“Listen,” I tell my daughter one night at dinner. “I need you to help me help you.”
She stares back at me blankly, pushing her food around a little with her fork.
“You seem resistant to change and I’m getting concerned that you’ll fall behind your peers.”
She doesn’t respond. This is probably because she’s 8 months old.
At this point, we’ve been trying to introduce solid foods for two months and her response has been … not great. Either she’s regarding her food with bored indifference, or aggressively pushing it away, with a forlorn look that seems to say, “Why are you doing this to me?!”
Never mind that after every meal, of which she ingests maybe 3 calories, we must spend 20 minutes cleaning gunk out of her highchair, the floor, and the folds of her many chins.
Meanwhile, a friend of mine shares that her toothless baby consumed an entire slice of pizza.
“She really gummed it,” she shrugs.
As it were, all the babies I know seem to be progressing at faster rates in the food department. I’m reminded of this every time I check my group chat and see their happy, spaghetti-smeared faces. That’s the thing about having friends with similarly-aged children – it’s a double-edged sword. While they are an invaluable source of support and solidarity, their mere existence serves as a rubric by which to judge my own child (and by default, to judge myself as a parent).
This is not their fault. My tendency to draw comparisons comes as second nature. Still, I try to be patient since the articles I frantically Google for advice warn that appearing stressed contributes to the problem.
“Have a positive attitude,” they tell me. “Your baby can sense how you approach mealtime.”
So then I have anxiety about having anxiety.
When I consult my mother, she recalls that I wasn’t that interested in food and insisted on drinking out of a bottle until far beyond the typical age. So far beyond, in fact, that I was old enough to be self-conscious about it and attempted to hide my bottle in a brown paper sack, like a drunk.
“You also refused to be potty trained for a long time,” she tells me. “Every time I’d ask if you were ready you’d look up nonchalantly and declare, ‘Not today!’”
Eating isn’t the only thing that hasn’t exactly mapped onto the “normal timeline” in my daughter’s short life. Based on what others had told me, I was sure that as long as we implemented the strategies they did, she’d be sleeping through the night after 4 months. Turns out this was spectacularly wishful thinking. And when we hit the 6-month mark, I noted that she didn’t yet roll from back to front, like the app I use told me that babies her age typically do. Still, she ended up figuring it out only a few weeks later.
When I remember what my mom said about me, I recall that I was a late bloomer not just as a baby but throughout life. I didn’t have a job requiring the use of my degree until I was nearly 26, and dragged my feet on getting a driver’s license until … oh wait, I still don’t have one. So why am I already holding my child to standards that I didn’t meet? If anything, the milestones I did hit “on time” by society’s standards may have been met prematurely, leaving me to flounder. Sure, I finished college in 4 years, but I had no idea what I wanted to do afterwards.
When I think back on the achievements I’m most proud of, few of them map neatly onto socially-prescribed timelines. Even now I’m pursuing a fairly late-in-life career change, from working on the business side of publishing to being a freelance writer and editor. For a decade, I’d skirted around what I actually wanted to do, like a kid on the edge of a pool. Having a baby pushed me to finally dive in. We were spending so much time talking about our hopes for her that it made me remember my hopes for myself.
It’s tempting to compare myself to younger writers with longer portfolios, but having a baby reminds me that despite my sometimes-delayed development growing up, ultimately I was fine. I got decent grades, I had friends, and I found plenty of joy in life. And while I may have blustered through my twenties, trying out an assortment of jobs gave me the confidence to pursue my own path, on own time. At the end of the day, following typical timelines only matters as much as I care about being a typical person.
As we round the 9-month mark, my daughter finally begins embracing solid food. I could cry with joy when she lunges forward like a baby bird for a bit of avocado. Yet merely a week later, we’re at a routine pediatrician check-up and I feel my anxiety slowly rise as I fill out a questionnaire about her behavior. No, she doesn’t “wave hello” yet, or “respond to simple commands without gesturing.” But then I look at her plump cheeks and curious eyes, and think, “What am I doing wasting even a second worrying about some generic checklist?” She’s healthy, she’s happy, and she’s doing things her own way. So should I.