August 17, 2011
“Did she just say what I think she said?” After his long day at the office my husband walked through the door to find our daughter and I virtually brimming over with both excitement (her) and relief (me) to see him. As I held her in my arms, we gathered around in the living room for a hearty family embrace. Out of nowhere she reached out her hand toward his face and said her first word. Was that word mama? After all I’m her only primary caregiver, we spend every waking hour together and I say the word to her umpteen times a day? Nope. Not a chance. Clear as a bell, her first word was none other than, ‘Papa’. Jokingly, I laughed and said it didn’t count unless she said it again. Over the course of the next few minutes, she whispered, squealed, lip synced, and finally growled the ‘p’ word. We had confirmation.
I had been forewarned of a baby’s tendency to acknowledge dad first. In fact, I’d often heard of baby’s first words leaning toward the masculine. Perhaps the vowel/consonant blend of ‘dada’ or ‘papa’ is easier for wee ones to utter, slightly easier than say, the ‘m’ sound. At least that’s what I told myself. Or, as one of my psychologist friends pointed out, babies often have such close attachments to their mothers that they’re unable to differentiate any separation or ‘otherness’ between themselves and their mums. They actually feel that mom is just an extension of their own being. Consequently, dad is elected as their number one constant representing another person. Even so, I think sometimes pops can feel left out of the first year of their baby’s life.
Almost nine months into the parenting adventure, my daughter and I have developed some helpful survival methods. Most of these daily rituals were stumbled upon in dad’s absence. Trial by fire has taught me to speak her mostly wordless language, anticipate her moods, needs and desires. In the course of a day, I intercept danger when I can and resist first time parent hovering, or becoming a ‘smother mother’. I’ve worked my way into watching her take serious diggers without too much interference or gasping. I help her navigate through the challenges of learning and read her the same stories and sing the same songs so she’ll begin to understand the words. Sometimes I speak to her in different languages. I’ve practiced the art of diapering an escape artist. Occasionally, I bravely forgo diapers all together and let my hardwood floor suffer the consequences.
On this particular night, I had already given her a bath; she was in her pajamas and ready for bed. I’d pushed her bedtime just a teensy bit so we could both greet dear ol’ dad at the door. Her naps that day weren’t what I’d consider lengthy or smooth and required several rounds to accomplish. I’d barely checked off any of the things on my chore list. Yet again, I steamed some veggies in the futile hope that someday she’d eat more than just dairy products and fruit- namely beets. Alas, she didn’t care for this new version of root vegetable, preferring to fling and smear them, until her high chair, the floor, her skin and hair were a lively shade of bright pink.
If anyone says that being a stay at home parent isn’t challenging, they’ve never been a stay at home parent. When dad walks through the door he never knows quite what to expect. And yet to miss the day-to-day craziness of our daughter’s care is one of my husband’s biggest complaints. I’ve witnessed many a Monday morning when he stalls his departure and tears himself away as we wave to him from our glass front door.
He misses her and the bulk of her crazy daytime shenanigans. The weekends just aren’t enough. So my first reaction to the word ‘papa’ was mixed. First I thought, “Oh my goodness, she’s talking! She almost walks and now our baby talks!” Then, somewhere inside I couldn’t help but feel that all my maternal efforts had somehow gone unnoticed.
The fact that papa was the first word to cross our baby’s lips somehow left mama in the cold. And yet, as I looked into my husband’s misty eyes, I realized how perfect it was that she’d spoken to him first. Even though we’d talked and prepared for the first year of life being pretty much about mom and her mammary glands, I think it’s been difficult for my partner in parenting not to feel left out of our daily-synchronized dance. When the chips are down, when she gets tired, bumps her noggin, or just craves general comfort, she reaches for me. But at the end of a long day, my heart also swelled with the realization that my husband’s being was absolutely bursting with the validating feeling that came from that one single word, ‘papa’.