There are a few things that most parents obssess about as their babies grow — what and how the baby eats, how and when the baby poops or pees, how and when and where the baby sleeps. Another obssession is language development. New parents can spend hours with other new parents discussing this topic, much to the chagrin of nonparents. The first word milestone is one of the most exciting to witness, mostly because we have spent months loving, cuddling, feeding, changing, reading to and interacting with a drooly, smiling, but, on the whole, mysterious bundle. With that first word everything changes. Suddenly we are face to face with a little person soon to be capable of self-expression in the clearest terms.
Mitzi was an extremely early talker, uttering her first word (sock!) before she was nine months old. She hasn’t stopped talking since. By her first birthday she was crafting complete sentences and using, with ease, vocabulary words like “pedestrian”. We thought it was cute and, since she was our first, we had no idea that it was unusual. She chattered on and on, pausing to breathe briefly when Cooper was born. As he has done in so many areas, he followed her lead, talking fairly early and well. Ray and I still don’t know why these two magpies learned to verbalize the way they did. We just sort of took it for granted it was in the genes. (Although I wonder if my English teacher background and my own nonstop speech contributed to any of it, since I was home alone with them for so many hours when they were babies. I needed someone to talk to!) Mitzi and Cooper only stop talking when they are asleep.
The along came Eloise, and out theory was shattered. Like her siblings she spoke early (the predictable Ma-ma). We were excited but not suprised. We expected the usual blabbering by the time she turned one. We were looking forward to listening to her imitate the strangely adult speech patterns of her siblings. We were eager to hear what she had to say and how she would sound saying it.
But children are unpredictable and unique. I guess we forgot that. After her first Mama, Ellie’s words came slowly, dripping from her lips from month to month like molasses, new syllables emerging from behind her Binky just when we thought she wasn’t going to say anything different. She sure could express herself whenever she wanted, and she certainly knew how to get what she wanted, but the vocabulary just wasn’t there.
I tried not to compare, but as evidenced here, I couldn’t help it. I was a little worried, guilt-ridden because I didn’t read to her as much as I did to the others, because I didn’t get to spend as much time alone with her since I had my hands full with the 2 and 3 year olds, because her smallish vocabulary was clearly a product of mother neglect.
What an ego!
Obviously those things can contribute to a child’s development, but children are who they are, not who you need them to be. I reminded myself that Ellie was not uncommunicative — she knew how to use her hands to express her needs and clearly responded to what was said to her — she just didn’t talk that much. As my mom pointed out, coming on the heels of two talented chatterboxes who spoke for her whenever they could, why should she bother? I eventually relaxed and enjoyed her self-created sign language that intermixed easily with the old and new words she used. I remembered that toddlers can’t often multi-task, especially when learning new skills. While they practice walking, their brains are so focused on putting one foot in front of the other without wiping out, that often their language fails them, not because it’s lost, but because they’re busy with other things. Later, they come back to previous skills and practice these over and over until they eventually can talk and walk at the same time.
These days Ellie says quite a bit. She will repeat our words back to us, of her own volition, on command, and when you wish that she hadn’t overheard what you just said. She also invents new ways of using language. Her favorite show is “Go, Diego, Go!” Naturally, a favorite word is Diego. In our house, “Diego” can mean many things, from identifying the boy on the show to “leave me alone!”. It is currently Ellie’s favorite expletive:
Me: Ellie, get off that table before you break your head!
Me: Ellie, get down now or you are having a time out!
Ellie: DIEGO, Mommy!!!
See, you understand her perfectly too.