Parenting a Child With a Speech Delay Can Be Lonely

My 4-year-old has a speech delay and is behind the rest of his classmates. I hate to admit how difficult it's been on me. But after talking to my son's doctor, I realize there's no reason to push him to catch up.

The author and her child.
The author and her child. Photo: Maya Blum Photography

I'm holding my son by the hand, walking down the path that leads from his preschool to the street. Behind us, I can hear one of the little girls from his class chattering away to her mother. "We painted." "We played with water." "I didn't like the soup I had for lunch."

I bend down to Baz. "How was your day, babe?"

He snaps to attention. His hazel eyes grow warm with excitement. My breath suspends. I wait. Perhaps today is the day. A fire engine shrieks its way down Hopkins Street. A recycling truck pulls to the curb, roaring and munching. My child is enamored and, as usual, mute.

At 4 years old, Baz can talk, but not nearly to the degree of the rest of his classmates. The issue was first diagnosed by his preschool director, who called my husband Adam and me in on a warm Friday to discuss the situation. The sweat under my arms was not due to the weather.

An intervention was needed. Recommendations were written down and passed to us across the table. I wished I had tears to blink back when we left. Instead, my eyes were so dry they stung.

I buckle my son into his car seat, adjust the straps, and kiss him on the forehead. He smiles and says nothing. On the drive home, I try to make my questions as simple as possible. The only one he'll answer is when I ask, in Spanish, how he is doing. "Sad," he answers in Spanish and laughs.

My hands tighten on the wheel. My teeth catch my lower lip. David Bowie plays on the radio, a relic of my 1980s childhood. Let's dance. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues. I sing along, hoping Baz will join me. Instead, he gazes out the window at who knows what.

How can I describe parenting a child with a speech delay? On the one hand, I am beyond grateful for his overall good health and cheerful spirits, declaration of sadness aside. Baz is a loving and gentle kid, an aficionado of the huge arms-around-the-neck hug. He makes me laugh every day. He makes me think all the time. He pulls me out of myself; a feat few others can achieve.

He grew inside me and came out gasping after a rough birth that stunned us. And yet I know so little of his inner life. What does he think when he builds intricate train setups and houses with the help of waffle blocks? How does he feel when I come to pick him up after a full day of school?

It feels odd to admit that my own child can make me lonely. That, however, is the truth. I am someone who makes my living with words, who likes nothing better than a deep, insightful chat. I also know I may be selling my son short. He does talk. He chirps out lines from his favorite television show, Green Eggs and Ham. He sings songs. He talks to his rowdy, loving dogs. "Mommy," he says as he runs his hand down their fuzzy backs, "they're the best pets."

My husband tells me that he was the same way at Bazzy's age. "Hell," he says, "I barely finished a sentence at the dinner table until I was 14 years old and my sister went off to college."

Somehow this is not comforting.

I begin to tie my own self-esteem to Baz's speech development. Like Adam's sister, I must be talking over him, discouraging him from expressing himself. I try to repress my natural inclination toward words, hoping he will jump in to fill the silence. It doesn't happen. We have more car rides with quiet which is awkward for me, but what about him? Is this just his natural bent?

We took Baz to the pediatrician, my palms wet with guilt: Was the speech delay somehow my fault? She smiled at me and told me that it happens, it is manageable, and that we can work together to handle it. She assured me that nothing I had done caused it, that it is common (it affects 1 in 12 kids), and something to concentrate upon, but not something to take to heart as some admission of wrongdoing. I walked out with palms that were a little drier and a heart that was a good bit lighter.

I have come to realize I cannot mold my child into what I want him to be. It's not fair to push him to align with my insecurities. I can only give him the time, space, and resources to continue to develop at his own pace.

Adam and I contacted the recommended resources and filled out the multitudes of paperwork requesting an assessment. We read up on speech delays. Mostly we tell each other that he is our child and that we are committed to letting him be his own person—whoever that is, however silent or voluble.

On Friday afternoon, I pick Baz up. His eyes catch mine, and he runs to me, that stumbling toddler motion with hands flailing to prevent a fall. "I love you, Mommy," he says.

The rest can wait.

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