From his perch in the front of the grocery cart, my 14-month-old son wails and flails his arms. His face is red and tear-streaked. I put on my calm face and wait for the other shoppers in the canned goods aisle to push their carts past us. As the last one rounds the corner, I begin with our favorite routine: my arms V-shaped like crocodile jaws coming to get him while my hands clap and teeth clack. My son laughs, so I roar a loud, hearty guffaw. He laughs louder.
Encouraged, I tilt my head back, howl like a coyote, shake my arms like I’m doing the chicken dance and skip my feet. This illogical combination of animal noises and moves comes naturally to me. My son is thrilled and rewards me with the free cookie he got from the bakery. I pretend to take a bite, rub my tummy, shake my hips and yell, “Yummy!”
It takes awhile to process the exasperated “Excuse me.” Before I can react, a man reaches past me and grabs a can of chili beans. I turn to see more grocery carts, lined up like an attentive audience. With my mommy tail tucked between my legs, I apologize and push onward, find my son a rattle and consult my list again.
As I make my way through the store, I fantasize about the different ways I might have responded to those shoppers in the canned goods aisle. What if I’d kept up my song and dance routine and performed it with panache? Or I could have joked about my baby’s budding sense of humor. But after years of rehearsing words before uttering them, witty responses don’t come quickly.
Speaking has never been easy for me. I was a late talker and once I did start, a speech impediment further hindered me. My mother wasn’t concerned. According to her research third children are characteristically passive, peaceful, easy-going and–in my case–quiet. I tagged along to my elder sister’s play dates and was dragged to my brother’s T-ball games and Boy Scout meetings. There were no other little kids to play with while I waited for the seventh inning to stretch into the eighth. I had to be resourceful and make up games to entertain myself. Mainly, I learned how to wait and how to keep quiet.
As a baby, all I had to do was to open my mouth and my brother or sister would speak on my behalf. “Mom, Karin’s hungry.” “Mom, Karin wants a toy; she’s tired; she’s poopy.”
They regaled my parents with so many lively and dramatic stories about their days, there wasn’t time for me to share any. I got used to having more eloquent and articulate people speak for me. I relinquished my voice to theirs.
In school, I waited to be called on instead of raising my hand. At work, I seldom contributed my two cents unless asked. When I did have something to say, I crafted my sentences carefully and mentally reviewed them before opening my mouth. Keeping quiet was comfortable and familiar. No confrontation, no risk of misinterpretation, no chance of humiliation.
After all these years, my voice started as a whisper. When my son was just a cooing baby I’d lean in close at the grocery store and quietly coo back. “Ah-hah”, I would say, trying to imitate his rising intonation. It took awhile to learn how to shut out the external stimuli and hone in on my child. It took even longer to be comfortable with my new persona: the one that can ad lib, pump up the volume, sing and dance and perform diversionary tricks in order to accomplish my errands. For a preferred wallflower, the role of budding dramatist is not easy to slip into. Yet my audience loves my routine, begs for an encore in no uncertain terms.
Before my son was born, I made fun of mothers who were so embedded in their mommy bubbles that they didn’t distinguish between private and public behavior. The type of parent so absorbed in her own world I’d feel almost embarrassed for having eavesdropped on an all-too-public conversation.
So it’s a radical change to find myself regularly and unabashedly talking to my son in the grocery store. Often in front of an audience. I consult him about selecting the ripest cantaloupe and ask his opinion about peanut butter. I’m not embarrassed. Not anymore.
Because it is my voice that my son responds to. My words are the ones that soothe him. His little, curving ears bend toward my voice. Sometimes I wonder what his voice will sound like. I can’t wait to hear him express with words what he now mimes and gestures. I try to be patient, to wait for him to communicate, even when I can anticipate his needs. I want him to know the power of language, the influence of voice, the impact that choice words can have.
And if he chooses to be quiet, I will make sure he knows the difference between reticence and intimidation. I’ll warn him that silence can be seen as permission but speaking up may usher in confrontation. My mother always told me, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” I want to convey that tone is as important as content. In the meantime, I’m becoming more comfortable with the sound of myself talking out loud, to an audience. And because I know my audience so well I no longer feel the need to rehearse my lines before uttering them. My son’s silence gives me the confidence to speak from the heart.