I think Fiona was about fifteen months old when I watched a typical two-year-old answer his mother’s questions. “Do you want ice cream?” she asked, and he nodded. “Do want water?” He nodded. The nod was a cute, exaggerated head-bob. Then the kid got what he wanted.
I was amazed. First, that he understood, and second, that he could reply. How much simpler would my day-to-day parenting be with Fiona, I thought, if she could just answer a yes-no question? Although I knew Fiona’s daily rhythms, knew when she got tired and when she needed to eat and when she just wanted to play, and although I could often read her with an intuition that felt nearly psychic (but was probably just the result of, you know, being a person’s mom), there was still a lot of guessing. If she was hungry, did she want a bottle, or food? If we were eating food, did she want sweet potatoes, or prunes? If she started refusing food, did that mean she was done eating altogether, or was she just fed up with the pureed carrots? It was a lot of guess work. Lots of spoons in her face, lots of messes made as she smacked the spoons away or thrust her food-covered mouth into her highchair. Lots of whining and staring down the food she did want, or just whining in general, leaving me to wonder what she needed.
“I can’t wait until you start to talk so I know what you’re thinking,” I’ve heard parents say to their babies. I’ve heard a relative say this to Fiona — before we knew about her missing bit of chromosome four. But once Fiona had a diagnosis, I actively took this wish and buried it in an unmarked spot in the metaphorical backyard. I couldn’t afford to pine over something Fiona might never have.
Fiona doesn’t speak any words yet. But recently she has learned to nod. It’s a form or speaking, and I’m pretty amazed at the difference it’s made for everyone.
“Do you want water?” I ask. She nods. I give her some water. I keep giving her water until she makes her “all done” sign, which looks identical to her version of “itsy bitsy spider.”
I put the water down. She makes her little mmm sound. “Do you want eggs?” No reply. Or sometimes a little shake “no” of the head. She doesn’t want eggs.
“Do you want yogurt?” Fully body head-nod. I give her yogurt.
And on it goes, a typical meal with the power of yes. What once took steadily 40 to 60 minutes can sometimes just take 20.
Eventually, she gives me the all-done sign. “All done? Do you want out?” She nods. She’s done with breakfast. I pull her out of her chair.
“Do you want to dance?” I ask. She’ll always nod furiously to this one. What it really means is, “Even though I, your mom, am nearly 8 months pregnant, I am willing to bob up and down with you to the beat of dance tracks.” “Do you want music?” More nodding. I usually play “The Dog Days Are Over,” by Florence and the Machine. She lights up. We bob around the living room.
Typing it, I think this must sound silly. Mundane. A minor thing, the head-nod. But the power of yes has subtly changed Fiona’s life. She has a voice now. It’s obviously giving her satisfaction and joy.
The other day, while changing her, I was walking my hands up her legs and toward her neck. It was a tickle session that was driving her half crazy, half happy. Sometimes she’ll get mad when I tickle her. She’s not in the mood. But today, she was borderline. It could have gone either way. Gleeful squeals? Fussy whines? She hadn’t decided. So I stopped. I asked, “Do you want more? More tickles?” She nodded. After that, she was all giggles. I think because she had a say. She had power.
Ian Brown writes about this in his memoir, The Boy in the Moon, about raising a son with an uber-rare genetic syndrome. Brown was speaking with a man who worked with people with disabilities, and the man told Brown that he had to somehow teach his son how to say yes. Brown expressed doubt.
The man told Brown, “‘You must find it’…and his tone was insistent. ‘It is difficult, but it is always possible. It could take as long as a year, but it’s essential. It’s fundamental. And it must be a strong sign that everyone can read…Because it’s his first chance to express his preference. Not even, do you want apple or orange? Just: Do you want orange? No. Apple? Yes. It’s liberty. It’s the first step for him to be free. The first step for him is to choose: that’s the key for him to meet his intelligence….”
I love this. I love this, of course, because in the past month or so, Fiona has learned this. I’ve shared the news with friends, but I still haven’t been able to convey the monumentalness of the head-nod. Brown’s quote here does a far better job. Fiona’s nod is liberty. It’s a key to meeting her intelligence. Did she want to be tickled, or not? She didn’t know. Until I asked her. And then she consented. She chose. She was free to say yes or no. She chose yes. Seriously, it’s an awesome power.
Here are some questions that it appears she understands.
“Do you want to go outside?”
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
“Do you want a strap?” (a strange favorite toy of hers, a simple nylon strap from the fabric store.)
“Do you want eggs/cheese/yogurt/peas/carrots/water/chili/berries/banana/a bottle/etc.”
“Do you want to get up?”
“Do you want to dance?”
“Do you want music?”
“Do you want dad?”
“Do you want to read books?”
She continues to amaze me with how much she understands.