I Was Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad At Baby Talk
I’ve always had trouble making conversation. But the pressure to cheerfully babble at my daughter almost did my head in.
“Oh hi.” Those were the first words I said to my baby daughter, Marlo, after the OB unceremoniously tossed her onto my chest, still tethered to my insides yet shockingly self-directed in her quest for boob. They were soon followed by “Heeeey, Baby,” “Oh, Hello,” and once again “Hiiiii.” That vocabulary, uttered with the stoner lilt of a woman high on oxytocin and procreative awe, was enough to get me through the first few hallucinatory days. By about day four, I added desperate apology to my maternal lexicon. “I’m so soooory,” I warbled while changing a 4 a.m. diaper as Marlo’s impossibly vulnerable body vibrated from the force of her own screams, and her scrawny limbs flailed for womb walls that no longer cradled her. “I’m so so sorry.” Because what else do you say to a person who has been recently yanked via tiny head vacuum from the only home she’s ever known and thrust into your rookie hands?
It was at this moment that my husband, a sketch comedy writer, wandered over and suggested that I talk to my daughter. “Tell her what you’re doing as you’re doing it. You know, just ‘yes and...’” he said, citing the golden rule of improv and demonstrating: “Marlo, I’m going to hoist you up by the ankles so I can scoot an extremely tiny diaper under your extremely tiny butt. Now, we gotta cream cheese that bagel with Penaten so you don’t get a rash, then we pull the tabs snug, and presto, you’re done!” He didn’t stop her from wailing — that would require watching a YouTube video of dextrous paediatrician dangling a baby by the throat, wiggling his bottom, and swirling him like a swizzle stick — but I could see her big eyes lock on him as he spoke, a flicker of recognition.
His interjection made me feel many things: full-body irritation but also admiration for my capable new partner in parenting. More than anything, though, I felt inadequate that goo goos and gaw gaws didn’t pour out of me, like a naturally occurring spring of maternal comfort.
I have been conversationally uncomfortable for most of my adult life. Socially anxious and with an echo chamber for a head that rings with my perceived faux pas for days (sometimes years), I’m capable of making almost any interaction weird. I go deep when small talk is required, self-deprecating when schmoozing is in order, verbally incontinent if left with 30 seconds of silence. And when it comes to kids, I’m nearly paralyzed by the radical adjustment of tone and terminology necessary to meet a small person on their level. My five-year-old nephew, who recently told me to stop asking questions I already know the answer to, can attest to this.
I thought maybe things would be different with my baby, that, having made her with my body and ejected her from my vagina, we could skip the awkward getting-to-know-you phase. But the doctor may as well have thrust a clarinet at me and said, “Now play some jazz.” I felt an intense pressure to be comforting to Marlo, hilarious to my husband who turned out to be an excellent baby whisperer, and mellifluous (never cloying or cliché) to friends and family who all seemed to know exactly how to coo lovingly at her. Because as a fresh mom grappling with the overwhelming question of how to be now, it felt like everyone, and especially my inner critic, was an audience waiting to see whether or not I was a natural.
I was not. As Marlo grew more interactive and demanded more attention, my babble was stilted and, at times, bizarre. On a long car ride, I found Cutie Pie in a bag my father-in-law had sent us home with. She was a hand-me-down doll with pallid cotton skin, a dirty white smock that tied in the back, and a tight white cap concealing one remaining strand of yellow yarn-hair. I swooped her at Marlo, riffing that Cutie Pie was sick and lived in the hospital where she was having chemo (keeey-mo). That’s why she only had one piece of hair left. Another time, as I danced a polar bear stuffie up and down Marlo’s leg, I explained that he was the last of his kind on earth. When he was a baby bear, he hopped from ice cap to ice cap with all his friends, but the ice caps melted because too many people ate cows (can you say mooooo?), and now he wanders the tundra alone.
My husband walked in on another diaper change, this time an explosive poo, while I was spinning Old Testament–style tale of vengeance in which Marlo rained down poop upon her enemies, who were caught in their selfishness without umbrellas and were forced to reckon with her poopy, poopy wrath. On several occasions, I’ve accidentally slipped into a Bill Cosby impersonation, which is surprisingly easy to do: purse your lips, roll your eyes upward, shoulder shimmy, say any nonsense syllables and — bang — you’re doing JELLO-era Cosby. (May my daughter only ever know JELLO-era Cosby.)
Often, Marlo would peer up at me with her serious, searching eyes and furrowed forehead, like a Bronte sister who had washed up in a baby body and did not care for my rhyme, metre or illogical explanation of climate change. I was attempting to “yes and…” my way to a rapport that felt authentic, but I was trying too hard and felt like an imposter most of the time. I knew it didn't matter what I said, only that I said something — that I was present — but it’s hard to be present when you’re floating outside your own body, judging every trill: “Ooof, Rachel, you sounded like a Bee Gee with that falsetto. Where’s your jumpsuit, Barry Gibb?”
My daughter is now 15 months old, and I’ve learned that if there is anything naturally occurring about new motherhood it is that the hours are long and they will wear you down. Like some sort of underpaid breakfast television host, you’re up excruciatingly early, over caffeinated, and forced to fill the time with chatter so mindless it would make Kathie Lee and Hoda seem like Pulitzer-calibre journalists. You will be cloying, you will be cliché, you will be hilarious — mostly unintentionally — and all of it will be supremely comforting to your kid. (For now at least; Marlo hasn’t learned to roll her eyes yet.)
Every day, I wake up at 6 a.m. when my daughter yells at me, hoist her out of her crib and start the mom show. These days, it involves books read in a midwestern (or maybe Caribbean?) accent and countless rounds of Marlo, Where’s Your [insert easy-to-find body part]? The words tumble out freely and nonsensically. The self-consciousness and perfectionism that crippled me previously have been sanded away by the force of repetition. Maybe I don’t have the time or energy for rigorous self-analysis anymore. Or maybe I just can’t hear the voice in my head over the sound of my kid squealing for joy.