Yesterday was my daughter’s second birthday and, as one does, I decided to kill some time by checking her development against a series of online checklists. I recognize that this is not unlike my obsessive drunken readings of countless, “Are YOU an alcoholic?” articles that I used to do, cocooned in my office with a rapidly diminishing bottle of Jack, when I was supposed to be writing.
Things on the two-year-old front started off quite nicely, I knew just from watching her play with the older kids at our neighborhood park that her motor skills are excellently developed, and I was just about to start patting myself on the back when I got to the language development section. I checked off a couple of no’s. Then a couple more. Then had a, “what do you mean does she string two or three words together?” moment. The feeling was familiar. (Do you often find yourself unable to stop, once you’ve begun drinking? Have you ever failed to do what was expected of you, due to alcohol? Do you ever feel guilt or remorse after a night of drinking?) Shit. I guess there is a problem.
I can’t say that part of me didn’t know it already. She has a few words: no, stop it, uh oh, shoe. Nuh, a catch-all term for food shortened from numuhnumuhnumuhnum, her original bastardization of my over-the-top introduction to every meal: “yum, yum, yum, let’s eat it up!” She gestures quite articulately, while babbling up a storm, and understands some basic commands. But could I say that she’s really talking? No, not really. Still, I held out hope that maybe I was worrying for no reason. But her pediatrician confirmed, during her checkup today, that there is definitely a delay, and we left with a referral to a local speech therapist.
I’ve found that nothing in my adult life can gut me quite like that feeling that I’ve failed, as a parent. “Just be sure to talk to her a lot, you know, modeling the words for her, during the day,” the pediatrician said, and I wanted to ask her what the fuck she thought I did all day, sit there and stare at the kid in silence? “Oh, and lots of reading!” she added, as if having some great epiphany. Like, look lady, there’s not actually a wall in my home that isn’t covered in bookshelves. But you can’t say that, really, you can’t defend yourself in those moments without looking guilty of something. I just nodded, mumbled. We do. We do.
Still, I’m wondering if I’ve let some things fall through the cracks. She’s fiercely independent, and I’ve nurtured that. She’s always played happily by herself. She’s content to sit next to me with her own laptop and notebook, while I work. She wanders around the playground on her own while I read, only stopping by to check in with me when she finds a particularly interesting leaf, or wants her snack. So, no, I don’t talk to her twenty-four hours a day. But I do it pretty non-stop when we are engaging with one another. I dictate our activities while we’re cooking, cleaning, or playing. I sit for as long as she wants to, as often as she wants to, naming the pictures in her book while she points. I read to her, say blessings over her, point out interesting things while we walk. Yet, here we are.
I remember this helpless feeling, from those nights spent increasingly drunk, failing alcoholic test after alcoholic test. None of them tell you, once you’re done, what to do with the information they’ve just handed you. See a doctor, they say. This test is intended for educational purposes only. Only you can ultimately decide whether or not you’re an alcoholic. Well, fuck, in that case I’m great, right? Or, my favorite: if you’re wondering whether you have a problem, then you likely do. I regularly think I have all sorts of diseases, post-seeing Dr. Google. Can you imagine if it were that easy to diagnose cancer from the pain I’ve had in my leg for the past year? Or a brain aneurysm after reading that horrific article about the young mother my age who keeled over dead at the dinner table? And visiting an actual doctor about it isn’t much more help. The several times I did that over the years they all, without fail, handed me a printout quiz identical to the one I’d pored over the night before, and then shrugged. Couldn’t hurt to cut back, they’d say. Just drink more moderately.
I don’t know what the speech therapist will say about my daughter’s delay, but surely it’ll be more helpful than the pediatrician’s advice. It could be caused by a million things, it seems. It could be nothing, just uneven development since she is so physically advanced, and one of these days she’ll look at me and give a carefully-measured thesis on Goodnight Moon as if nothing were ever amiss. I’m trying to utilize the tools I’ve been working on in recovery—mindfulness (stay in the moment with her, not constantly evaluating), gratitude (appreciating that we are well-educated and motivated to work with her, and that we have health insurance and the means to get her whatever outside help she might need), and affirmation (acknowledging that we have raised her in a language-and-print-rich environment, and given her the best head-start that we’re capable of)—in order to keep those old feelings of hopelessness and shame at bay. And I guess this is what recovery is really all about. Just dealing with life’s bullshit without numbing out in a bottle. I can’t say I’ll be able to do it forever, but for now it’s working okay.