Friday, August 5, 2011

I Can See for Miles and Miles and Miles(tones)

This week, my baby took his first steps. At nearly 14 months old with no real signs of walking, I’ll be honest – we were beginning to wonder. I wasn't worried about any developmental delays, as I knew he was taking strides (pun intended) in the right direction; I just anxiously wondered when it would happen. Then, in the kitchen one night as I was doing dishes, I saw it out of the corner of my eye – could it be? Yes, yes! He’s doing it! He’s walking! One step, then two, then three…! Ecstatic, my husband and I tried to get him to do it again…and again…and again. We cheered him on. He grinned and laughed. It was an amazing moment.

Image: digitalart /
Then this happened: When I dropped him off at daycare the next morning, one of the teachers turned to my Little Man and said excitedly, “I heard you were walking all over the place yesterday!” 

At first I thought, “How could she know that?” Then, it hit me - he had been walking at daycare before we ever saw him do it at home. I was crushed. While I had been at work shuffling papers around my desk and sitting in meetings, I had missed this incredible milestone. And I could never get that back.

Fighting back tears as I begrudgingly left my son's daycare and headed to work, I tried to look on the bright side of things. I reminded myself we are fortunate that our child is developmentally on track, and that he is capable of making these kinds of advancements. I reminded myself that I am lucky to have a job that doesn’t require me to travel extensively, a job that allows me to be home to wake up with my son every morning and put him to bed every night. I recalled the many “firsts” that I have already witnessed, and thought of the many, many more to come.

As I settled in at my desk with a cup of coffee and began to check my e-mail and RSS feeds, I saw this article. The Internet had read my mind, apparently. Though the author writes about her struggles with the same conflicted feelings I’ve experienced when it comes to missing milestones in my child’s life due to work, she finds solace in the fact that her husband stays home with her children during the day - at least one parent will be there to witness any developmental “firsts.” But what about households like mine? I work full-time, while my husband works and attends school. Our daycare does not send us updates or call us when Little Man does something new. We find out a good amount of time after the fact, or not at all. Despite my best efforts to convince myself otherwise, I was having a really hard time with the idea of watching these major moments in my son's life pass me by.

Building Little Brains 
The fact is our Little Man was ready to walk, so he walked. Whether or not I was there for the first time is probably irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. That’s because, when it comes to milestones, the rule is not a simple “one and done.” Rather, from birth (and even before) children’s brains are doing the amazing work of forming neural pathways that will allow them to crawl, walk, speak, and feel complex emotions.  
The moment a child actually achieves one of these milestones is just one tiny moment among many in a long, preparatory interplay between biology and genetics (nature) and environment (nurture) (1, 2). 
Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos
While biology takes care of a good deal of this work, the importance of the role of a child’s primary caregiver plays in their early brain development cannot be overstated. In other words, we as parents are a crucial part of the process of laying the foundation for brain-building activity to occur - as well as the subsequent milestones that result from it. With each basic need we meet, each cry we respond to, each touch, hug or kiss, we are actively influencing how our child’s brains form and function.  

Further, children continue to refine and perfect new skills long after the “first” time they achieve them. The ongoing formation of myelin in the brain helps their neural pathways to function more and more smoothly each time. When children start to practice their newly acquired abilities (like walking) over and over, they increase muscle strength and balance.

Parenting: A Series of Moments
My point? There’s more to parenting than just the *one* moment of a child’s first step, first word, or other milestone. As parents, we may not always see the results of the blood, sweat and tears we invest in our children. We might not be there for every "first" moment, or even every second moment. I’m realizing that’s okay. What matters is that we are consistently there for them - to support them, encourage them, pick them up when they fall. This sort of parent-child relationship doesn’t happen in one moment. It doesn’t happen in ten. It doesn't even require that you are with your child all the time.

So, while the milestones in my child's life are often poignantly fleeting, they are not the end all, be all. In fact, when I talk to more seasoned parents, I am interested to discover that most can never remember how old their child was when he/she first rolled over, or their first word. Instead, they remember the little, everyday moments - the smiles, the hugs, the boo boos. These count just as much as those milestones, if not more. Embrace them, cherish them - and leave the "firsts" for the Baby Book. Ultimately, each moment - milestone or not - is only a tiny footnote in the story of you and your family.

1 comment:

  1. Parenting is on ongoing, accumulating, never-ending process. A toddler's first step is a momentous occasion but even bigger is the realization that it is symbolic of his journey toward independence, choice and self-control. What matters more than *when* he took the first step is the encouragement that he receives from his parents, building the self confidence he needs to bravely take all the "first steps" in his future.