The young moms gathered their kids on the shaded wrap-around porch, where Tracy had covered a low tabletop with a huge sheet of paper for finger-painting. Twenty toddlers and preschoolers stuck their hands in the paint and laughed. Dressed in swim diapers, they were ready for anything. My daughter Madeleine's voice sang over the crowd. My toddler Brendan painted happily, right by her side. He liked several of these kids, our family friends.
With the other adults, I strolled upstairs to the screen porch, where drinks were chilling next to bowls of strawberries and boards of cheese. This was Tracy's open house for her new preschool. We looked like a magazine shoot on the first day of summer. Some child-painters were already washing off in the lawn-sprinkler with Tracy's grade-school sons.
I sank into my chair with a glass of white wine, closing my eyes and listening to the delicious patter of mom-talk. My closest friends were in that room, but our schedules never matched like this. With my two children, ages one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half, I desperately needed conversation.
Small bare feet slapped toward me. "Home?" Brendan's sad face searched my eyes. I gave him a bite of strawberry, and a second bite.
"We don't have strawberries at home, or finger paint. Did you like painting?" A solemn nod. I fed him more strawberry. "Did you paint blue?" A nod. "Yellow?" Another nod. "Red?" At twenty months, Brendan spoke in single-word sentences. You can get Early Intervention for speech therapy, moms whispered to me. They can help.
"Home." Brendan's lip trembled, and I lifted him to my lap; maybe he could sleep, and I could be at this party. Instead he clutched my neck and sobbed. I fumbled for my keys and my bag. Another mom offered to take my daughter for the afternoon, while I drove my weeping boy home. Hours of packing and dressing and driving and settling, for that one mom-conversation that would stretch long into the afternoon — now it would stretch on without me.
Back in our apartment, Brendan pulled out his wooden train tracks and began to build. I sat in the bathroom and cried. The lost parties and lost connections seemed so hard, multiplied by worry. What was going on in that little head?
When I was a toddler, several doctors warned my mother that I would be "slow." I'd been born early and scrawny, the ugliest baby she had ever seen. Mom told this story again and again, shouting the words "ugly" and "slow," with a guffaw. "Look at her now!" she would say, grinning, triumphant.
Ironically, I was slow — just not in the way the doctor implied. I dawdled when I walked and I dawdled when I ate. I could not be roused from my reading or my drawing. My parents called me Pocahontas, derived from Pokey, which was short for Slow-Poke, but the names didn't make me move faster. I took my own sweet time.
My husband Scott and I intended to give our children their own sweet time. We didn't watch television. We didn't "do" lessons. We did the beach. We cooked. We invited the neighbor kids over for crafts. But Brendan's need for home time pressed me to be even slower. Instead of Tracy's summer preschool, we played outside in the morning and we spent the afternoon in The Quiet Hour, fixed in our solitude-corners, napping or playing quietly, sometimes for the rest of the afternoon.
The speech therapist from Early Intervention visited weekly. She said Brendan clearly understood everything we said, and he would respond when he was ready.
Eventually we visited a Waldorf playgroup, where Brendan climbed down off my lap to play with the knitted ponies and the wooden barn. He began to use full sentences at age four, in a nursery school with low lighting and the scent of baking bread. Gentle predictability, just like home. We chose Waldorf elementary school for both children, where they could take their own sweet time without grades or pressure.
At age fifteen, Brendan now stands at exactly my height, though I am sure he will surpass me soon. Handsome and athletic, the boy still needs more down time than anyone I know. Naps, laziness, quiet. Sometimes I'd like him to push a little more, but he manages his own pace, and he is happy.
After a bout of migraines last year, Madeleine stopped everything, including school. At her sickest, her days reminded me of Brendan's toddler years: she couldn't explain, and I couldn't leave the house. Her medication helped her to return to school. Oddly enough, she struggles with the same triggers that bothered Brendan: overhead lights, strong smells, noise, unpredictable crowds. Otherwise known as Public High School.