The Secret Language of Motherhood

By Michelle Hébert Boyd
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Mother snuggles baby

A good friend of mine has spent the past two years (and a good deal of money) attempting to learn French. Over lunch recently, as she described her struggles with the French language, she paused, and sighed.

“You couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be in a conversation with someone and actually have no idea what the other person is saying,” she said. “You’re so lucky. You’ve got a real gift for languages”.

I just smiled.

My friend was right on one count. I do have an affinity for languages, and have never experienced the kind of struggles she has in trying to learn a new language. In addition to speaking French with ease, I’ve also studied German, and once taught myself a bit of Spanish in a weekend in order to better my chances at a job (I didn’t get it, but I still can speak very basic Spanish). I even invented a secret language, complete with dictionary, for my friends and I to use when I was in third grade. Well-chosen words and lively conversations have always been important parts of my life.

I thought was in big trouble, therefore, when I was pregnant with my first child. As my due date approached, I became increasingly nervous – but not about the birth. No, I was more worried about how I would communicate with this tiny, wordless creature. I imagined it as a struggle; the ultimate language barrier. The specter of the 352 dull, difficult days of a maternity leave filled with baby talk and nonsensical jabbering haunted me, and I wondered how I would cope with days void of meaningful conversation.

My daughter, however, clearly had meaningful things to say from the moment she was born, and insisted that I listen. She came into this world yelling – not crying, but yelling – and I felt a rush of fear as I struggled to translate those first yells. Was she happy to be here? Was she hurt, or frightened by the birth experience? Was she angry that she’d had to leave her first, warm home? Or was she trying to sing one of the songs she’d heard her daddy sing to her in-utero?

I held her in my arms for the first time, close to my face, and studied her tiny, perfect features with both love and anxiety. She quieted her yelling, and blew bubbles from her delicate, rosebud mouth. With her blinking eyes fixed on mine, she gave me a look that suggested that she recognized me from some other time and place. Without saying a word, I offered all I have to her; she offered me all her trust and love. It was the most profound discussion I’d ever had. I was vaguely aware of other people in the room, of excited chattering and conversations among medical professionals, but I didn’t hear any of it. I was too busy having my first “conversation” with my baby.

The first time I was alone with her, hours after her birth, my nervousness returned. I wasn’t worried about the fact that it had been many, many years since I’d changed a diaper; nor was I worried about getting the knack of breastfeeding. Those skills would come in time, I knew. No, what made me nervous was what would happen when she cried. How would I understand what she wanted? I already loved her so fiercely and wanted so much to make her transition into this world a happy one – how would I know what to do for her? Sure enough, within the first few minutes of being alone with her, she began to cry – a soft, pretty, dove-like noise that made me fall in love with her even more, and made me eager to better understand what she had to tell me. Pushing my fears aside, I instinctively held her close, and spoke to her in a soothing language I hadn’t known I possessed.

After that promising beginning, our early attempts at communicating were not entirely a success. In the early days of my daughter’s life, it seemed we were often speaking different languages. For the first few days of her life, she slept in a crib in the nursery we had so lovingly decorated for her. Even though it broke my heart to have her away from me even for a naptime, I’d been advised that this was for the best – we both needed our rest after a difficult birth, I was told, and I would soon learn to anticipate and interpret her cries. Instead, I began to dread and fear her waking moments. She would cry, and I would run, heart beating wildly, across the hall to her, anxious to quiet her, to determine what was wrong, and to make her happy again. Neither of us was well rested, and I certainly wasn’t any better at understanding what she was trying to tell me. Well-meaning friends and family advised us that she needed to cry now and then to exercise her lungs. Instinctively, I felt that idea was wrong for us. It made as much sense to me as saying that if she was cut, I should let her bleed as it would be good exercise for her veins.
On our third night home, as we put her back in her crib for the fifth time in two hours, she began to cry again. I watched her, and really tried to pay attention to what she was telling me with her whimpers. I watched the way she clung to me, quieting herself against my breast in the darkness. I listened to her, and I listened to my own maternal instinct.

“I don’t like sleeping apart from my baby, and I’m a grown woman,” I thought, “so why would anyone think this tiny girl would want to be here in the dark, alone, in a world so new to her?”

And that settled it. Words or no words, I’d gotten the message that it was my job to help her to feel comfortable in her big, new world,. I picked her up, carried her back to our bed, and we all slept soundly. Those were my first two key lessons in baby talk:

What the baby has to say often makes much more sense than what adults will tell you, and;

Communicating with a baby is equal parts noise and instinct.

After that bumpy beginning, I was on my way to learning to speak her language. Because she spent the first few months of her life either being held, being worn in a sling, or in close proximity to those who loved her most, there was little need for her to cry. Without the frantic cries, she was able to communicate with me even better. As she increased the number of squeaks, goos and coos that made up her vocabulary, I learned to understand the nuances of her language – her expressions, her sighs, and her personality. Now, I wake up in the middle of the night to hear the soft, anxious grunting that is her call for “milkies”. She talks and sings songs of her own creation as she eats at my breast (she’s too young to know that it’s impolite to eat with one’s mouth full). She shares with us her joy in the daily discovery of new things with wide eyes and the most beautiful laugh I’ve ever heard. She greets me in the morning with a giggle and a flash of dimples, and says goodnight with a pat on the breast, an adoring look, and a deep, satisfied sigh. Lying in bed with her in the dark chill of a mid-winter night, I nuzzle her sweet-smelling red hair with my cheek, and we speak to each other as we will never speak to anyone else, in a language that is all our own.

When my daughter was 12 weeks old, I went out for the first time since my daughter’s birth to have dinner with five childless friends (including the one who is struggling with French). They all thought I must have been very eager to “get out”, and away from the dullness of life at home with a baby. They commented that I must have been going crazy without meaningful, adult conversations.

I thought about that comment later that night, as I crept into bed with my baby. I thought about the news stories I’d watched since she’d been born – stories of weapons of mass destruction, partisan accusations, and “wardrobe malfunctions”. I thought about the conversations I’ve had with friends – conversations that often revolve around gossip, office politics, and relationship woes. And it occurred to me that much of what passes for adult conversation isn’t always as fulfilling as I’d once thought. The conversations I was having with my baby were with far more meaningful to me, at that moment, than any political debate or gossip session in which I’d ever taken part. The baby talk I was learning from my daughter was teaching me a whole new language through which I’d filter every other adult discussion and political debate I’d ever have. My conversations – and my idea of what things need to be said and discussed – would never be the same again, because of this small, wordless creature.

We put such great emphasis on teaching language to our children, and seldom think about what they teach us about communication. Now, my baby is babbling and is beginning to learn sign language. In a few months, she’ll be saying her first real words – a huge developmental milestone. For me, though, those first words will be bittersweet, as they’ll mark the beginning of the end of the private, wordless language she’s taught me. Like the secret language I invented for my friends as a child, the language my baby and I share will be pushed aside for newer, more exciting pursuits. She will be able to communicate with others, and will, I am certain, go on to say great and important things. She will have no memory of our first, quiet conversations in the winter moonlight. But I will hold those memories close to me if there comes a time, years down the road, when I long for her to talk to me again, to confide in me, to trust me with that unabashed adoration I see in her eyes. So for now, I’m relishing this secret language my baby girl has taught me, confident that there is nothing more meaningful or thought provoking than the wordless conversations we share.

Michelle Hébert Boyd is a poet, journalist and social worker. She lives in Halifax, Canada with her partner, Andrew, their daughter, Ainsley, and two cats who have a language all their own.