As a new mother, I have been the recipient ofttimes (sometimes it feels more like the target) of questions about baby milestones, most typically: “Does she sleep through the night?”; “Is she walking yet?”; and “Is she talking yet?” I realize these questions are asked innocently enough, most of the time, although sometimes they are asked as a set-up for a brag about how early the questioner’s son or daughter slept through the night, walked or talked. I know part of my annoyance with these questions is my own projection: I am anxious about these “milestones,” reading about them constantly and wondering if I need to do something more, or better, to ensure my daughter’s development. I’d prefer to think myself above all that, so it’s psychologically easier to bemoan all “those people” badgering me about milestones, than it is to examine critically my own focus on them.
The tonic, generally, to these anxieties for me is to remember that when I was pregnant, development, for the very most part, took care of itself. All I needed to do was relax, eat, drink, sleep, move my body some, and look what happened: I grew a baby! More accurately, she grew herself through some highly complex, mysterious and sacred process that we may never fully understand, nor necessarily may wish to. So although I certainly have more to do as a mother now that we are separate beings, my daughter is still growing herself and the process is as complex, mysterious and sacred as ever. My job is not to program her (to develop, succeed, accomplish, i.e. to do specific things at specific times) but to nurture her, which is as much, or more, about observing and appreciating as it is doing. In all the world, of all people everywhere, she is unique, and will find her own way in her own time, and become what she is meant to become, i.e. fully herself. In this vein I like James Hillman’s “acorn theory,” which posits that we all come into this existence with a particular and utterly individual purpose:
We overload parents today, as if they owned and were totally responsible for their children’s entire fates. Mothers feel that if they do one thing wrong when the child is three, their poor child will have to go to therapy for four years later on in life. This is a heavy burden. The story of the acorn is that you have your own destiny, and that your parents’ tasks are to provide a place in the world where you can grow down into life and to help make it easier for you to carry the destiny you have, which as a child is hard to carry. (http://www.personaltransformation.com/james_hillman.html)
Notice he talks about growing down, rather than ascending through predictable stages of development or maturation. Parents, myself included, also need help in feeling grounded and rooted in their experiences of parenting, so that we may help our children come into themselves.
So, in the interest of helping me, and other parents reduce anxiety about what we are or are not doing and how our babies are “progressing,” here’s a set of alternative questions to ask:
* What is her favorite toy or game right now? What do you think she likes about it?
* How does she communicate? What does she communicate about?
* What makes her laugh? What makes you both laugh?
* What is it like to be her mother? How is it similar to and different from what you imagined?
* What will you remember most about this time in your lives together?
I’m sure you can come up with some other thoughtful, open-ended type questions that show genuine interest in and respect for the uniqueness of my baby, and my family, instead of reflexively asking the typical questions. (And if you’d like to leave me some in your comments, I’d appreciate it–it’ll help me when I work on her baby book.) I think this approach will in turn be a tonic to your inevitable boredom with the typical chit-chat about babies you may be accustomed to making. And remember, if all of this feels too onerous, you’re not obliged to ask anything about my baby: I appreciate conversation about other topics too!