Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dad: The Worry Reflex

For anybody who’s expecting – or even just toying with the idea of one day producing an offspring or two – just know in advance that there’s going to come a time, probably weekly, that you will be CONVINCED that your child is suffering from a genetic defect, a life-threatening illness, an uncorrectable developmental delay, or simply a lack of perfect parenting. Three of those four scenarios are usually false, but don’t try and tell that to a new parent because while it may seem like we know better and are keeping our wits about ourselves even in the most heated of crises, we are, in truth, always freaking out somewhere in the back of our minds.

I think that a person’s brain chemistry changes once they have a kid, because I sure as hell didn’t used to be this high-strung in my pre-fatherhood days. Maybe there’s some secret area of the cortex that awakens once you become a parent and reroutes all rational thought to your brain’s “Worst-Case-Scenario Processing Unit” that sits between the “They’re All Out to Get Me Paranoia Generator” and "Mental Breakdown Button." The word “reflex” is the best description I can give because it’s not something you can control, and it happens so suddenly that before I can say pneumonia, my mind is already equating a sneeze with the early stages of whatever went wrong in The Walking Dead

My worry reflex is tingling.

The worst I can recall this happening to me was over the last two months when Susan’s lack of talking, or what the baby books call “babbling,” had me sure that she was either deaf or incapable of speech. For all the cooing and playful screams that came from Susan’s mouth, as of about five days ago she had yet to say anything that resembled an actual word. Yes, she would converse with us, respond with her own OOH's and AAH's, and had mastered almost all of the vowels, but the consonants were sorely lacking. One time I swore she said “Uh oh Bob,” but since I know for a fact that she has yet to see the Bill Murray classic “What About Bob?”, I considered it a fluke. 

Uh oh Bob, indeed.

Now I’m not saying that you should ignore any signs of significant problems your child may have, and the bottom line is that if you’re concerned about something it’s never a bad idea to ask your pediatrician. I know several people who have children with learning disabilities, and I commend them all for dealing with their own day-to-day worries regarding their kids better than I ever could.

However, this particular instance of worry-without-cause was entirely on me, though I shed some of the blame on Susan’s pediatrician, who we love but who has yet to catch on to this particular “quirk” of mine. The last time Susan went in for a check-up was on her six-month-old birthday, and at that point the doc told us that we should expect to hear her start babbling within the next few months. She told us to keep talking to Susan normally but also to say lots of MA-MA-MA-MA, DA-DA-DA-DA and BA-BA-BA-BA in hopes that Susan would reciprocate. Easy enough. I figured after a few weeks of talking to Susan like Ozzy Osbourne during a week-long bender at Bonnaroo, the girl would be reciting Shakespeare by October and delivering motivational speeches on par with President Thomas J. Whitmore before Thanksgiving. 


But about 2.5 months and 40,000 MA-MA-MA-MA’s later, Susan still hadn’t given us any MA’s, DA’s or BA’s in return. For me that’s when the Parental Worry Reflex kicked in. I’d felt it before, like the first time I bumped her head, or when we convinced ourselves that she had a major flat spot on the back of her skull or when she wouldn’t laugh at my hilarious moderately funny jokes, but this time my worry reflex was in overdrive. Susan had hit all of her previous milestones at exactly the right time, making us feel like competent parents who were doing things exactly right, just like Chuck Norris' mother. She rolled over at four months, sat up at five months and crawled at seven months, but it had been almost nine months and she still hadn’t started babbling. Even though her doctor CLEARLY said she would.

So at that point, I did what all bright, rational and self-confident people do when they need an important question answered, and consulted the internet.

I googled “My baby doesn’t babble” and found that about 5 million other parents shared the same concern. I checked out the first few page results, ignoring the paragraphs saying helpful things like “Don’t worry if you child isn’t babbling” and “Children develop at their own rate” and “Why are you toying with your own sanity by consulting internet forums which we all clearly know are the least accurate information resource in the world.” Instead, what I focused on were the freak-out words that always seem like they’re written in big, bright red font. You know, things like HEARING PROBLEM, DEVELOPMENTAL DELAY, and YOU SHOULD CONSULT YOUR PEDIATRICIAN IMMEDIATELY.

What do you know, MomOfDamien.

I went over to Susan immediately and snapped my fingers in both her ears. She turned and looked at me like “WTF are you doing that for? Clearly I’m in the middle of something important with this ball and cup.” So she wasn’t deaf, that’s good right? WRONG. If she wasn’t deaf and still wasn’t babbling, that only meant the next logical conclusion that she was probably suffering from a brain hemorrhage that I inflicted when I (ACCIDENTALLY) knocked her head on a door four months ago. After some more help from the internet, I determined that Susan needed to be fitted for a hearing aid and then pulled out my phone to call the doctor.

Then a funny thing happened. My wife, who will fully admit that she is also prone to OMG THIS IS THE WORST THING EVER freak-outs, told me to calm the eff down and quit being a diva. “She’ll start talking, I promise. Just wait.” she said. Um, cleary not, I thought, because obviously if Susan wasn’t talking before her 9-month birthday, she was never going to get it. Ever. But I listened, put the phone down and waited.

For the next few days, every Susan grunt and squeal was just further proof that our baby was never going to talk, would never be able to yell at the TV with me for the Panthers to THROW THE FREAKING FOOTBALL, or would never be able to hold court on the merits of the designated hitter rule. Needless to say, it weighed on me.

Then on Thursday morning, Mary and I were busy-bodying in the kitchen while Susan tooled around in her Pack-n-Play. She was going through her normal rotation of EEEEEEEEEE and OOOOOOOOO and UUUUUUUH when all of a sudden she started humming. It started as mmmmmm and built up into an unmistakable mmmMUH. Then another. mmmMUH mmmMUH mmmmmmMUH mmmmmmmMUH MUH MAH MA-MA-MA. Mary and I looked at each other, totally NAILED a high-five and then Mary broke into a dance that I can only describe as the Funky Chicken Tootsie Roll. I joined in with my rendition of the Cabbage Patch, and so there we were, two grown-ass adults dancing (badly) by ourselves in the kitchen at 6:00 AM while our baby said MA-MA-MA-MA and our dog backed away nervously. The blinds were open, so if any of our neighbors were awake at that hour, I hope we added a little excitement to their morning Corn Flakes.

Now Susan says MA-MA-MA all the time and has even thrown in a few BA-BA-BA’s and WA-WA-WA’s. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot she can do with those syllables at present, but who cares! She can talk! And best of all, it’s taking my mind off her nasty cold and the fact that she isn't walking yet.

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