From the moment my son James was born, maybe even before his birth, I looked forward to hearing his little voice utter the word “Mama.” I anticipated how joyful it would be to hear him call for me, to have him recognize me, to have him give me a name. I had heard that his first word would most likely be “Dada,” and I must admit, I did everything in my power to ensure that “Mama” would come first.
Before James could even walk, I would take him in my arms and guide his little hand to my chest. I would pat his hand against my collar bone and say, “mama.” I would stroke my cheek with his open palm and say, “mama.” While he was taking his nightly bath I would sing songs with him and splash with him and point to myself and say, “mama.” During story time I would snuggle with him and stroke his hand against mine and say, “mama.” I would urge him to say my name every chance I got. As the days wore on and James approached his first birthday I would consult my baby milestone books and search the internet and talk with other moms. Every resource I checked seemed to confirm my suspicions. I started to seriously grapple with the idea that something was “wrong” with James.
James was nearly a year old and he did not speak. Yes, he babbled, but he did not ever say one recognizable word. The term “autistic” cropped up during my forays into diagnosing James’ affliction. Not one syllable that James ever uttered could be identified. Lots of ba ba ba ba and ya ya ya ya, but never a word that resembled an English word. He would point at the dog and say “ee-ee-ee.” The next time he pointed at the dog he would say “ow-ow-ow.” There was no recognizable pattern. No obvious words. He did not seem to recognize that every object had a name. Each person or thing has an identifier and James was not picking up on this fact. With every incoherent utterance I was crushed. I woke up every day with a new hope that today would be the day James pointed at me and would say “mama.” I would write about my heartache in my journal. Journal entry: James still has not said his first word and as his first birthday approaches, I am seriously concerned he may show signs of autism.
At James’ 1-year well visit with the pediatrician, I wriggled in my chair, balancing a squirming James on my lap as I opened my journal to review my talking points. I restlessly sat in Dr. G’s cozy office and listened while Dr. G discussed James’ growth and pointed at the chart to show me how James was growing at a normal rate for a child his age. I listened as intently as I could, but I was distracted by the issues I needed to discuss.
“Do you have concerns, Mrs. Seegert?” Dr. G. asked.
“Well, yes,” I said as I tried to remain calm and composed. James was contentedly sitting on my lap playing with a Scratch and Sniff board book.
“Yes?” Dr. G. prompted.
“Well, James isn’t speaking.”
“Okay. Does he babble?”
“Yes, he babbles to himself.”
“Does he use all the vowel sounds?”
“Yes, he does use all the vowel sounds, but he is just really not verbal at all.”
“Would you categorize him as quiet most of the time?”
“Yes. James prefers to babble when he is alone. As soon as I put him down for a nap or for bedtime, I close the door and he babbles to himself. If I open the door, he falls silent.”
“Mrs. Seegert, I understand you are worried, but observing James right now, I see no reason for concern. He is alert. He responds to his name. He seems to be practicing speaking when he is alone. James?”
James stopped shaking the book and looked directly at Dr. G.
“James,” continued Dr. G, “can you show me the apple?”
James closed the board book and tapped the picture of the apple on the cover of the book.
“That’s right James, apple,” cooed Dr. G.
Dr. G. continued speaking to James and asked him a series of questions and James responded to each question with a finger point or a tap of his hand, then smiled triumphantly each time he was praised by Dr. G. for the correct response.
“Mrs. Seegert, my assessment of James is that he is a very bright child, but he does not see the need to speak yet. He is only a year old. If he still isn’t speaking at 2, then we would take a closer look to see if something might be amiss.”
I left Dr. G’s office feeling deflated. I had no answers and my child still was not speaking. Journal entry: We might be resigned to using sign language from now on as James still refuses to speak to me. Perhaps I am just not connecting with him. Maybe it’s me. Maybe James can sense that I am worried about it. Wish I had some answers other than “wait it out.”
The next few months brought no relief to my worries about the lack of speech. Every day I grew more and more concerned about it. I was consumed with the idea that James was intentionally withholding his words. I could hear him through the baby monitor making sounds and babbling. Sometimes I thought I heard recognizable words like Choo Choo or Dada but whenever I opened the door he fell silent.
One night while giving James his bath I kept repeating, “say mama, James. Say mama. Just once.” I was relentless and I was getting myself worked up over it and James could sense my frustration. I shouted and cried, “why won’t you say it? Why won’t you talk? Why won’t you love me?” James sat in the tub looking up at me and tears streamed down his face. He was completely silent and very obviously devastated.
That was the single lowest moment of my life. I had made my child feel badly for something he very obviously could not comprehend. I could never apologize for such a cruel act. I tried to recover and lighten the mood by singing “Rubber Duckie” but James just sat there looking at me, tears streaming down his chubby little cheeks, his spirit completely crushed. I tried picking him up and hugging him to my chest and wrapping him in his favorite hooded frog towel as I hugged him tight. I tried rocking him to give him comfort. I tried wiping away his tears and repeatedly uttered “I am so sorry. James, I am so sorry.”
But, my ordinarily affectionate child was stiff. My little mush would not let me comfort him. He did not melt into me and bury his face in my neck as usual. He was completely still except for his breathing that was now the staggered breathing of a child who has been crying. Sniffling and quiet sobs were his only sounds.
I held him and hugged him for what seemed like hours, eventually giving into the fact that I had hurt my child deeply. I did not know if I could ever repair our relationship. I intentionally shamed my child. I am a monster.
Silently I finished drying James gently with the frog towel and took out the blow dryer to warm his little head. Ordinarily James loved the hair dry and giggled when I put it on a low setting and ‘teased’ him with it, alternating between his hair and his tiny little feet. I would nibble at his bare belly and we would get silly and then snuggle and then I would slip him into his pajamas. Tonight, none of the playfulness brought him joy.
After pajamas and tooth brushing I sat James in my lap as always and I read his favorite book, “Chugga Chugga Choo Choo.” James ordinarily turned the pages. Tonight he just sat in my lap and stared at the pictures on the pages. I tried not to cry when I picked him up and placed him into his crib. I covered him with his favorite blanket and kissed his warm little cheek. I whispered, “I love you, James.” He just rolled over, turning away from me as quickly as he could.
I fell apart. I stood next to his crib and sobbed uncontrollably. I could not bare the pain of what I had done to him. I climbed over the railing of the crib. James sat up and looked at my face. He took his tiny little hand and touched my tear-streaked face. I hugged him and he snuggled into me. Eventually we both laid down and I curled up with him, spooning his tiny little body and sobbed until I fell asleep. I woke up somewhere around midnight when my husband came home from work and couldn’t find me. I was achy and sore and tired and emotionally drained. I did not tell my husband what had happened. I was afraid of what he would think of me.
Journal entry: I hate myself. James has seen my ugly side. A side so ugly I did not even know I had it in me. I scared him. I scared myself. I am a horrible person. I am a horrible mother. I can never redeem myself for the pain I caused.
The next morning I was sitting in the kitchen sipping my second cup of coffee when James woke up. It was 6am, his usual time. I heard him kicking the side of the crib rhythmically. I opened the door slowly and there he stood, in his crib, facing the door and he greeted me with his wide smile and outstretched arms. James had forgiven me. I still could not forgive myself. I looked at this amazing child and thought how I did not deserve his affection. His hug brought me to tears that morning. Journal entry: Patience. Calmness. Kindness. Three things all parents should practice. I am trying.