One of the rip-tides of parenting I have found myself flailing in is the rush into language. I have gotten lost in the whirling eddies of child development sites and books written by speech and language therapists about word acquisition. I consumed these texts by the nap-full, gorging on them as he slept in my arms, loading myself up to fill him with language when he awoke. Occasionally, I failed. There were afternoons when R was an infant when I would feel guilty for the pauses. Sometimes, I stopped chirruping nouns at him and I stopped pneumatically pointing to what lay beyond the window. That statistic which is meant to educate us as new parents- the one about how many words per hour, was it thousands or hundreds, a child from a middle class background might hear- served not to relieve me but to goad me into frenetic communication with my wriggling baby. I am glad I was not at the receiving end of some of my more high-pitched, high-octane, mind-numbing Mary Poppins chatter. I would have hated that spray of words directed at me in such steady stream.
Despite my misguided attempts to riddle my kid with speech at such alarming velocities and pressures, he did learn how to talk. I felt relieved when his first syllables sprouted, when he offered me holophrastic phrases, when his syntax unfolded. I could relax a little. I didn’t want to fail him, deprive him of the pleasures of eloquence. I wish, in hindsight, that I’d had the confidence to relax a little bit sooner, to own and contain my own anxiety a little more, to trust that language, although miraculous, is not something that needs to be quite so fussed-over. I wish I’d given him a gentler initiation into the symbolic realm, into the world of words.
Feeling a little more confident in my mothering has meant I trust silence now, and the quality of our exchanges has shifted.
I wish silence in the early years was something that was talked about as often as language acquisition is. I wish its role in developing the capacity to think was recognised. I wish the need for making space and privacy for toddlers was seen as developmentally crucial. I wish we had more click-bait articles about the textures of wordless connection- the moments of our own quiet attentiveness while they play that make a lingering glance between us possible. Words are wonderful, but moments of meeting often happen at the edge of language, in the thick of contended, silent play. These moments- the glance, the spontaneous cuddle he gives me when he suddenly notices my body next to his, the way his tiny chest feels on mine when we lie together on the grass after we’ve talked about where to cycle to next- these would not be possible if I were filling the air with nouns and buzzing with the next developmental milestone (millstone) we needed to achieve. The essayist Natalia Ginzburg articulates this both/and sensibility in the essay ‘Little Virtues’ when she extols, ‘our relationship with our children should be a living exchange of thoughts and feelings, but it should also include deep areas of silence.’ I can’t imagine reading this in any kind of modern parenting manual, but I feel it in my bones to be true. We need silence as much as we need frankness and eloquence and direct communication of our thoughts and feelings.
I want my son to know that his attention doesn’t need to be outwardly focused all the time. That he is allowed to dive deliciously into his own psyche and enjoy what he finds there- and if he chooses, he can fetch something from his mind and bring it out to show me, but the conditions of our relatedness do not depend on him stitching our minds together with the constant exchange of words. We can be loosely coupled- come together for a chat and then both of us dive again into our own private worlds. Or be together wordlessly, with nothing but breath and eye contact between us.
copyright Diana Smith 2018