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On Motherhood & Language: You've Been Listening All Along

As I approach my due date with babies number 2 and 3, I've been thinking a lot about the early days with my first child, Henry. I wrote this when Henry was 9 months old. - HHH Founder & CEO Nell Diamond

When I left my 3-day-old baby in the NICU I heaved my raw, oversized form into the backseat of a cab like it was a regular Monday, even though each step I took away from the 8th floor was the furthest I’d ever been away from him, the longest time our two bodies hadn’t touched. I rolled down the window of the taxi and watched all the strangers plodding around like today was just any other day, like today wasn’t the first time our skin and organs and cells had ever been so far apart.

I drove through the park and imagined a little string tied to my belt loop, floating above the tin roof of the cab, over the trees, over the sea lions in the zoo, into the revolving door of the hospital, past the hand sanitizer, past the nurse’s station, down to his incubator and into his open mouth, where he greeted it like a prize. When I went back to the hospital to feed him, our imaginary string danced behind me, pooling at my feet when I picked him up, tangled in the wires of his heart-rate monitor. He smelled hot, new, fresh. I sat with my ears pricked like a dog in a rocking chair on the other side of the glass, new milk pouring out of my nipples like frosting through a decorator’s tube, listening for his cry. I clumsily thumbed through Instagram and the buttons on the breast pump, bleeding into my pants. When I left the hospital at night to lay in my bed exactly 1.62 miles away from him, I imagined our string sat taut over the park, gently humming. I imagined we had soda cans on either end, like Middle School neighbors playing telephone. HMMMMMM I’d hear him hum across the park, past the nurse’s station, above the sea lions, back inside my ear and through my blood like he belonged.

When I brought him home 7 days after his birth I sat down on the blue couch with my coat still on, clutching him to my chest. My shoes felt tight and suddenly ridiculous, pointed and impractical and destined for a day lived outside. While he slept, I washed endless glass bottles and stacked neat piles of diapers in preparation for the night ahead. I felt like I was 19 in my drafty college library, stacking thick, lined paper and sugar free gum and diet soda on my desk before an all-nighter. Instead, I’m 28, in his bedroom, ready to work.

At his first check-up, the pretty doctor with the tight curls calls him “Hollywood Lips,” and tells me, “make sure him talk to him,” as she leaves the exam room, off to hear another baby’s cry. I sit in the sticky chair and stare at the pile of clothing I need to put back on him, replaying her words. “But he doesn’t speak English?” I ask the empty room, puzzled by my homework assignment. As he naps that afternoon I scan my favorite new-mom message board, scrolling through the fights about vaccines and nannies and proper installation of car seats to find some confirmation of the pretty doctor’s words, some guidebook to figure out how to speak his language. “Narrate his day.” Anna2boys, 33, Ohio, offers, “just tell him what you’re doing, when you’re doing it.”

At home, so many months of speaking near him, above him, beside him, never knowing for sure if he can really hear me. I think of Anna2boys at the changing table, and over tummy time, and as I comb his hair. “I’m at the changing table!” I exclaim, staring into big, shark eyes that follow my every move. “We’re doing tummy time!” I tell him, watching his nose brush the pastel padded floor mat. Sometimes he gurgles back at me when I speak. Mostly he doesn’t seem to notice. Mostly I feel like a crazy woman, narrating my mundane actions to an empty room.

Our days fall into a routine of hushed simplicity. I study him like so many textbooks, watching his bowed lips flutter as he breathes, his dark eyes the only sign of what life lives underneath the surface. Outside the house, we wheel around hot city blocks for hours, jumping curbs, together cloaked in the invisibility that comes from two people with nowhere in particular to go, just time to pass.

As he grows, his mushy consonants break into pieces and spill out of him each morning. I listen, never quite sure if anyone else can hear what I do. I feel like a teenager, home alone, mistaking every creak of the floorboard for an intruder, turning his innocent sounds into complicated storylines. He’s either just formed a complete sentence about his love of peas, or nothing at all.

Soon, his voice develops a clear cadence; it is high and sing-song, and full of emotion. Sounds crash out of him like waves as he moves about his world. At 8 months old, he is obsessed with buttons. He squeals when he sees one, palms to the sky, overjoyed. He is button-agnostic; he will just as happily play with the tiny spheres on my cardigan as the much fancier buttons of the light switch, with their clean “click” and the inevitable darkness that a single push elicits. His intensity scares me as he zeroes-in on a button from feet away and pursues his goal with abandon. One day, I ask him, “Where’s the button?” and he stares directly at me before scanning the room. “Uhsafsdgahhhhhh!” he offers; a long line of noise with a distinct exclamation point neatly placed at the end. “I found it, Mom, it’s right there!” Seconds later he’s distracted by a plastic toy shaped like an ice cream cone, discarding my question back into the ether where it belongs. He is sending up flares on his lifeboat, telling me he hears me, telling me he’s there.

Later, he notices his hands. He stares at his fingers, tight little sausages. He palms and grabs and tugs and pulls and points. He watches the hands of strangers. He watches my hands as I work, tap-tap-tapping on a keyboard, cutting his fruit into neat little squares, waving as I enter a room. For weeks, he pays careful attention as people wave. He’s on high-alert as he watches, his brain twisting and turning to find his part in this strange human ritual. I imagine him asking me, his voice clear and quick, “So uh... this whole hand-moving thing... I’m supposed to do it too?” After weeks of watching, he cracks the code. He is relieved, exuberant. When he hears the front door open, he winds up like a baseball pitcher and pumps wildly, his whole body moving with the force of his greeting. He waves hello when he hears anything door-like; a falling cup, a loud pair of shoes, a cough. 20-somethings with contoured faces on 7th avenue at noon on a Sunday interrupt their cigarettes to wave back as he strolls by, a hot ball of energy buzzing down the street. Like all else, I suddenly cannot remember a time before his hands flailed like this. I cannot remember a second before he was exactly who he is right now.

And then, one day, slowly and all at once, there’s no mistaking it: a word. He stretches his hand, fingers bent backward, pawing at my knees, “BABY.” He is reaching for his blanket that I have been calling “BABY” all these months. My head snaps back and I lock into his shark eyes. You have been listening, little boy.

Each morning his language evolves. When I wake up, I feel like all the ice has melted. I am happy to hear his words; “MAMA, DADA, ELMO, UH-OH, HAPPY, PLEASE, BABY,” but I am in mourning. So much time spent in rooms with no words. Rooms where we managed to get it all done anyway. For his whole life I have been craning my neck, listening intently, following his pointed finger around the house until he reveals exactly the thing he’s been looking for. He is triumphant over the fruit bowl, as if oranges could be the only thing a pointed finger and “SOIHDSJ” could ever mean. Now that he has words, will he need me as his tour guide to this strange, wild world? Or will he just say, “I’d like an orange,” and accept it from any old stranger. Do you still see our string, little boy?

I am 8-months-a-mother and I cannot imagine a time when my boy didn’t exist. At night, I run through mundane memories to quiet the hot, heavy anxiety of my new life. I think of the floorplan of my college dorm room, with its linoleum floors and fluorescent lighting. I picture the colorful stacks of storage bins I placed neatly under my bed to hold my shoes. I think of myself at 19-years-old, worried about an essay or a tagged photo, obsessing over a party I hadn’t been invited to yet. I see the thick, tight line of my black eyeliner and pink elastic on a high ponytail and somehow  I see my boy, just a little speck, somewhere in the corner of the frame.  I imagine, somehow, he’s been there in all the boring moments of my life, and in the hardest ones, too. I think he was on the bridge of my nose, Tuesday morning seven years ago, when I got a text and felt so sad my teeth hurt, my nails ached. I think he was in my shoe, 6am on that sticky carpet, stumbling through the Yield Curve over peanut butter toast. I think he was on my shoulder most of that long, hot July, when the world felt so heavy and I thought I’d never feel happiness again. I know he is here now with his hot breath and a single palm on my collarbone, humming his happy rhythm. I think you have always been there, little boy. I think you have been listening and decided it was time to say “Hi."