Milestones or Millstones?

When Ladybug was a baby, I always said smugly, “Oh, I don’t pay much attention to the milestones thing. They’re just averages, anyway,” before I proceeded to explain how far ahead of the curve she was. She was (yes, I’m going to repeat it all now) holding her head up at two weeks, rolling both ways at 3-1/2 months, crawling at 6-1/2 months, took her first steps at 8-1/2 months (for such a perfectionist, she sure has a thing for fractions, huh?), etc etc. I still get weekly updates for “Your Child’s Development, Week XXX.” I used to marvel at how far ahead of the game Ladybug was in almost all physical ways (…oh, okay. I still do.).

StrawBee, being premature, has been extremely different. When she was about 2 weeks old, I suddenly realized that she was still acting like a newborn. No, scratch that: She wasn’t even as far progressed as many newborns. Her little lower jaw was still developing enough muscle to suckle at the breast, and any attempt at head-holding-up was nonexistent. Soon I became quite concerned. Those weekly emails for “Your Child’s Development” kept right on coming, and Miss StrawBee was not moving on nearly as quickly as Baby Center’s updates were.

I talked to other mothers of premature infants and was assured that she had until she was two years old to catch up. I was relieved to know it, but still a little worried that it would make more sense to intervene sooner than later—I thought it might be nice to help her get with her age group right from the get-go, instead of waiting until it could be categorized as a “problem.” Fortunately, I had the blessing of mentioning this concern to someone who could help and StrawBee was soon (and still is) receiving monthly visits from her wonderful occupational therapist.

StawBee still is not as physically advanced as Ladybug was at her age. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, I still find myself taking everything StrawBee does in comparison to others in her age group. I stopped visiting the birth forum for May 2009 because I found myself casting too many worried glances at my happy, growing, learning child. I have to remind myself not to think “Oh, but Ladybug was doing that at …. ”

Unlike last time, I’m not the mom with the baby that’s setting the curve. I’m the one with the baby who–with courage and gusto, I might add–is trying to catch up and only just making it.

Fortunately, I’ve already learned (the hard way, of course) to have confidence in the differences. StrawBee will find her own creative solutions, and already has. Ladybug crawled early, true; however, she never learned to scoot. StrawBee has the cutest inch-worm method of moving that has ever existed on the earth (in my professional and—ahem—unbiased opinion, of course). Still, the experience makes me rethink the whole “milestones” thing.

These thoughts came into particular focus a few days ago while visiting my parents. I was repeating some marveled accomplishments to my mother, both of StrawBee’s and those of another adorable baby of my acquaintance. This baby has managed to do some things much more quickly than even Ladybug did (go baby, go!) and I was sharing some of my daughters’ milestones to illustrate the difference. Suddenly, my dad jumped in with, “Which means that Jane Doe Baby is way smarter than your kids, right?”

I looked at him for a moment, utterly nonplussed, before replying, “Of course not, dad!”

He looked right back and me and said, “Well, that’s the way you women make it sound.”

It’s so true.

Any man who has ever said women aren’t as competitive as men has yet to open a thread titled “Milestones” on a birth forum. It’s like the Superbowl of “My dog’s bigger than your dog.” The posters are usually terribly polite about it, true. But everyone (and I’ll admittedly include myself) gets a little chin-in-the-air lift from posting what their baby did sooner than someone else’s—and how far ahead it was of the milestone—and feels a little stomped on when another baby’s done it sooner.

Not that I’m accusing anyone of entering those threads with those intentions. We just seem to gravitate toward these comparisons (Johnny Lingo, anyone?).

And not that I’m trying to single out women. I just haven’t sat in on any all-men conversations lately. Or ever.

Anyway, back to the milestones. Obviously it’s good to have some general information of where your child should be. I do think we saved StrawBee a lot of extra work by having an occupational therapist teach us a few simple exercises (besides, if not for the OT at the hospital, we would have had major feeding problems and probably not been able to take her home as soon as we did). The thing is that parents tend to forget: the milestones aren’t hard and fast rules. They’re more like … guidelines.

Crawling (the up-on-all-fours type), for example, is said to appear between 7 and 9 months. My guess is, a doctor (who is very aware of the milestones, I imagine) probably won’t get concerned until the child is approaching month 10 or 11 without any sign of crawling. A parent, on the other hand, will start saying things to friends to excuse the delay sometime around 7 months, 1 week. “He’s such a cute chunk, it’s hard for him to crawl.” “She was such a peanut when she was born, she’s just waiting to grow a bit.” “All kids have their own milestones.”

Yes, they do. So why do we have to keep reassuring ourselves (and everyone else we run into) that our child is, in fact, going to crawl any day now, as well as write their first symphony because, of course, little John Doe has such an innate musical talent that he’s too busy pounding out a rhythm on the wall to worry about crawling.

I wonder sometimes if this obsession with milestones (or development/education, as it morphs into as the children get older) pushes us to push our kids. Is it really imperative that a toddler know the alphabet, how to count to ten in three languages, and is capable of doing a crab walk? …Not really. Is it bad for them to be able to do these things? …Probably not, especially if they were willing to learn it in the first place.

I just remember how surprised I was, in my short stint in the school system as a teacher-in-training, seeing the kids looking burnt out and disinterested a lot younger than I remember. I can’t help but wonder that if by pushing them beyond their happy imaginary play and musical sessions with pots and pans, we’re actually shortening their interest in an academic career rather than jumpstarting it. That’s all.

Another concern is that parents all over are doubting their capabilities as parents when their children pass that five month mark without sitting up propped. I just wonder when our children’s accomplishments, rather than their character, became the laurel of an excellent parent.

Maybe the problem is with calling them milestones. It sounds so definitive and deadline-like. Maybe if we called them mileguidelines. Or milegeneralities. Or milemarshmellows.

That last one makes me feel particularly warm and fuzzy inside. My child has a great, big, 3-month-sized milemarshmellow to scootch herself into that wonderful crawling stage. Then I can enjoy that crawling stage for a long, lovely time because the walking milemarshmellow is even bigger than the crawling one.

Children should be challenged and taught. Moreover, we do need a general idea of what is “normal” to help them reach their full potential. But it’s a lot easier to enjoy the sunrise when you sit back and watch it, instead of comparing it to every other sunrise in the history of the world.

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About Carolynn the Dyer

If I've learned one thing by having three children in four years, it's that babies are not, in fact, the best birth control. ... Okay, just kidding. I've really learned that laughter is the only way to survive the wilds of parenthood, and life in general. Also, that it is indeed possible to do dishes, parent, and carry on a conversation at the same time. If that sounds like fun, or just impossible, then come join me on my blog--and join me in the jungle.
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