Chances are you probably have a strapping, healthy child who runs you so ragged that you accidentally pour tea on your cornflakes and you haven’t had a decent conversation with an adult in about a year. They’re alert. They’re active. They know what channel number CBeebies is on and can navigate an iPad like an Apple Genius.
But that doesn’t stop you from worrying that they might be…a bit…behind. You know, compared to that child of your friend’s, who is the same age and can play Beethoven’s fifth and can build the Taj Majal in Lego and has been tap dancing in his own off-Broadway one-man show since he was nine months old.
Welcome to Developmental Anxiety, a condition that usually affects mothers of perfectly healthy children with absolutely nothing wrong with them. But I’m not here to belittle you. Because I was one of those mothers, and I remember the gnawing, dull, hard-to-shake feeling that my kid was…you know…slow.
You see, my kid didn’t walk until he was 17 months old. It seemed like every other child in his age group was scaling the slide and running into doors, talking ten to the dozen and scooting about on balance bikes. Meanwhile, my child was still crawling around like a tortoise looking for a contact lens.
I knew I couldn’t be alone, and that surely it wasn’t that bad. When I went to the soft play, I could see there were the bum shufflers and the kids in prams who looked about five, and the massive, bouncer-like toddlers still sucking on an afternoon bottle.
But it seemed that in my circle of mum-quaintances, my kid was unique. I was so embarrassed, and kept apologising about it. I was not only the mother who forgot to bring conspicuously healthy snacks in interlocking Tupperware, but my kid couldn’t even WALK. Now I think – duh - he was just a baby! But when you’re right there, all day, every day with your first child, you wait for those milestones with impatience, and when they don’t come, you start fretting and thinking, we’re doing this all wrong.
And it doesn’t help that conversations with other mothers at that stage consist of constant, tedious developmental comparing and contrasting. You know, ‘is yours doing this yet?’ followed by: ‘Well, mine pulled herself up to walk when she was two months old, has all her teeth, is potty trained, sleeps through the night, can speak in sentences and has a job as a hedge fund manager at JP Morgan.’
Developmental anxiety is intense, though. It isn’t just self-indulgent parental competitiveness. There’s so much autism worry around during the early years that any kind of toddler behaviour can seem like a red flag. He only wants to eat breadsticks! He arranges his cars by colour in a straight line! He ignores everything you say! You find yourself prowling around them, looking for subtle indicators of social anxiety or withdrawn behaviour, even when they’re waist deep in the Ikea ball pool trying to bash their friend over the head with an inflatable hammer.
Obviously, if any aspect of your child’s behaviour is really concerning you, get straight to your doctor and do not pass go. But often, our worries are groundless, because kids just don’t go by the book. You can show them page 82 of ‘What To Expect From Your Toddler’ all you like, but they’ll probably just eat it. And our problem is that we DO go by the book – or by what Mrs Woman at the baby group says (who is probably lying in the first place).
I lost count of all the websites I used to haunt at night after my perfectly normal child was in bed. They all said that kids developed at their own pace, while telling you exactly what they should be doing and when. Conversely, there was always a crazy hippy lady from San Francisco on some parenting forum whose kid didn’t walk until they were 3. Neither of these things were very reassuring.
But hindsight really is a wonderful thing. I was so anxious about his lack of interest in walking, that weirdly, I can’t actually remember when he took his first steps. It’s all a blur. But all of sudden, he started getting around vertically. Of course he did. Did I seriously think that he would be crawling to work aged 21 with a fat nappy and a onesie with ‘Mama Ain’t Raising No Fool’ written on it?
And, strangely enough, it turned out to be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. After a million falls, bumps, scrapes and really, really slow strolls round the block, all I could think was: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST GET BACK IN THE PRAM.