baby's milestonesA few weeks before my daughter’s first birthday, my husband and I looked at the milestone checklists for a one-year-old.  We already knew she was behind physically (rolling everywhere instead of crawling, for example, which we planned to address with her pediatrician at the upcoming appointment) but we figured she’d be on target in every other way.  

When we looked at the checklist of language and cognitive milestones, though, we were in for an unpleasant surprise.  Our daughter was able to do a fair number of the items, but certainly not all of them.

That’s when we had to confront another unpleasant truth, this one about ourselves: Our daughter might not be behind, exactly, but she doesn’t seem to be ahead anywhere either. Like a lot of parents, we hope our child will turn out to be exceptional in some way.  What if she’s just not smart?

This is the kind of fear that a lot of people might not speak out loud.  We’re supposed to be happy to have a child at all, and one that’s healthy to boot, and emotionally bonded to us.

And for the past year, my husband and I have been happy with all of those things.  We’re happy to have this beautiful little girl, with her sweet babbles and the way she reaches out for us and the smiles and the laughter.  

Yet, parenthood is about confronting fears about who a child will turn out to be, and how little control we might ultimately have over that.  When we saw that checklist, my husband and I were suddenly afraid that we hadn’t done enough to foster her development, that we’d spent too much time just rolling on the floor with her and appreciating her.  We hadn’t tried to actually teach her, and now, it appeared, she was behind.

Who knew she needed explicit instruction, before the age of one?  Obviously, we should have known.  Most embarrassingly, I’m a marriage and family therapist.  Sure, I only work with teenagers and older, and the requisite child development class in graduate school was over ten years ago.  But I should have known.

I’d assumed that if we showed our daughter plenty of love and gave her a stimulating environment and talked to her (conversationally, in adult voices), she’d be on target.  It seemed we were wrong.

We reviewed each of the checklist items, feeling like we’d failed her.  Is she waving bye-bye?  Well, we haven’t been waving bye-bye!  Does she try to imitate scribbling?  We’ve never scribbled in front of her!  Saying “mama” and “dada” meaningfully?  We’ve never walked around referencing ourselves in the third person!  We must be the worst parents in the world!

But most frightening–what if she was supposed to be able to do everything on those checklists even though we had never tutored her directly?  What if she was supposed to have learned how to say “mama” and “dada” meaningfully, absorbed it by osmosis, and she wasn’t able to?  What would that mean for her future?

We spent the week before the pediatrician appointment putting our daughter through boot camp: maniacally waving “bye-bye”, pointing to ourselves and saying “mama” and “dada” (“Mama is feeding you!”  “Dada loves you!”), hiding objects to make sure she could find them easily.  We wanted to be able to tell the pediatrician whether our daughter was capable of learning, through deliberate instruction.  We wanted to convince ourselves.

Boot camp was a success.  My daughter achieved some of the checklist items before the pediatrician appointment.  She was pronounced “bright” and “alert.”  I was told the milestones are about measuring the individual progress of a child, and our child is progressing.  After a year of being mellow and assuming all would be well, I’d made up for it spectacularly in one week of anxious, antic over-parenting.

What I realize is that the pediatrician appointment can’t be the ultimate reassurance.  We don’t know who our child will turn out to be, where she’ll lag and where she’ll shine, and rather than practicing “mama” and “dada” five times a day, her dad and I need to practice acceptance.  Because we can want what we want, but we’re going to get who we get, and in many ways, as I look at her giggling on the carpet beside me, I realize that’s a very good thing.

Baby and toys photo available from Shutterstock