little voices
29 November 1999
On Wednesday we drove to New Jersey to see my college roommate Cathy and her husband Larry and the kids. Hannah and Isaiah are four days younger than Damian. Compare and contrast time.

We arrived at the house to find the sitter quietly padding around, the kids asleep upstairs and Cathy off to buy scones. Damian settled into the playroom and all those toys! Double the pleasure, double the fun with twins and their toys.

Isaiah and Hannah woke from their nap, came down to the playroom in matching blue denim overalls over matching butter yellow shirts. Stood stock still in the doorway as they saw this strange kid playing with their toys. Isaiah -- his reddish hair still tousled from sleep and his narrow face taut with concern -- darted forward, grabbed a toy xylophone, retreated to a safe distance. Hannah -- rounder face, large liquid eyes and a riot of dark curls -- stood a long time watching and evaluating. Finally she came over and handed Damian the toy Isaiah had taken. An offering of tentative friendship. She’s already got a generous soul.

Cathy arrived home and we settled into the visit. She gave me candy fruit slices, a ritual dating back to the spring of freshman year. We wandered the Square one afternoon -- I remember a bright cloudless sky and a chill breeze -- and talked about rooming together the following year. Cementing the decision with an impulse purchase: delicious, sticky candy fruit slices. So the gift of sweets symbolizes our decision to take a gamble on our friendship. A friendship that’s lasted. Unlike the candy, which I scarfed in the car on the way back to Dan’s parents’.

It’s been extraordinary to watch Cathy’s transformation to parent of twins. Double vision again: college memories of meltdowns and gigglefests, of late nights searching our souls and our emotional scars. And now? I watch her hug her kids and enforce simple rules ("no eating in the playroom, you have to step out here to the hall.") and think about the steps that have brought us here. We’re parents now, responsible for these brand new humans who will in turn go to school and form the kind of intense bonds you only find at that age, that stage of life.

Hannah and Isaiah -- but especially Hannah -- have a much larger vocabulary than Damian. She says "apple juice" and "all done" and "up" and "out" and when you sing "The baby on the bus goes" responds "waa waa waa" on cue. (Well, sometimes, anyway. She’s a kid, not a robot.) I was impressed. Also envious. Also concerned for Damian. Because he’s not up to that level.

This is a complicated issue, I’m not sure I can do it justice. First, I don’t think Damian’s overall development is slower than the norm. He’s inquisitive, inventive, resourceful. He responds to everything we say. Yesterday he was trying to close the front door but couldn’t -- there was a stuffed zebra in the way. Dan said if Damian moved the zebra, he’d be able to close the door. So Damian looked down to see what his daddy was talking about. "I’ll be damned. Daddy’s right." He knelt to move it. (Then got distracted by a nearby toy car -- he has the attention span of a toddler, after all.) He can scoop food onto a spoon to feed himself (err, when he feels like it). He mimics us just like an eighteen month old should -- when he sees us putting our shoes on, he fetches his and waves them in the general vicinity of his feet. But in the verbal arena, he’s behind the curve.

You can say it’s a boy thing. Girls develop faster, talk earlier. And to some extent that’s got to be true. Isaiah, while he had more words than Damian, certainly wasn’t Hannah’s verbal equal. But Damian spoke early, with a burst of "ami" (mommy), "gat" (cat) and "nana" (nurse). And then hasn’t progressed as much as you’d expect. As much as other early bird MayKids.

I feel like I’ve let him down. I haven’t stimulated him enough, haven’t worked with him enough. Sure, I play with him. So does Dan. But chasing Damian around the house and turning him upside down don’t really qualify as educational. Not like Cathy counting off the steps as she climbs upstairs with her kids.

Part of it, I think, is television. TV and videos. I have this instinctive gag reflex at the sight of Barney and Teletubbies and Bear in the Blue House. I don’t know why. Okay, yeah, the purple dinosaur gives most grownups hives. But I think it’s more about TV itself for me. About not wanting to make it a babysitter, not wanting to feed my child predigested fluff with the actors putting on bright voices and bouncing around like pseudo kiddums.

The irony is immense, of course, seeing as how I made my living in TV for years and Dan still does. But there’s something about kids’ shows that makes my skin shiver and itch. It’s me, I know it is. If the little ones like it -- and they do -- there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Especially in small doses. And Sesame Street is savvy, lively fun. Then why do I balk?

I think because of what TV meant when I was growing up. It was always a guilty pleasure, like cake with sticky-sweet pink frosting. Gooey fun, but too much will make you sick to your stomach. We only had television in cycles. A TV would arrive on our doorstep and get installed in the darkest, most secret room in the house -- the rarely used dining room, the tiny library -- whatever was most hidden. Then we’d start a short burst of TV watching, fascinated by this foreign object with its silly sitcoms about super-cheery castaways and recycled dopey Elvis Presley movies.

But before long, my mom would get hooked on daytime soaps. I mean glued to the TV hooked, not getting dressed until 2 p.m. hooked, "work? what’s that?" hooked. The only way to wean herself was to go cold turkey: give the TV to some unsuspecting victim -- I mean friend. And we’d live in a TV-free zone once more. Until someone would take pity on us: "you mean you have no television???" and give us their old black and white, which was always "just taking up room in the closet anyway." And the cycle would begin anew.

As a result, I’ve always had a slightly supercilious attitude about TV -- I hate when it’s on in the background at someone’s house, I hate when it becomes constant (and constantly moving) wallpaper. I hate when someone watches a show, then passively watches the one after just because it’s, well, on after. I love some TV shows, and I think the good gets smeared with the taint of the bad, but people, please. Be selective about what you watch. Or read a book if nothing’s on.

So I guess it’s natural that I’d be antsy and skin-crawly about my son watching the boob tube. Kids are just so susceptible. They drink it all in with the same wide eyes and wide open mind. No sarcastic inner voice putting a filter between them and the screen. And I don’t want to start him on bad habits. I’m sure you’ve all seen the stats about how much TV grade school kids watch. It’s a wonder they have time to sleep.

But maybe in my assiduous avoidance of the electronic addiction I’ve denied Damian a learning tool, a satisfying snack for his active mind. While we were at Cathy’s, she played a video for the kids -- Baby Songs? -- lots of little kids and babies grinning at the camera and playing simple games like turning around in circles. I didn’t think Damian was paying much attention. I was wrong. Yesterday he started turning around in a circle, doing the full 360°. I laughed, said "around" and he did it again! And again when I said "around" to show Dan. Four whole days later he was trying out something he saw for less than a minute on the video. Who’d’a thunk?

So now we’re considering tuning into Sesame Street more than once a month, maybe even buying that Baby Songs video. I don’t think I can quite bring myself to watch Teletubbies, but maybe a snippet of Barney here and there wouldn’t hurt... It’s not like we’re burning all Damian’s books, after all. Or like we’re going to stop playing and interacting with him and just substitute the two dimensional babysitter. Maybe the medium isn’t the message.

So that’s part of it. But I feel like I’ve been neglectful in other ways, that Damian is caught in my in-betweener life. Usually moms work and their kids are in daycare, soaking in knowledge and interaction and learning. Or the moms are home, staying with and playing with their kids. Devoted to child and house and nothing else. Me, I’m neither fish nor fowl. Home with Damian but thinking too about writing. Even when I’m with him, I’m not always with him. Not always picking up on his cues, not always thinking up new and challenging games for him, not always playing "guess that word." He gets oodles of affection but perhaps not as much focused attention as he deserves. The curse of being a writer: part of your brain is always in story conjuring dreamland.

I’m not prepared to change who I am, and I’m not ready to put him in daycare, so far away from me. And Damian is always giggling and exploring, secure in our love and protection. When we went to the pediatrician this month for his eighteen month checkup, he thought the exam was hysterically funny (especially the part when the doc pumped his little arm up and down to listen to his fast-beating heart). So I’m doing something right. Lots of hugs and silliness.

But I do think he needs more. He’s hungry for it and doesn’t know he is. He’s started saying "up" in context after hearing Isaiah say it (or was it hearing me comment on Isaiah’s word?). He was obviously listening closely. He heard Isaiah refer to his sister "annah" a lot, and Hannah say "Hannah do" and "Hannah too." In his expanding vocabulary, Hannah ("ana") has become a term of endearment. He says "ana car" and "ana cat" now.

We’ve been much more conscious about naming objects and talking in two word sentences the past few days. (Toddler’s parent mantra: keep it simple, stupid.) And maybe it’s because we’re listening harder, but Damian’s suddenly got more words. Last night at dinner, he kept saying "ghee-keh." Yeah, I didn’t know what it meant either. But then I offered him more cheese and he looked pleased and said "ghee-keh" again, in agreement. Oh. Dumb mommy finally got it. And we offered him a cookie a couple days ago, saying "cookie?" about, oh, a hundred times. And were rewarded by that little voice enunciating "coo-kee" very clearly.

This is fun. I don’t know why I didn’t think to do it before. It’s not Damian who’s slow, not at all. It’s his mom.
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