One of my absolute joys as a parent has been my ongoing, intimate engagement with my child’s acquisition of language. I think most parents would understand this at some level. From the moment a child is born, the dialogue begins. The baby cries and rubs it’s eyes, and we respond. In those early months it’s all about meeting the new little person’s needs, introducing them to the world around them, and prompting them to interact. Mum. Dad. Milk. Peek-a-boo! And then the surprises start.
When my daughter was around 6 months old, I was holding her against my chest in a sling, walking around the lounge room, rocking her to music—when suddenly she kissed my breast, and looked up at me, beaming. I knew she wasn’t hungry, and at first I took the kiss as a random display of affection (for the food source, not me as whole!) Then she did it again, and again, and suddenly I realised—the music on the CD player was Louis Armstrong singing Kiss of Fire, and my baby was kissing me every time Louis sang kiss. Knock me down with a feather.
It was around this time that I came across the idea of baby sign language. In light of the kiss experience, baby signing made absolute sense. I chose a few signs to work with, but the only one that my baby took to was the sign for more. Because—parenting 101—it’s all about motivation. Which is okay because motivation takes all kinds of forms, one of which is communicating life essentials.
Delight is a life essential. When my daughter was 7 months old, I made the saddening decision to withdraw from a Masters course that I’d deferred from a few months before she was born. I knew that I couldn’t give my child the attention she deserved if my head was immersed in the labyrinthine by-ways of cultural theory, and yet… As my baby and I trammed down Swanston Street to my exit interview with the Faculty, we looked at the Christmas decorations. “Star,” I said to her, repeatedly, as I pointed to massive sparkly stars hanging from street lights. She rolled this around her little head, and then the game began. “Da!” she said, pointing to the next lot of stars. We were off. Da! Da! Da! All the way to the university and back again. Yes, I had made the right choice. I had stars in my eyes.
The milestones since then have been many and varied, but some stand out more than others. Like the moment my daughter suddenly realised colour as a concept. She was around 18 months old, and still not much of a talker. Her favourite word at the time was moa which quite handily acted as signifier for her three primary obsessions of lawn mower, mailbox, and more (back to motivation…) Anyway, she rushed up to me, purple crayon clutched in hand, purple dress in the other, her face ablaze with excitement. She shook the crayon and dress at me meaningfully. Look Mummy. Look!!!! She persisted despite my blank incomprehension, and then… Oh my. We went to the crayon box. “Which one is red?” I asked. She pointed to red. “Green?” She pointed to green. Orange, blue, brown, yellow ochre… (we’re a bit arty at our place) She pointed to them all. She was exploding with accomplishment. She couldn’t say the words, but because the words existed she could receive and hold this amazing, wonderful concept, and she could find a way to share her understanding.
There are some concepts of course that the English language has no adequate word for. Love of a parent for a child is one of those concepts. If I want to convey to you how I love my child, I need to use not one, but many words, stringing them together to tell you the story of how our love unfolds and of how it changes me. I’ve been a lover of words for as long as I remember, but parenting has enriched my understanding of what is means to be a logophile. Love—deep love—is not a solitary thing. Such love is the recognition of self in other, and it motivates us to search for ways to encapsulate and share that which matters. Sometimes the way lies in a gesture—a touch on the arm or a hug. More often than not though, the way is through words. Thank you, words.