Wed 3 Jun 2009
my mother tells me i walked at nine months old.
she has been telling me that for as long as i can remember. she’s also prone to mentioning that i spoke in clear sentences by two, and stayed dry through the nights shortly after.
oh, i was a starbaby, clearly. and my mother’s pride in the accomplishments of my infant self has been a reliable camp stove for the cockles of my heart for, um, ever.
sure, i’ve done other things in my life. i have a good eight or nine years of post-secondary education under my belt, been around the world a few times, have written a few things i’m proud of. but ask my mother, and you’ll get the distinct impression i peaked in 1973.
it took me a good 35 years to figure out the sad truth about my child prodigy status.
being the first among my little friendlets to walk never actually made a better walker than they were. i spoke early, yes, and admittedly i haven’t stopped…but once you hit grade three or so, being a monolingual, publicly verbal creature ceases to be so impressive. and i seldom wet myself, true, but so far as i’m aware, neither do many other thirty-somethings. (well, except for those unfortunate post-partum bladder indiscretions…HUSH. for years i was continent, people. totally, reliably continent.)
my mother has spent my entire life exuding beatific pride in perfectly normal milestones that almost all typically-developing children meet somewhere within a twelve-month period. i was no freakin’ Mozart, composing symphonies in Pampers, for crying out loud. i walked early. i stopped pissing myself a few months before some of my friends.
i spoke in sentences probably a full year before my son did. but now that he’s reached what the charts call age-appropriate fluency…whaddaya know? he says stuff just as smart as the kid who started talking a year earlier.
my handy-dandy parental primers, mostly used as helpful doorstops since the early days of Oscar’s infancy, all have the same message: the delicate self-esteem of a child has its first roots in the reflections cast back to said child by his or her caregivers. you are good, you are special, we communicate to the little folk, and THIS is why.
i made them doorstops because they all communicated to ME one troubling message: my self-esteem is rooted in the very same old sacred cows that i’ve been railing against since i turned thirteen. dammit.
my mother, bless her good and earnest heart, wasn’t trying to set me up for a middle-age of nagging insecurity. she is, to her core, a believer in Authority. she appeals to it, honours it, makes an occasional shrine of it. and left alone young, with an infant to raise, she turned to Authority to bolster and validate her efforts. enter Dr. Spock, with his normative charts.
if i walked early, she must be doing a good job. spoke early, and without that pesky island accent? she was offering rich language development resources in the home environment. toilet trained before two? clearly, despite the pinched disapproval of single parenting amongst the Good Families of the city in that time, she must be morally upright enough to earn some stamp of approval and seal of quality, else i’d have been soiling myself all over town until well past three.
you see where all this goes wrong, right? i grew up with the idea that doing things early was not only a marker of my great, if vague, potential…but that it was a good in itself. i was good because Authority declared me good. and prompt. that is all. thanks for playing.
my mother’s Dr. Spock book – i read the damn thing myself in adolescence whilst plowing indiscriminately through her bookshelf – stopped at age three. and so did any discussion of my skill set, my qualities as an individual.
the school system eventually took up where Dr. Spock had left off, as Validating Authority for my mother’s efforts to raise an acceptable (and preferably slightly above average) child. the school system was generally kind to me, because i had been raised with literacies it appreciated. and when the school system was done with me and had convocated my Honours-achieving hind end out its doors – early, yet again, as i graduated high school at 17 and had completed two separate bachelor’s degrees at 22 – i assume my mother believed some other benign system of authority, some Dr. Spock of the professional world, closed to her but in her mind a meritocracy clearly waiting to welcome me with open arms, would step in to take me up on my promise, my potential.
for a brief period, she even stopped talking about my potty training achievements and instead offered up my degrees as social appetizers at every occasion, even having them framed at her own expense and hung in her apartment.
but i did not arrive. i worked hard, but had no idea how to leverage the skills i had into opportunity. i didn’t even understand the concept.
when i finished school, i knew i’d walked early and toilet-trained early, but other than that my personal canvas of self-description was filled only with my own adolescent graffiti. “i like to imagine myself as David Bowie’s personal concubine” is not a self-description one could go far with in the depressed Canadian economy of the early-90’s recession. and so i floated, town-to-town, up and down the dial, always working, trying every path. and i came to find myself in my late-ish thirties, writing about tutus and wondering what i want to do with the rest of my life.
and my mother, who loves me and whose ambitions for me only ever extended so far as me being acceptable to Authority – a line i’ve been falling on and off of like a wagon since junior high – has gradually settled into an apparently contented relationship with my achievements, wherein her acquaintances relate stories of their adult childrens’ law practices and government pensions and sojourns with Doctors without Borders, and mom chirps “Bonnie’s always been gifted with words. Do you know she could speak in full sentences by the time she was twenty-two months? Of course, she walked at nine months…she was always bright…and she was dry through the night by the time she turned two. Children these days seem to be in diapers right until kindergarten…have you noticed…?”
…and then all the maters cluck in unison, and magically, any discussion of my current skill set disappears entirely from view.
which i’m starting to see the benefit in.
if my mother wants to bask in the glow of my prodigious tippy-toeing across a carpet during the Trudeau heyday (or Nixon’s China visit, for you south-of-the-border readers)…well, that’s her prerogative. it keeps my potential open. and i’m beginning to think maybe there’s potential in being a late-bloomer, after all.
so as Josephine closes in on nine months happily flat on her puffy diapered ass, i say dandy. pass the cookies. take your time, kiddo.
what was your sense of your own potential, growing up? where did it come from? and do you think you’ve fulfilled it, in any way?