“Shouldn’t he have more words by now?”
That’s the question I asked my wife just before my younger son Sam turned 15 months old. I asked again at his check-up later that week, and the pediatrician’s raised eyebrows made me wince. She asked me if he says “Dada” or “Mama” clearly, or in a string of syllables like “dadadadadada.” (It was the latter.) Then she asked us what other consonants besides “m” and “d” he has. My wife and I looked at each other with growing uneasiness, as we realized he doesn’t have any other consonant sounds.
Before I knew it, two Early Intervention workers were in my kitchen telling me my son is significantly speech delayed. And then it was my turn to not have the words.
Look, I know in the grand scheme of things this will likely be no big deal. My son isn’t sick or dying. He doesn’t have major neurological issues, and he’s not developmentally disabled. So he’ll start talking a few months later than most kids. Big deal. A couple of years from now it’ll be a distant memory, and he’ll likely be long past the point of being caught up. The rational part of my brain knows this. And yet…
I’m freaking out. And I’m pissed.
I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the world of Early Intervention, which I barely knew existed before last week. By intakes, evaluations, and scores from tests I still don’t really comprehend. And I’m scared of the stigma this could carry with it. I think back to my own school days and remember the teasing some kids got for being slow or behind, and my heart can’t take my sweet boy being the butt of those jokes. But worse than that, I worry about those close to him treating him differently, because they pity him or think he’s slow. When you consider how advanced his brother is and the high bar he’s set, I worry about people watering down expectations for Sam.
And by people, I mean me.
My wife says I’ve already started treating him differently. She says I’m babying him unnecessarily and coming far too close to pity for her liking. Maybe she’s right. I hate the thought of treating him differently but I also don’t think it’s wise to compare him to his brother. And lastly, I hate that (until now), I’ve been ashamed to talk about what’s happening with Sam because it seems like a defeat or a defect on our part.
Did we do this somehow? Is it a byproduct of Sam being an IVF baby? Do we not make him talk enough? Did Will talk more because we had him in day care at three months old, while my wife has stayed at home full time with Sam? Did we stress sign language too much and make his language suffer as a result? I know some of this sounds crazy, but crazy is how I’ve felt since we started down this new path.
In my own personal and lowly opinion, this is the toughest part of parenting. Because it seems like the only way to be a truly great parent is to periodically get sick to death that you’re screwing up in the worst way possible. But the secret is if you’re this worried about your kids, you’re already doing it right. Because you care, and you’re involved.
A lot of people are surprised dads freak out about this stuff like moms do. That we overthink things and obsess about them to the point I’m now insanely terrified that all chances of an Ivy League education have now gone out the window. But you know what? As ridiculous as that thought is, I own it. Because while I’m hitting the internal parental panic button, I’m also going to be there every step of the way for Sam. All the appointments, all the speech sessions, and the multitude of practice at home.
And I’m going to remember slow and steady is fine, because in the end the race in all in our heads anyway.
Aaron Gouveia is a father of two terrific boys and husband to a saint. He writes for TIME.com, Huffington Post, and his website The Daddy Files, where he has been chronicling all things fatherhood and parenting related since 2008.