I went to collect my daughter from daycare yesterday and she was running down the hill towards me pushing a plastic shopping cart. She was laughing and waving with one hand at anyone who looked her way. She gets her showmanship from her parents, I’m afraid.
You might think this is not unusual for a 19-month-old. Not the kind of thing to make a mother’s heart skip a beat. But for us, it is.
We have been on a long and stressful road to get here. My husband and I have spent many nights talking until the early hours about what we want for our daughter, about who she is, what her talents are and how we help her get there.
Due to her hyper-flexible joints and low muscle tone, Florence was never going to be the first to walk at parents group.
We were told she may walk before two years and if so that would be a great achievement.
So, we filed that away and armed ourselves with every possible expert we could find.
Her health challenges mean her path to mobility is scattered with physiotherapy appointments and ultrasounds, trips to the occupation therapist at the toy library and special little shoes that keep her feet in the right spot.
And you know what? She’s almost there!
But each day, from the moment she was born until yesterday when her curly, golden little head was bounding down that steep hill, has been a lesson in positive thinking and expectation.
It’s a constant and careful balance between being aware and alert to her needs but not allowing that to be the focus of our lives. We want to make sure she grows up as the toddler who loves bouncing around the kitchen to hip hop and laughing till her cheeks ache on the swing, not the toddler defined by her inability to walk.
One thing has made that harder at times and it’s something I think could be easily rectified. It’s the questions. Having a baby has been such an amazing experience and I have found so much positivity and support from the people around us. On the flip side, there is a large group of people, that without any malicious intent, can make life harder with their questions.
Most days I would have at least four people ask if Florence is walking yet. The self-appointed health nurses mean well, I’m sure, but there is no doubt that it makes parenting more difficult. These are the same people who dutifully ask every five minutes if your baby is ‘sleeping through yet?’ almost as soon as you push (or in my case cut) that precious baby out. I honestly believe that most people just don’t realise how much pressure these questions can put on the parents of young kids.
At best, it’s just a way to start chatting about your baby and how they are going, no big deal. But at worst it can feel like an interview, with the ability to pass or fail.
My husband and I have developed some practised responses now.
“She’s nearly there.” “It’s going well.” “Isn’t it amazing how far she’s come with the physio.”
My husband has become so detailed in his responses that I jokingly call him ‘Midwife Matt’ when he’s carefully explaining the various types of gross motor delay for the third time that day.
Sometimes though, on a vulnerable day, (you know the ones where you’re all sick and nobody has slept) and the sixth person asks you, it’s tempting to respond with, “why don’t we talk about some of the amazing things she IS doing.” I’m yet to try this technique but baby number two is due soon so who knows how far sleep deprivation could push my diplomacy.
The thing is, so many people I know have a reason to feel milestone anxiety. Within our social circle we know kids with developmental delay, autism, hip dysplasia and health challenges linked to premature birth, along with many other conditions that the parents we know have to watch and monitor and manage. It’s hard work.
I know on the good days the questions mean nothing. But on a bad day, when things aren’t going to plan, when there’s been bad news about the baby’s health or work stress or gastro, it’s a reminder of something painful. Something that keeps them up at night worrying. Something that adds another little block of anxiety to the constant precariously balancing Jenga in their minds.
So, my suggestion is a really simple one.
Instead of asking the obvious question, let’s get creative.
Let’s never again ask “Are you breast feeding?” or “How many words does he have?”
Let’s all think of some fun, empathetic, thoughtful questions that will help us connect and have real conversations about the amazing little people that are growing up before us.
I’ve decided to try and lead by example. My new conversation starters are:
“What is he loving right now?”
“Do you have any games she likes that you can share with me? I’m always keen for suggestions.” Or “How are you going with everything?”
I would love to hear your suggestions and push this along, sharing ways to offer a conversational high five, instead of a sliver of anxiety.
Then maybe, at the next BBQ where we’re discussing “How is work going?” and “Are you enjoying school? What year are you in now?” We can all take a step back and think about creative ways to support each other. Even if that means having a half hour conversation with a five-year-old about Beyblades or Minecraft instead of the easy conversation about their teacher or the school year. Let’s put our greater, collective happiness first.
Let’s all say goodbye to milestone anxiety and trust the vast majority of mums and dads are doing the best they can. And, even better, they will feel more supported, more loved and more optimistic.
Let’s start conversations about all of the amazing things they are doing for their babies every day and not just the challenges they face.
What do we have to lose?
And to make it even easier I’ll do everyone a deal. When the time comes, and Florence is walking around by herself, emptying the bathroom drawers at lightning speed without using the shelves to pull herself up and chasing our dog on her feet and not her knees, we will let everyone know. In the meantime, let’s talk about the fun stuff too.