“Is it yummy?” I ask him.
He nods vigorously and rubs his hand along his belly, the not quite ASL sign for ‘yummy’ that he and his sister designed. Milky, creamy chocolate drips down his chin as his tongue escapes his mouth again, aiming for the ice cream cone I’m holding in my hands.
That mouth of his is a source of so much pain. Pain for him from teething which has been incredibly slow and painful. His molars have been tormenting him for months and still aren’t even at the surface of his gums.
And then, pain for us. From that mouth of his comes the shrillest screams, the loudest yells, and the most frustrating whines. But not a single word.
We’re rounding the corner towards birthday season now. Her fifth and his second. And as she nears the end of her tenure as a four-year-old, she is reading and writing, jumping and dancing, imagining and dreaming, and building quite an impressive vocabulary. She is holding sparklers and catching fireflies all for the first time. She is leaping into new activities and opportunities and doing all that most nearly five-year-olds we know are doing.
And as he works on completing his second year on this earth, he is running and digging, building up and tearing down, developing a deep love for trucks and trains and planes and anything that moves. He is dancing and laughing. He is climbing and getting pretty darn close to jumping. He is leaping into new activities and opportunities and doing almost all that most nearly two-year-olds we know are doing.
But he isn’t talking.
We’ve asked at every doctor’s appointment and each time the doctor assures us that he is just fine. He is communicating. He is frustrated when we can’t sort out what his hand motions mean. He understands every word of every phrase we say and he even follows direction. He babbles like a champ and every so often a well placed “mama!” makes us think he’s uttered his first word. But in the very next breath he’ll direct that mama repeatedly to the cat or a tree or a lego piece and we know we’re still in babble land.
And we worry.
We worry that she was talking. She’d uttered quite a few words by this age and the list grew each and every passing day. We worry he is falling behind. Friends at the park with little ones the same age rattle off a small vocabulary list and I hear the little voices say ‘plane’ with their chubby toddler fingers outstretched toward the sky. We worry that something bigger might be wrong. A late blooming speaker might look and sound like any other kid in a year. Or he might…
And we worry about comparing. Because he is not her. And he is not the son of friends at the park. He is his own little person. Our little person. And he is taking his time.
But we also worry about ourselves. He’s not talking but he has things he wants to communicate and it’s frustrating to us. He screams to get our attention because he doesn’t have the words to turn our heads and his screams tear through my patience.
We worry that we’re not doing enough. That we didn’t do enough and we already missed the boat. We worry that there are things we could or should or would be doing but we’re getting distracted and doing other things and missing this. We worry that it’s our fault.
And we worry that it’s not our fault. That there is something wrong and there’s nothing we could have done and we’re just waiting to learn what it is.
And in between the worry, I comfort myself with the smile he gives me when I enter the room. He knows me. It can’t be that bad. I comfort myself with the way he pats his chest after I’ve finishing singing about that spider, a silent plea for an encore. He heard the song and he knows he wants to hear it again. I comfort myself with the way he eagerly dolls out hugs and kisses. With the physical abilities he has that she didn’t have and they don’t have – all indicating that he’s simply just working on other things.
Worry will get us nowhere. He will start talking in his own good time and a year from now he’ll fight with his sister for air time, squeezing his stories and needs and wants in between hers. Or he won’t, and we’ll know and we’ll deal and we’ll work through whatever it is that keeps him silent today. There will be action. And this worry will not have contributed.
But, as with most things parenting, worry is all we have in this time. This quiet (save for the shrill screaming and yelling) time of waiting. There is little we can do but wait.
And try not to worry.
Edited to note: Months after this initial worry, I published a reflection on the consuming nature of worry and speech delays and how we worked through it on Brain, Child. The story continues there and we still worry. But we also act. And that’s the important part.