Nonfiction, Parenting, Resisting Motherhood

How I Learned to Read My Daughter’s Mind.

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She is constantly telling me things, feeding a long invisible thread between us with beads of context completely lost, despite the fact that I am holding tight to the other end. It has begun to matter, the heaviness of the line, the ornate string of incomprehensible chatter. She looks with a narrower eye now, an intensity that’s coming with age: listen closer, this is important, decode it.

She is right; her lexicon is broadening. The words come out unclear, but she resolutely knows them. I should know them, too.

We are reading a board book version of Anna Karenina lately. Each time we visit it, she can identify more of what the writer asks: Where is the cloak? Can you also find the clasp? Where is the uniform? Can you also find the feather? Where is the parasol?

Feather, she’ll say in her gauzy way, like the words have all been thickly wrapped and bandaged. I am learning, too, to unravel packages of pronunciation, to preserve the sounds. Each new word is a figurine, a gift, set on a glass shelf of memory. She will say it again someday soon, and I will lift it out. I’ll admire, if not quite understand, what she means.

This is the girl at three, at school. It’s sudden, the shift in both temperament and awareness, like a lever pulled. Something inside her has opened. Something has opened inside us all. It is jarring, too, like the day after a parent marries and your house, once so still and known, fills with loud and foreign faces purporting themselves as family.

When she comes home, her classmates’ phantom muddied footprints tromp in with her. Those blank, timid, scowling, or curious faces I glimpse only at gymnasium drop-offs and pick-ups never seem far from her mind. She has tracked in a little world, wholly unknown to me: tempestuous, vibrant, sickly, and boisterous. I do not know which, if any classmate, she prefers, do not know what they do together on any given day. It’s her secret. (But is it witting or the work of all the words being held hostage?)

Two months into the school year, I am still matching quiet eyes and scruffy hair and backpacks to names on a parent-child dismissal sheet, still relying entirely on circled emoticons in a daily progress notebook to find out about how she felt about her day. The limits of language can make private investigators of us all.

This is what I tell the women ’round the conference room table, pens poised over clipboards, eyes and ears expectant. Her teacher is here, her speech therapist, and others whose titles I’ve already forgotten. They agree that they’ve seen great progress, that she is making more decipherable statements, that she learns well through rhythm and song.

“There’s one in particular she loves,” her teacher beams. “Whenever we sing it, her face just lights up.”

I nod knowingly. “I have a funny story about that.”

They lean forward in anticipation.

But the anecdote won’t contain what the moment held. I tell it anyway.

A few weeks into preschool, my daughter began singing a song — one it was clear she’d memorized, the first ever that I couldn’t decipher at all. It was the kind of thing for which I couldn’t have prepared. Music is our Morse code, our clarity, a call for which we always have an understood response.

I was surprised by my own helplessness, by how crestfallen we both were. She was already learning something I couldn’t quickly come to know.

“Yum, yum! Pee yew!” she’d chirp brightly over breakfast, from the backseat, in the bathtub. She’d rub her tummy or hold her nose; she’d wave her arms.

I felt so thoroughly locked out, shrugging in apology: “I don’t know it,” and she’d frown or stomp and a chasm would widen between us.

Here is the thing about toddler language-impairment; it opens an eyelet into which parents can peer at the long stretch of adolescence, where all roads converge at the epicenter of I don’t know.

“So I Googled it,” I tell the women at the table. “And I found the lyrics and a YouTube video. I’ve learned it, and we sing it all the time.”

The women are pleased. I have given them a succinct and satisfying ending. They lean back and laugh. One says she’s familiar with the tune herself and will have to seek it out. My daughter’s teacher invites her to drop in on her class.

What they do not hear — what I do not tell them — is that the moment I saw her face light up when I played the song and immediately began to learn it is one of my most triumphal experiences as a mother.

I do not tell them this was the moment I learned that the needs mothers meet are rarely as basic as they seem and how rare it is to feel like I’ve completely succeeded at meeting one. I do not tell her how motherhood occasionally feels, even on its easier days, like something else to survive.

It doesn’t matter. They don’t need to know it. And the truth is: I am pleased, too. How often are we forced to pay such close attention? How many of us can say we have learned, on some minuscule scale, to read a mind?

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Nonfiction

An Assessment of Light.

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The women walked up bearing tote bags, their arms laden with carbon forms and child-things. They are sent to homes in pairs. The wisest among us know enough to feel scrutinized as soon as the women cross our thresholds. We carry ourselves as though we do not know just how much is being observed. One of them wields forms, solicits signatures. The other eyes my little girl and listens, with an ear attuned to difference.

Because she does not know them, she is reticent. They address her by name, and she hears them but does not respond. The women look up at my mother and me, where we sit at opposite ends of a down-filled sofa. “We’ll check her hearing as a precaution.” Since they have stationed themselves crosslegged on our living room floor, Story quickly intuits that they are there for her and they have been invited. She takes it all in: Ziploc bags with colorful wooden and plastic trinkets; a gym-like sack with a small plush Cookie Monster and an Elmo peeking out; a tiny generic bear, seated on our carpet with a tea set in front of him; and of course: the binders, the papers, the clipboards bearing sheets with lines and X’s. The spaces where Mommy scribbles.

While she watches the women, I remember to return her father’s call. It is ten after six in the morning, where he is. He first called at 5:30 am, his time. I was spooning cold cereal into Story’s mouth at record speed, my mind racing toward anything else that needed doing before the women arrived. I had been up since 6, my time, myself, pricked awake by sharp anxieties. “Can I just call you back when they get here?” I snapped, erasing his face from my iPhone screen as soon as he said yes.

He pops up there again now and says hello to the women. Both raise their eyebrows, returning his greeting. I’m reminded how often black fathers are assumed absent or under-involved, how difficult it is for social program workers to hide their initial surprise at a father’s engagement, how quickly they recover.

I have less interest in qualifying things these days. Father “absence” and “presence” will always be relative. It has never served me well to give either much examination. Most days, my mind will go no further than: he does what he can; he does what he can. The truth is: he cares more than I give him credit for. (Of course, this isn’t about credit.)

I prop up the phone so he can see and listen.

“Can you give the bear a drink of water?” one of the women asks.

All three of us — her father, my mother, and I — know that she won’t.

This is, in part, why the women are here. We are no longer sure what is a matter of ability or an act of will.

They have already asked if I’m on public assistance. No, I answered quickly, ashamed at the twinge of pride I felt. I am proud of too many irrelevant things: that Story has no allergies; has never had an ear infection; is too young to remember how many cans of formula I paid for with food stamps (about eight), too young to notice how foolish I’ve been to forgo WIC. And if I’m honest with myself, I am even proud that her father has cleared a morning to watch this assessment unfold on FaceTime. None of this means much, in light of why the women are here. But it’s what I have.

One of them has explained that the program is no cost to us, either way, but that if I were on assistance, the County could recoup some of its operation costs from the state. I wonder what mothers’ already thin resources are being further stretched to make this home visit possible. (Is anyone ever getting all that they need?)

“Give the bear a drink,” the child development therapist urges again. Story sits by the bear, looks at his empty place setting, keeps her dainty hands in her lap.

The women whisk her off to another exercise. The speech pathologist raises a three-ring binder, showing her a page. “Where’s the ball?” They have just played with a ball, hard and hollow, formed of translucent green plastic. It does not look like the ball in the picture. She does not point, even as her eyes train on the ball.

She knows “ball.” She knows 100 words or more, easily. My friend Kristen encouraged me to count them months ago, when I first voiced my worries. For a while, I kept a running ledger in the back of journal with the Eiffel Tower on its cover. I stopped at 92. I didn’t even count the articles: no a or an or the. No reaches.

The women haven’t heard any of the words I’ve counted. They’ve heard a single, quiet string of babble — and here, the speech woman perked up, jotted things down — but nothing so involved as “dinosaur” or, a newer phrase, her longest sentence, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to break it!”

It is a ninety-minute enterprise, and as soon as it ends I must dart out the door and race downtown for a radio interview. I can tell I’ll have to leave before they do in order to make it.

Maybe this is the problem. I am always darting off: into a book or a writing project, into a series of texts, a teaching assignment, into social media initiatives, most recently, into a romance, and always into the far reaches of my mind and heart, looking for the parts of myself that are still recognizable.

She is my true North, of course. I always turn back to her. But how often are any of us sure-footed? How often are we headed in the right direction?

I have been waiting for this day for months, and though I am not as often dreamy and expectant of ease as I once was, I thought the women would fix this. They would tell us how to get her to speak clearly, to babble less and enunciate more. For once, something would be simple.

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books lined up according to size, during independent play.

But speech, they break to us gently, is a symptom, not the core issue. They cannot determine, through this battery of tiny tests, how much of what we say is being understood. Perhaps she is isolating recognized words, but not grasping entire sentences. Perhaps she doesn’t answer or ask questions because she isn’t sure how to arrange what the words she knows. They tell us her play is too orderly; she is more interested in lining things in neat rows than in fashioning intricate worlds.

Were she hitting developmental milestones, in other words, she would not have just offered the bear a drink. She would’ve told us the color of the juice or charged him a million dollars for the privilege of dining in her castle.

It’s manageable, they assure us. The assessment, after all, was to determine how best to address her needs. They say that she is in a good place, at home during the day and surrounded by familiar faces who offer patience and love. They look warmly to her father’s face in my phone when they say this.

And she shows determination. Many of the children they visit run to other rooms when they won’t or can’t engage the women’s activities. Story stands her ground. She is brave.

I am late to the radio station. On air, I do not hear myself. The segment is about how single mothers “make it work.” But this is a topic on which I know too little, especially today.

Back at home, I hold Story close. We all do. I give my heart the rest of the day to adjust to the new light in which I’ve been advised to view my daughter. It is as bright as it’s ever been, as bright as the night she was born.

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