A mom recalls the tyranny of developmental milestones.
By Joanne Jacobs
Alison was the slow baby. Other children learned to roll over. She didn’t. They learned to crawl. She still couldn’t roll over.
Every month, I’d get together with moms from my childbirth class. The mothers would discuss the new skills Jesse or Lindsay or Kelly had learned. I had nothing to say. Allison slept, ate and slept some more. When she was awake, she was unfailingly cheerful. She just didn’t do things.
When Allison was 9 months old, she learned to roll over. I hurried to the moms’ group meeting to brag about her breakthrough. When I got there, they were talking about Jesse, who was two weeks younger. He had started walking.
My husband and I, both Stanford graduates, had taken it for granted that any child of ours would be at the top of the playgroup. What was wrong?
My fears for Allison weren’t just the usual new-mom paranoia. Her diagnoses at birth included “overwhelming sepsis” and respiratory distress syndrome and hyperbilirubinemia. Stanford Medical Center neonatologists told us that if Allison survived these illnesses, she’d probably be a normal, healthy child. But they did not think she’d survive. Days in intensive care passed, and she did not respond to antibiotics. “I’m an optimist,” one doctor told us, “and I don’t think she’s going to make it.”
Then she did. When she was well enough to get off the respirator, the doctor called her “a minor miracle.”
All too soon I got used to her good health. Living in over-educated Palo Alto put us at high risk for Superbaby syndrome. We moms read baby-care books and compared notes. T. Berry Brazelton wrote about three babies with different development patterns—in a book meant to assure mothers that the fast baby, the average baby and the slow baby all represent normal variations. Allison was slower than the slow baby. A lot slower. She didn’t crawl until 14 months.
I thought about those days in the hospital when we prayed just for Allison to survive. “Please, God, let her live.” She lived. She was healthy. She was a loving child. OK, she was slow. Accept it. Your prayer was answered. Be grateful and shut up.
There’s this Jewish joke: a grandmother walks on the beach with her little grandson, when a wave sweeps the boy out to sea. The grandmother prays desperately: “Please, God, give me back my grandson. That’s all I ask. Return him safely to me.” A huge wave sweeps in and deposits the grandson at her feet. She looks at the miraculously restored boy, then raises her eyes to the heavens and chides, “He had a hat!”
Some months after I’d vowed to accept Allison as she was, I picked her up at the babysitter’s house. Deborah wore an odd expression. “You’re going to think I’m crazy,” she said. “But Allison knows the alphabet.”
“You’re crazy,” I said. At 21 months, Allison could barely talk.
Deborah led me to the kitchen, where magnetic letters adorned the refrigerator. Allison, toddling after us, began pointing to letters and calling out their names. Correctly.
On the way home, I stopped at the toy store and bought magnetic letters. Standing by my fridge, I realized Deborah had had upper-case letters. Even if Allison knew those, she wouldn’t know the lower-case ones I’d bought. But she did. As I stuck them on the refrigerator, Allison called out the names: a, t, m, g, z. She knew them all.
“I guess she’s not retarded,” my husband said.
By 3, she was reading fluently. I ran into some preschool parents at an Easter egg hunt. “Allison looks great!” said a mom who had never seen her walk. Allison glanced at a sign. “Meet the Easter Bunny,” she announced.
“Did she read that?” the mom said. “Allison is reading?”
I hadn’t even set this up. “Oh, yeah,” I said. “Allison’s been reading for a while. Yes, she turned 3 last month.”
She turned 23 this year. Early reading turned out to be her only weird-genius trait; about other things she’s been normal-smart. She was the last kid on the block to learn to ride a two-wheeler. When she graduated from college in June, she was about a year off schedule, having taken time off to work and to study abroad.
When she walked—just as well as anyone—to receive her Stanford diploma, I said a prayer. “Thank you for Allison. Thanks for the hat.”
JOANNE JACOBS, '74, writes the education blog, joannejacobs.com. She is at work on a book, School Work: How Two Grumpy Optimists Started Their Own Charter School.
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