Red lights when you’re running late. Picking the slow check-out lane at the grocery store. Insomnia. Seeing red splatters decorate the wall after the spaghetti sauce somehow flies out of your grasp. Dealing with in-laws that are staying for three weeks. Listening to the new upstairs neighbors stomp back and forth across your ceiling.
As frustrating as those events may be, none of them reach the level of frustration involved with trying to understand a pre-verbal toddler.
Sam’s wailing cry is implausibly both guttural and piercing. It means that he is unhappy or uncomfortable. Or he is hungry or thirsty. Or he wants to play. OK, I admit I really have no idea what it means. Oh wait, I do have some idea; it means that my head is going to start hurting. Not that that helps.
Sam is 16 months old, and doesn’t say one recognizable word. If only I knew what his little crying heart desired, I would most gladly offer it to him, silver platter and all. Our saving grace is that Sam is overall a very content little boy. But when he lets loose with a demanding howl I wish so much that he could tell me what he wanted. As frustrating as this is for me, I can only imagine it is even more so for my Sam.
It’s not as simple as teaching Sam a few signs. See, not only does Sam not speak yet, but he also shows no (or very little) sign of comprehending anything I say. Some kids are late talkers, and that’s usually A-OK, because you can see that they understand everything that is said to them. Babies begin to build their receptive language vocabulary first. After developing their receptive language comprehension, they’ll eventually start speaking. My son, however, never responded to simple directions such as “Give me the ball.” And he wouldn’t turn towards me or Jack when we would ask “Where’s Mommy?” or “Where’s Daddy?” Sam seems to have gotten stuck somewhere on the path to language comprehension.
It has been, at times, so frustrating to decipher his grunts and yells and to feel that sense of emptiness where there should be comprehension. But even worse is the creeping fear that something is wrong.
So I’ve grown more and more anxious about his lack of language. I almost never mention it to anyone. I spoke about it to my sister once. She quickly replied with assurances that Sam was fine, all kids are different, Sam is so smart, don’t worry. I’ve always found that uninformed knee-jerk assurances are utterly useless and insulting to my intelligence. Worse, it’s like a quick dismissal of my feelings and concerns. I haven’t spoken to her about it since. I was anxious and worried, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to.
My husband believed, or wanted to believe, that Sam was understanding everything we were saying. I knew better. Jack argued that Sam would respond with happiness when my husband would propose their various fun activities, like running or swimming. I pointed out that Sam always responded with happiness whenever Jack would speak with a happy tone. That wasn’t clear evidence of comprehension.
Then we had Sam’s 15-month check-up with his pediatrician. He agreed that it sounded like Sam may have a language delay. And no, I didn’t really want to be right, but finally, I felt like my concerns were acknowledged and validated. Our next step is to set up an appointment to have a speech evaluation done.
The creeping fear didn’t have a concrete shape, but the scary A-word was almost certainly driving it. Autism is a huge terrifying monster for most new parents. It definitely was weighing on my mind as I waited to hear “Mama.” I don’t pretend to know a lot about autism. I know that language problems are one aspect, so understandably this was a root source of my anxiety. But as our pediatrician explained to us, social problems are far more indicative of autism than are language delays. My sweet Sam, I am happy to tell you, has great social skills.
Sam is my Snuggle Monster. He is very affectionate with both me and Jack. He makes eye contact and smiles and laughs easily when we’re being silly. He plays peekaboo. He also has his own version of peekaboo that he made up. While in his highchair, he covers his eyes with his hands. I say “Where’s Sammy?” until he peeks out from behind his tiny fingers with a twinkle in his eye. Of course I call out “There’s Sammy!” and he giggles and hides behind his hands again. It’s adorable.
While we were sitting in the doctor’s room, the pediatrician observed Sam giving Jack hugs and kisses, unprompted by us. A good sign, he said. Also, Sam carefully watched the doctor throughout the appointment, which the doctor said was very much expected behavior for his age. He said that an autistic child would more likely be gazing towards the corners and not paying attention to the stranger in the room. That half hour with the pediatrician did a lot to allay my fears.
In the past two weeks since then, I’ve had the joy of seeing some progress. It would look insignificant to the casual observer, but it feels momentous to me. Being careful not to look in the direction of the ball, I said to Sam “Get the BALL! Can you get the BALL? Where’s the BALL? Get the BALL Sam!” Where’s the B-B-B-ALL?” Four out of six times, Sam has turned, crawled straight to the ball, and grabbed it and looked at me with a big smile! You know I was whooping and clapping with joy! Such a seemingly little gesture, but I was overwhelmed with happiness and relief. I call that clear evidence that Sam understood exactly what I said! In the past, when I have asked him to get the ball, he would sit and give me a blank expression. He wouldn’t even glance in the direction of the ball. Now 4 out of 6 times, he made a beeline for his ball. And as for the two times in which he did not move towards the ball… well, he’s one. One-year-olds don’t always listen. They get distracted by other toys. That’s what I’m telling myself.
I still need to call to set up the speech evaluation. Hopefully we can get some advice on how to help Sam build his language skills. Until then, I’m still waiting to hear my sweet boy call me “Mama.” I can’t wait!
I don’t know what a part-time mother is, but I know I’m not it. A part-time mother is not awake for well over an hour at 4 A.M. climbing out of bed every five minutes to restart the dulcet notes of a magical glowing sea horse. A part-time mother does not tediously cook and prepare nutritious and delectable delights for her toddler, only to have the tasty morsels flung to the floor. A part-time mother does not use her last amount of energy for the day in gently rocking her teething toddler to sleep. A part-time mother does not do all of the above with love and patience.
For the first year of Sam’s life, I easily fell under the category of full-time mother. “Full-time mother” is the moniker given to the woman who often works, without that rewarding deposit in the bank account, to care for her children and home from morning’s light to well past sunset. The use of the employment lingo “full-time” lends deserved weight and respect to the hard work of mothering and home-making.
I was happily a full-time mother until this past spring when a job opportunity came my way. The job is a cozy fit for me in many ways. True, the first several months were difficult due to a steep learning curve. But now I feel I can settle into a comfortable groove of steadily doing my job with an Absolute Commitment to Excellence, otherwise known in the company jargon as “ACE.” I love earning a paycheck again, the scheduling flexibility and part-time hours suit me perfectly, and I genuinely enjoy the work. The feel-good bonus is that I may actually be helping people. But there is one thing that niggles at me from time to time.
Why do I need to give up the “full-time mother” label? Have I somehow been demoted to a part-time mother? How would you even define a part-time mother? I can’t help but feel slighted by the parenting community, if such a thing exists, by this perceived demotion. I don’t feel compelled to defend my working outside the home; that’s not what this is about. It’s the right choice for our family, and that’s that. I guess I’m just thinking about labels, how they can change perceptions in society, how they can influence the images we have of ourselves and others, and how they can invite scorn or respect.
I still consider myself very much a full-time mother to Sam, part-time employment notwithstanding. When acquaintances, during the inevitable small talk that I as an introvert have always dreaded, ask what I do, I always start by proudly saying that during the day I am home with my son. I describe my evening job second. I am firstly Me in all my flawed and brilliant glory. But when it comes to my roles and relationships, I hope that as Sam grows older I will continue to always feel my role as his mother before being an employee. I can’t imagine it any other way: life as a full-time mother for perhaps the next twenty years. That is the ride I happily signed on for!
On a side note—I haven’t posted on this blog in several months. The job training was time consuming. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t had blog post ideas swirling around in my crowded brain jostling up against tidbits and fragments like the forgotten location of Sam’s Mets pajamas and the date of this year’s charity auction and I really must make that dentist appointment. Some ideas to write about include the love of step-parents, my hatred of Rosemond, and sex after having children (does such a thing exist?) So be on the lookout for more posts from this Crunchy Munchy (full-time!) Mama!
Tomorrow will be my first Mother’s Day from the mom end of the day. As a new mom I’m wondering what is Mother’s Day for exactly? I’m getting conflicted messages. Is it a day to spend cherishing some quality time with your kids? Or am I justified in kicking my family out of the house, taking a leisurely and uninterrupted shower (nearly unheard of these days!), getting myself a drink and putting my feet up with a good book? If I negotiate for some peaceful and quiet Me time, will I feel guilty?
At times I find myself feeling guilty, sometimes for mediocrity when I know Sam deserves the best, sometimes for bigger failures like yelling in frustration during one especially sleep-deprived night. I’m aware of the myth of the “perfect mother” and the guilt that can result from never measuring up to the mythic ideal. Nevertheless, there can be so many small instances that trigger pings of guilt. But I try to banish mother’s guilt whenever I feel it creeping alongside me. And I try to remember not to sacrifice so much that I’m no longer allowing myself to have a life outside of being Sam’s mother or taking care of myself. The myth of the perfect mother reminds me of the Angel in the House. Virginia Woolf wrote about killing the Angel in the House in order to make room for personal growth in creativity and writing. The Angel in the House refers to the perfect family woman who is endlessly selfless and sacrificing herself. “She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.” (from Professions for Women, 1931). Trying to live up to the ideal of the Angel in the House can be not only guilt-inducing, but stifling in terms of personal growth and leading a full satisfying life.
So what about my Mother’s Day wishes? Shall I be vocal and forthright about my desires for the day? Why, yes, I think I will. Sam is eleven months old. He’s mastered the art of throwing blocks. Playing peekaboo is his specialty. Peeing on me during diaper changes? Yeah, he’s got that down, too. (Just check out the photo and try to imagine that I was once voted best dressed in my college dorm). But, I’m betting that he can’t whip up a special yummy Mother’s Day breakfast. Does that mean that my husband is obligated to cook my blueberry pancakes and bacon? What do you think?
I’ve also asked for some improvements to the back patio. I figured that I was more likely to see results if I made it a Mother’s Day gift wish. I’m not sure that Sam will be able to handle planting the hydrangea and irises I chose, although he is getting quite adept at sneakily moving several feet from where I placed him when my eyes are averted. He can’t crawl yet so I don’t know how he manages this maneuver. Come to think of it though, playing in dirt might be right up his alley. Still, landscaping may be beyond his toddler capabilities just now. What do you think? Should Jack get roped into this Mother’s Day wish as well?
I’m curious about how other mothers are spending their special day. For me, I think I’ll attempt the perfect day for a not-so-perfect mom. Me time + some playing with Sam + Jack smoothing the way = Every day should be so perfect.
A little over a week ago, a monster tornado ravaged nearby counties. Nearly every day this past week I’ve been crying as I read in the paper daily reports of the death and destruction left behind. My sorrow has been for one family in particular. Four children (two sets of brothers who were cousins) huddled in a closet when the tornado came to their home. A tree fell right where they hid for safety. Three of the boys were killed. The fourth one was a six-month-old baby. He died later at the hospital.
The tornado came within 35 miles of me and my family, but I didn’t even know about it until after it was over. I was in a live webcam training session for work, and my husband, who was in the nursery with Sam, had decided not to interrupt me unless reports changed to list our county in danger. I suppose I’m glad I wasn’t aware of it because tornadoes terrify me.
Last month Japan was slammed with an earthquake and tsunami. I watched in terrible awe videos of the awfulness of the tsunami wave swallowing the land, engulfing all with a deathly velocity. I watched in horror the vehicles clearly seen speeding along gray strips of pavement, hoping to reach safety. The annoyances of my day faded away as I was filled with gratitude for the simple blessings of health and safety. That feeling stayed with me for days. I was also filled with sorrow, not only for the many lives lost, but for those devastated souls who must keep living in a new ruined landscape with the fear of radiation. My heart felt heavy as the number of dead climbed higher. But I didn’t cry.
Is it that it was so far away? Is it that the chaos and destruction is so enormous that it is difficult to comprehend? Is it that I haven’t yet heard any personal stories from the survivors sharing their tragedy in their own voices? Is it a self-preservation technique for our psyches—sort of only allowing ourselves to feel so much pain? In other words, not taking on the crushing mutilating weight of all the world’s pain? I know that it is not that I am uncompassionate towards the suffering of others. I know that it is not that I value less the lives of Japanese people in some horrible racist twistedness. Why is it then that I did not cry last month, yet all this past week I’ve been crying over the deaths of four little boys?
Would I have been so affected a year or two ago, before I had my own little boy? I wonder. I keep envisioning myself in the scenario if a tornado comes. I’m on my knees in the bathtub, crouching and curled over. I have Sam in my arms underneath me. I am holding him tightly, trying to shield him. I’m trying to soothe him also, but my tension and tears and primal fear and the cold hardness of the tub thwart my efforts to calm him. I can hear the wind roaring in my head and all around me. I’m shaking with terror that seeps in to my core. There are two stories and an attic above us; does that provide an obstacle between us and the falling trees or does it add to the weight that may crash upon us? I don’t know. That is, if the tornado only throws trees and debris at me, and does not rip my home up wholly from the ground. Sam shrieks in distress; I hold him tightly in my arms underneath me. I would gladly take a tree across my back before I let it crush my baby, but I worry. I strongly suspect my small back is not enough to stop a falling tree in a tornado.
Like I said, tornadoes strike me with terror. We were spared this time, but my heart breaks for the family who lost all four of their little boys, even the tiny baby.