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September 6, 2013 / ginavoskov2013

Hell-Ohhh!

The number of times I say “Hello” to my 13-week-old daughter is ridiculous. Every single time I look at her, I say, “Hello.” When I pick her up in the morning, it’s the first word I say to her. When I change her diaper, when I breastfeed her, when I put socks on her, when I walk from room to room, while I put her in and take her out of her swing…Sometimes I mix it up and say “hi,” but mostly it’s “hello.”

But it’s not just “hello.” It’s “Hell-Ohh!” Always a surprise, like I haven’t seen her in ages, like I was just thinking about her and turned a corner and there she was. Why can’t I mix up the words I choose to say to her? Why is it always “hello”? Why not complicated words, or words that might be useful to her in the future–like “credit score” and “masters degree” and “self respect”?

I’ll tell you why. Because the moment I see her face, all language eludes me. I cannot remember song lyrics, nursery rhymes, poetry, Shakespeare…even animal sounds escape my memory, especially when she’s crying or about to cry. I am left with grunts, zerberts, whistles, and oohs. My friend Micaela, who has the exceptional ability to make up songs (and limericks, and dances, and stories) from scratch at the drop of a hat told me that songs sung to babies need words. That’s all well and good if you’re as talented as Micaela, but if you’re me, baby songs include loads of words like “la la la” and “blrp” and lots of tongues being stuck out. They barely have a tune and, if they do, they may or may not include several well-known tunes patch-worked together. “London Bridge Is Falling Down” can easily follow a verse from “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” which of course will follow “Leader of the Band” by Dan Fogelberg (Dan Fogelberg? What?) with a second or two of unintended yodeling as my voice calibrates to the new tune that I have just miraculously pulled out of my subconscious. I sound like Bjork, but not in a good way.

“Hello” seems to be the easiest word for me to say because I just don’t know what to say to a 13-week-old baby. I mean, I know I can say anything and she will just let it wash over her. I’ve read New Yorker articles to her, read my email, read the New York Today section in the NY Times (which is an awesome way to start your day, by the way, especially if you live in NYC. But maybe it’s just in the mobile version?) And then I’ve tried talking to her about my finances, internet providers, past boyfriends, upcoming plans. But it’s hard to just wax on about all of these topics. (Not the boyfriend one–I could go on for months about those guys.) After a while, it just gets boring. She can’t respond to any of my questions about Syria nor help me reflect about when exactly that one long-term relationship twelve years ago took a turn for the worse and how my insecurities led to its eventual collapse. The only thing I can do to elicit some kind of response from her is to make weird noises with my lips. At least she smiles when I do that, and sometimes she even laughs and copies my noises. So I figure why bore her with long-winded readings of the New Yorker fiction section when I could just give her something she understands? Zerberts.

But there’s all this pressure. RESEARCH SHOWS that children who hear something like 30 billion words before age three (or 30 million. Or 3 million. Or 3 billion. Or 30 kajillion. Something absurd, whatever the number) have a better chance of being successful in kindergarten. So with every zerbert sound I make, I kind of kick myself. That could have been a WORD, Gina. Next time, use a word. Even use the word “horse.” Just say “horse” and you’ve gotten Edith one word closer to being successful in kindergarten. But is it 30 billion individual words? Or just 30 billion words in general? So, like, do repeated words count toward the 30 billion? There must be an app for counting unique words so that you’ll know which percentile your baby will be in by kindergarten.

(And another thing: fuck percentiles. I went through such nonsense with percentiles when she was in utero. She was in twenty different percentiles every week for her size and I had to get all sorts of tests for the last 30 million weeks of my pregnancy because someone somewhere thought she was going to be smaller than someone else’s big fat fetus. There is no better way to make a pregnant woman nervous than by suggesting that someone else’s baby is bigger than her own and by sticking a fetal heart monitor to her stomach 17 times a month so she can watch the heart beat rise and fall and think about her baby struggling to grow every time she feels a hiccup. All this to give birth to a perfectly healthy, perfectly normal little chicken baby who’s reaching milestones as she should and is cute as hell. I wish Science would just lay off of measuring everyone and let all the babies just grow up. Keep your double-blind, peer-reviewed studies off my baby, man.)

As a teacher, I’ve been trained to understand the value of “meeting students where they are” and scaffolding to get them to a more advanced place. Okay, so, with Edith, I’m meeting her with zerberts and a whole lot of hellos. That’s okay right now. We’re both happy with the way things are. And frankly, I’ll do anything to see her smile.

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