Babies are fascinating—and frustrating—because they are resistant to organizing frameworks like language. In an infant’s early years, many caregivers speak in “motherese,” a simplified, higher-pitched, and exaggerated form of speech that helps children identify the boundaries between words and phrases. When accentuating the phonemes that distinguish one word from the next and highlighting the nuances of American linguistic culture, a well-loved stuffed “bunny” becomes “bun-eeeee,” with a cloying lilt. One study found that mothers adjusted the timbre of their voices in the same manner across twelve different languages, suggesting that, regardless of mother tongue, infant-directed speech is a common form of care. “Baby talk,” in other words, is not just a saccharine expression of the maternal—it lays the foundation for linguistic development and for a child’s entrance into the institutions that make the world as we know it.
Speaking motherese is hard and exhausting work, and it continues well past the pre-linguistic phase. Language acquisition comes in stages, and as babies grow into children, they ask questions. They need direction and explanation and they need it in a form that makes sense to them. Week after week, year after year, mothers have to find new ways of conversing with their kids. Though some child development specialists now encourage the refusal of baby talk in exchange for “regular, authentic” speech, children of every age require caregivers who navigate an ongoing attention to developmentally appropriate communication. Generally speaking, it is mothers who perform this work. In their interpretation of data on mother-infant and father-infant speech, some researchers deny the centrality of motherese in linguistic socialization and reinforce a gendered division of labor: Motherese allegedly provides domestic linguistic fluency, while fathers—who less frequently alter their speech patterns—teach infants the language of public life.
In the postpartum period, before my daughter could speak, there was a comfort in the silence we shared. I’d fled the world I’d known previously—a professional life based on the study of words—to share my time with a person who’d not yet been traumatized by language. My baby and I were all touch, at sea together, floating through space and time without the words to speak our big love for one another, a love that was tested again and again by her ruthless dependence on my body. And though I spoke to her—it was the only way out for us—I also knew in the earliest months that my words were just noise.
But language takes hold quickly. When my daughter was only a few months old, I could see in her eyes and gestures that she understood me, even if she couldn’t yet respond with speech. Our commingling of touch and affect, my one-way communication, had turned without warning into ordinary human relation. She protested. I learned to refuse her. We told each other about what we wanted, and sometimes, in our new negotiation of bodies and boundaries, we hurt each other. She, now her very own sea, consumed me.
Infant specialist Magda Gerber claimed that one of the best ways to respect children and support their growing minds is to engage in “sportscasting,” the verbal narration of a child’s behaviors, interactions, and feelings. One argument for this approach is that it helps children attach language—rather than moral judgments—to their actions. Gerber’s odd evocation of our national obsession with athletics aside, the practice offers caregivers a method for nurturing children without imposing or projecting their own beliefs onto the child. The best sportcasting is coolly detached, loving in its objectivity.
Gerber’s sportscasting and its offshoot parenting philosophy Resources for Infant Educarers® (RIE) has been endorsed by celebrities like Tobey Maguire, Penelope Cruz, and, ironically, Felicity Huffman. Its dogmatic following has also been facilitated by actress-turned-blogger Janet Lansbury, who encourages independent play and low-intervention parenting. RIE’s popularity should not surprise. In a highly controlled form, the narrative approach to parenting simply captures what mothers have been doing all along: telling stories to their babies.
It proved difficult for me to engage in the practice of sportscasting. I had to acknowledge my own narrative point of view, my ongoing intervention in the story. Language, after all, is morally loaded. Observing my child was a kind of world-building, and the power it contained often overwhelmed me. I could say anything to her, and the act of me saying it would make it true!
Telling the story of the world may be the hardest work of motherhood. We are not the only authors of our children’s stories, but we do shape beings who live in a world we repeatedly re-dramatize for them. We try to offer them the best possible chance at a fulfilling story by imposing characterization in a variety of ways, our own beliefs always positioning center. When I became a mother, the attention to detail I had been trained to labor over as a writer became my daily out-loud work. As I narrated everything around us, I told stories about how we live and how we might live better.
“Now we are going to change your diaper,” I would say. And battle the hesitation to discuss cleanliness when speaking to a little girl about her body.
“This is a sock. This is your toe. You have ten of these things.” The cultural necessities of clothing, our enumeration of parts.
“At night, we are supposed to sleep.” Moderating desperation and rage in my voice.
And, eventually, “His body is different, as all bodies are.”
Writing the world is the work of every mother, and discovering our authorial intention is an ongoing process.
For Adrienne Rich, who gave up writing during her “childbearing years,” then found it again years later, the page was a place where she could exist as a non-mother. My writing, in contrast, has always been about motherhood in some sense, even before I had a child. When I began writing about motherhood in my twenties, I began showing up as a woman on the page. I wrote about my mother and her penchant for storytelling, always a guide for my own, and I wrote about other mothers—women whose love and abuse and pain and joy made me the woman and the feminist I am still becoming. I discovered I had been fed the “neutral” white male voice and had associated that voice with genius at the expense of my own. And I began writing into my mother’s own breathless and relentless practice of storytelling—her ongoing efforts to reshape her troubled childhood, the world, and herself.
After giving birth, writing about motherhood felt too close, too personal, too much like a fresh wound that needed tending rather than analysis. When I approached the page, I feared how I would land, what kind of mother I might reveal myself to be—how the documentation of motherhood might disrupt the labor of it. Before I gave birth, I understood that the unlikeable “bad” mother speaks to us about the myths of motherhood and femininity. My own mother, in her struggles with men, money, addiction, and work, and who I wrote about in my first book, had taught me the cost of the stories we tell about mothers. On the other side, a baby on the floor looking up at me: I did not want to be that kind of mother, much less create a record of my failings.
What I know now is that mothers, as players in their own narratives, never stand a chance of coming out on top.
When my daughter began speaking her first words, I understood most of what she said but my husband and many others close to us did not. I served as translator. While listening to her speak, I ran through my mental catalog of her consonant sounds, the unique exceptions to her rules: “S”s and “L”s were often spoken as “Y”s, as in “yad” for “sad” or “yeaving” for “leaving,” but not always, as in “wuv” for “love.”
As with all human language, toddler speech is mysterious and arbitrary. Transpositions of consonant sounds often occur, but their shift in position is not always exact, clear, or consistent—as in “yaso” for “sausage.” Some early words are more idiosyncratic than others. For years, my daughter referred to her mermaid doll as “emya” and called all adults “budus”—the latter being a gender neutral and phonetically enigmatic noun she’d coined to make sense of folks she did not know, those big creatures that loomed over her in public spaces. These neologisms are generally mothers’ favorites. We hold tight to these linguistic quirks, wishing never to forget them.
My daughter’s unconventional words and phrases came together in short sentences shortly after the 2016 election. She was in the middle of her second year of life. By the time of the wire “tapp”-ing tweet, she was putting together sentences of five or more words, testing out conjunctions. This marked a major leap in her linguistic development. She could narrate her actions as well as others’, and my interpretation of the world was just one element of her story now. The terrifying danger of the capacity to reframe experience, how that brings the possibility of denying others’ experiences, and how clearly I was watching these processes play out in my home and in political rhetoric, was not at all lost on me.
In the springtime, a few months before her second birthday, my daughter slipped on a stair at the park. She wailed and then nursed, and I carried her to the car. Back at home, I put her down to stand and her leg buckled under the weight of her little body. I rushed her to the ER, where the tall male doctor asked her about her pain. She refused to speak to him, so he asked her to walk the fluorescent-lit hall of the hospital. As I lifted her off the examining table and moved to set her up to stand, she refused to let go of me, a common expression of anxiety for her around “budus.” The doctor asked me to keep trying to get her to walk, and I obeyed in a panic, begging and reasoning with her, not knowing if the doctor believed her injury was real or imagined.
She did eventually walk down the hall, but she did so cautiously and crying, hobbling with all her weight on the heel of the affected foot. The doctor “strongly” advised casting her leg up to the knee despite an inconclusive X-ray. There was no way for us to know what sort of pain she was in or to what extent her refusal to walk normally was rooted in fear of the pain she’d felt trying to stand back at home, but the doctor was calm, even-toned, and I complied with his orders because he repeatedly emphasized that his advice was “strong.”
After we agreed to the cast, I carried my daughter down the hall, where the nurse enthusiastically offered pink fiberglass. “No!” my daughter said, unraveling again. “Byu one!” As the first color she could identify by name, blue was her preference for most things. The nurse wrapped her lower leg and foot in white gauze and, seeing my daughter’s need for some control over the situation, let her choose from a spectrum of blue casting tapes. As she squirted glitter glue over the dark blue tape, the cast set and the nurse asked my daughter mundane questions about which princesses she liked—questions that received no answer.
I called the cast the “super magic boot” in an attempt to help my daughter understand why she could not remove it for over a week. At the ER, I had also re-named the X-ray the “super picture machine,” my own reliance on “super” strangely echoic of the doctor’s emphatic advice.
In her book on the subject, Elaine Scarry argues that pain is a solitary state because of its resistance to language. Still, the body in pain begs for language even as its experience evades it—for Scarry, recognition remakes the world for the subject who has been shattered by trauma. Though any form of testimony and witness is incomplete, we nevertheless rely on that estimation of connection to feel whole again.
When the doctor first asked my daughter to describe her pain, she denied him because she had never met him before. She did not see him as a figure of power in her world and she did not value him as a witness to her pain. As the doctor examined her in the ER, even before he began pressuring her to walk the hall, she sat on my lap looking up at me for direction, fearful of his touch. She had always been especially wary of male “budus,” even though she did not yet have an articulate concept of gender, and I could never blame her. On some level, she was already observing the effects of gender on bodies in the world, even though she had no words to speak of how men are so often raised not to care, not to relate to children, not to show warmth. The ER doctor manipulated and moved her foot and leg about while I stroked her hair; her face was turned away from his, buried in my chest. She sobbed and raged, and I fumbled for words, unsure how to explain that this strange man had to touch her despite her wishes to the contrary, but that no one else does, ever, not unless she offers them an invitation. My power over her body was unsettling.
Even if we desire resolute autonomy for our children, their bodies begin as extensions of our own. We bathe their every part, we make decisions for them, we speak for them—even when they push us away. These tiny and trivial moments of control often felt to me like traumatic, irreversible swerves in my daughter’s budding story.
For weeks after the ER visit, she asked me to retell the story about the doctor touching her legs and how upset she was, a repetition of narrative the only way for her to make sense of the experience. I could see in her eyes, as she listened, that she was turning over the words in her mind, fitting them into what she knew of the world, what she could then say.
I could not shake the feeling that I had been complicit in some kind of violation, though the doctor’s touch had been gentle, clinical, quick. Some sort of betrayal had transpired linguistically if not physically. What could she have said to take part in her own story? She said, “ankle still hurt,” but I had taught her the word “ankle” on the drive to the ER. Eventually she said, “hurt all over,” sweeping her little hand up and down her shin and foot, but this was soon after I had asked her if it “hurt all over.” Maybe my language, the limited terms I had offered, failed her.
When the nurse removed the cast ten days later, the saw’s “yowd noise” scared her. I held my daughter in my lap as she cried hard into my chest again, and I held as still as possible, trying to acknowledge her fear and remain calm at the same time. It felt like such a farce—my hypocritical effort to both make space for her emotions and communicate another way of responding. When it was over, we took the severed cast home as a souvenir, smelled it together, giggling, and tucked it into a box of keepsakes. I told her she was brave because I wanted her to believe it, but I was unsure of what bravery actually meant in that context, other than an active repression of her own emotions, a going-along-with.
After the cast was removed, my daughter began asking me to tell the story of the “yowd noise.” We played it out with sound effects, used our hands to represent the cracking open of the hard cast, the scissors cutting off the last layer of gauze. I asked her how she had felt, and each time she told me she felt “mad.”
“Yowd noise scare me,” she would say each time. Needing to verbalize the feeling again and again—and to witness my response—to make sense of why I had let it all happen.
This was how it went with every bloody hangnail, every deep cut, and with the skinned knee she reopened three times that summer as she learned to run. Her anxiety about blood and the breaking open of her body devoured her. When she got hurt, she refused to look. She wept and shouted and shut her eyes and shook. I did my best to sit with her in these moments, but sometimes, when the crying went on for hours, I raised my voice and begged her to stop, her unrestrained loss of the world too big for me to handle. Over time, she learned to gather the strength to say, “Mommy, I want you to look. Tell me if it’s big.” And I began the process of narrating her pain.
My daughter’s interest in bodily trauma has never gone away. Now, at almost five years old, she still asks me to tell stories with a similar arc: “Tell me a story about someone getting a broken bone,” she says.
I try to divert her—my failure at objectivity has only worsened—substituting narratives that are therapeutic or moralistic. My stories are not always reflective of our shared reality or of the flawed world. They are about perseverance, empathy, responsibility, a love of difference. I speak to her, but also to myself and to the world in which we live. My stories are often confused attempts to piece together a response to my own past and to what might lie before her. This process—the work of articulating the present with her, alongside a struggle for the future—is one of continual separation and loss.
Some mothers tell their children lies to save them from the truth. Sometimes the lies are simplifications, exclusions of facts or context, other times elaborations, aspirations. Other mothers continue their rejection of child-directed speech and are stalwart in the work of exposing children to the adult world. Still others tell stories full of inadvertent (or overt) ideology. Case in point: I never wanted to leave out cookies for a surveilling old white dude who shows love through capitalist commodity, but then my daughter saw him in a book my mother gifted us and we named him, and then she saw him again elsewhere, and then in another place, and then I bought her pajamas with his face because that guy’s cartoonish grin was jolly and cute next to hers, and then she enjoyed saying “Tanta” and seeing him repeated everywhere, and then I enjoyed hearing the way she tried with such delight at the worn appellation. So now we do the Christmas thing, me each year trying desperately to inject some amorphous pagan history into the confusing magical nostalgia of it all.
Most norms in American life have no moral—or ethical—correlative. They are simply made up of what is iterative, because what is repeated becomes most legible. Perhaps this is what feminist mothers whose daughters love helpless and vain princesses understand when they say, incredulous and defeated, or perhaps with a hard-won sense of acceptance: they just pick this stuff up and it becomes part of them. Though we try to structure experience, it has already been structured for us, and, as we age, it becomes more and more difficult to find new language, to intervene in the narratives in which we take part. It also becomes more difficult to imagine the future—we become resigned to the inadequacies of both language and story.
When we begin life, language is play. My daughter’s elation at stumbling into the right pronunciation of a word, her experiments with grammar as the words come together, her exultant articulation of everyday experiences, the stories she asks for again and again—as my daughter comes into herself as a speaking subject, I worry about taking away that joyful relationship with language, knowing that even if I do succeed in helping her find a voice that feels all her own, the rest of the world will likely undo my labor. I know that eventually, inevitably, she will come to know language for what it is: a tool of power.
Around the age of three, just two years after she spoke her first words, my daughter started telling herself stories based on her own observations. These, too, were stories of trauma and loss. They often involved injury, fear, and troubling tropes about pushing through. She had become her own narrator.
“I’ve never seen a grown-up cry,” she said once, surprising herself in the middle of a telling. She was crestfallen.
Postpartum Document, Mary Kelly’s moving six-part, six-year documentation of her son’s transition from infancy to childhood, responds to the tradition in psychoanalytic thought of relegating the mother to a passive role in the child’s psychological development. Kelly’s project records in scientific detail the weaning process, the introduction of solid foods, early utterances, the socializing force of nursery school, her return to the labor force and her own separation anxiety, her son’s first experiences with gender difference (especially as related to his mother’s body), and the development of her son’s handwriting. By chronicling her work at each of these stages, she repositions the mother as an active cultural worker, but also as a mourner—Kelly grieves the loss of her child to institutions of power while reluctantly preparing her child to enter into those same institutions. Postpartum Document pays witness to the painful patriarchal socialization process. The project is an attempt to safeguard against the totality of this loss, but her meticulous transcription of maternal labor also serves as a reminder that safeguarding our children against their entry into the world is an impossible task.
The 1983 publication of Postpartum Document compiles in book form the photographs and notes contained in her original exhibition. In its preface, Kelly writes that her project was an effort to “articulate the mother’s fantasies, her desires, her stake in that project called ‘motherhood.” And so, in the work she created, “there is only a replay of moments of separation and loss.”
Kelly also considers the book publication of her project in relation to the installation, asking: “What is the difference between them—the ‘original’ exhibition and its bookish offspring; what loss is sustained by their inevitable separation?” Like the textual version of Kelly’s visual artwork, the child is never a replication of their dyadic partner, their origin, their creator—their mother—just as Kelly’s exhibition could never fully account for her lived maternal labor. In all creation, including motherhood, there is loss. In every book or photograph, in every piece of art, loss—a continual departure from experience and a longing toward representation. Perhaps our labor rewrites the narrative or the archive, but what we create always remains an abstraction of our experience.
Art is always a form of lying in this sense, but it lies to move us closer to the truth of who we are—what we are doing and what else could be done—rather than to push us further from our shared reality. Researchers have observed that a child’s engagement with “magical thinking” is not all that different from an adult’s experience of aesthetic objects. As children start to create, fantasy is crucial to their development. Imaginative play allows them to work out problems in a creative manner, to construct a broader understanding of the frighteningly big and complex world around them. Children test and try, playing in the known and unknown—each time, when they emerge, the world in which they find themselves is changed.
To speak the story of the world as mothers, we have to let in loss to make space for the recognition that love requires, understanding that recognition requires us to repeatedly mis-recognize ourselves, our own stories, and our own characterizations. It is no accident of humanity that, for a child’s reality to truly come together, both mother and child must learn to lose the world as they know it—not once, but over and over again.
Though my daughter mostly engages in fantasy alone or with friends now, we still exchange stories, and we still disagree on their content. She is gaining a sense of the broader, misguided morality of American life; she has started bringing home those problematic pretend games about “good guys” and “bad guys.” As her world becomes fuller, more complex, it has also grown larger. Her fear of strangers remains acute, but she has begun asking for stories about others, as she considers how trauma shapes the lives of those unlike herself.
“What would happen if someone broke their leg and they were all alone?” she asks as we drive around town.
“That would never happen to you,” I say, and go on with reassurances—your family would come looking for you, mommy and daddy always know where you are, strangers are kind and would offer to help, everyone has cell phones—but she is not interested in my positivity or in my narrow thinking. She is insistent about me entertaining her fantasies and is perceptive enough to know that my tellings sometimes rely on omission. Though her childhood narcissism remains, she no longer wants to center every story on herself.
“Just tell me, mommy,” she presses, as if she already knows the answer. “Just tell me what would happen if someone got really hurt and no one came to help them?” We talk through a series of worst-case scenarios and I try to be light with my tone, but also serious enough for her to understand her own privilege.
She demands I take the story to its limit, and maybe I let her because I do want her to know the truth about her world, this world. I tell the story completely until we find ourselves on the subject of death and of grief, and how necessary it is to have another person with us to make the loss of the world something in which we can find meaning.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick