first time he had put more than two words together. For several months he had been using language in its most basic form, naming objects that he saw around him. Our walks around the city were accompanied by his constant narration – chair, van, duck – but until now he’d never put three words in a row and asked for something.
More than first smiles or first kisses, more than cuddling or crawling or steps, more than building his first tower or cutting his first tooth, that single sentence– three words, with the promise of many more to follow– made me so happy and proud. Being a mother had not come naturally to me. The love had been there all along, but the instinct and intuition had not been. Without words, I’d found it hard getting to know my son, so this felt like a moment that mattered. Now we could start to discover our shared passions. Now we could start to have fun. That night he had all the chips he could eat.
Over the following months, through Tom’s language development, I gained such insight into who he was. He would recall a line from a book that made him laugh and repeat it over and over. What a naughty dog! When he talked about people in his life he often told me what he associated that person with. Claire bring cupcakes again? When I got dressed up for a night out he told me I looked good. Mama pretty dress.
My son was a delightful boy. He was kind, and funny and smart. He likely had been all along, but it wasn’t until he was able to express himself through words – until he brought the boundless joy of language back into my life – that I was able to fully see it. He made me laugh almost every day, telling me that he didn’t like Niagara Falls because it was ‘too big’, or picking up a shoe horn and asking with a puzzled look on his face why it didn’t go beep beep.
Tom turned seven last month. The frustrating, tear-filled days of early motherhood are so far behind us that sometimes I can barely believe they were real.
He is now as obsessed with language as I am. It is rare to see him without a book tucked under his arm. There are notebooks all over the house with half-finished poems and stories and lists. And we have long conversations about topics that interest him – space, bodies, dinosaurs. I am excited on his behalf about the worlds that are opening up to him through language.
There are still times he gets things endearingly wrong. When he comes out of the swimming pool he tells me that he is, ‘covered in Claudine’ and I am loathe to correct him.
There are also times when he will use a word just because he likes the sound of it. If he throws one into conversation and we suspect he doesn’t know what it means, we’ll challenge him. His latest favourite thing to do is start every sentence with the phrase ‘In the grand scheme of things…’ which is rarely appropriate but always makes me laugh.
Last week we were driving home from school, discussing the meaning of the word ‘fad,’ which he had read in a Ramona Quimby book. We agreed that loom bands – those colourful plastic bracelets that were briefly woven and worn by children in playgrounds everywhere – were a fad that had passed.
“Some things aren’t fads though, are they?” he said. “There are some things that I’ll like forever. Like Lego, and toy cars, and chips.”
Ruth Dawkins is a Scottish writer and mother-of-one who currently lives in Tasmania. As well as writing her personal blog DorkyMum, she has been widely published on parenting and lifestyle sites in the US, UK and Australia, including the Guardian, xoJane, and Mamalode.