A few months ago, I came across an article mentioning the traditional Jewish custom of waiting until a boy's third birthday to cut his hair, Upsherin. I often field questions on why we haven't yet given our son a haircut. My stock answer is, 'We like it. When we don't like it or he doesn't like it, we'll cut it'. This usually accomplishes the desired goal of ending the conversation, but the truth is that there's something more in this choice, and I don't actually have words for what that more is. I'm not Jewish, but I was taken with this reference to a ritual first haircut. I suppose I was looking for some insight into my own subliminal motives.
My very limited research on Upsherin described the tradition of waiting three years to harvest fruit from a newly planted tree. In those first three years the tree is not yet ready to produce and the fruit is forbidden. Similarly in the first three years of a child's life, 'the child absorbs the surrounding sights and sounds and the parents' loving care. The child is a receiver, not yet ready to give. At the age of three, children's education takes a leap. They are now ready to produce and share their unique gifts.' I read those words and instantly burst into tears. It's a custom completely outside my own culture or tradition, but this summary struck at the heart of my unconscious intentions. I just wanted to let my child be.
I've brushed up against this related theme repeatedly in my short time as a mother. There are always experts waiting; if a child is late to crawl, or a little small, or still toothless at his first birthday... there are programs and specialists and exercises to correct every anomaly. And while I am a mother who is full of worries, I also know instinctively that what is right for our family is to let my child be. He will be fine, he will be perfect. He is exactly who he is meant to be.
With this anthem beating in by heart, I have gently guided my son for the last three years. I have tried not to interfere, but to provide love and encouragement in an effort to facilitate his independent goals. Yet as his third birthday draws near, I am feeling the shift. His little circle is opening up. He is looking to form relationships of his own, without me as the constant mediator. He is playing with friends and not just beside them. He is laughing, screaming, babbling and running away from me and towards the unknown world, but he is also struggling to communicate with language.
It isn't a limitation of words, he has them. He has effortless stories and observations spilling in a constant stream, and with the right context I can gather nearly every one. But when he is away from me, returning from a few hours of preschool and ready to share the excitement of the day, I listen to him straining to make out the details. Grasshopper and chocolate bar sound identical, and since I wasn't at his side to unearth that tiny grasshopper hidden beneath the pine needles, I have no frame of reference to follow along. His friends and teachers pick up even less. He is still so young that he's largely amenable to not being understood, but I am seeing glimpses of frustration stirring.
Coordinating the movement of his little mouth and tongue to produce each sound seems to be the issue, and for the last year I've watched and waited for it all to click. I've had faith that eventually he would work it out, in his own time. I have let my child be.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, that path feels wrong. We've arrived at the place where consulting those experts seems natural, because while I do believe he would discover his voice in time, a few simple exercises might make that journey so much easier for him. I would never want to deprive him of that help. I still resist the endless charts and checklists looming over a baby's first few years, every pound and step measured against an approved schedule. I was confident in my strategy for parenting a baby, and now I find myself with a boy. Intervention looks less like meddling and more like education, and that transition has been abrupt for me.
My son is nearly three. He is ready to engage with the world beyond my arm's protective length, to 'produce and share his unique gifts'. This last month has been a slow celebration of his transition out of babyhood. A gradual Upsherin of our own making, without the haircut... for now.
*I'm very conscious of how much I share about Little Smith here. It is my journal, but I'm aware that it is also an indelible space and I never want to transgress his future privacy. I've tried to be sensitive to this and not to betray anything that he would prefer private. This issue with articulation is a minor one in truth, but as a mother every difficulty is amplified, and my own thoughts and emotions are my focus here.