I choked at breakfast the other day. A serious, completely blocked, couldn’t gasp for air, banging my hands on my abdomen choking. The inaudible kind. After minutes, (okay, it was probably 5 seconds… but it was a LONG 5 seconds, I swear!) I was able to let a cough escape, but for a solid few minutes (no exaggeration this time) I was gagging, hacking, panting, and… even puking a little bit.
Yes. I puked right on my dining room table. My child is in his highchair right beside me. When I can finally take a breather, I turn to him.
“’Ooh ‘tay, mum?” (You okay, mom?)
My eyes were watering throughout all the coughing and hacking up a lung.
I am now sobbing. “Yes, baby. Mommy is okay!”
Let me back up.
I am a first-time mom; Jase is my only child. He is currently 2 and a half years old.
I am also a speech-language pathologist. I recently made the switch to work in the field of home health, where I now primarily treat the geriatric population. However, up until just 6 months ago, I worked in the school system, working with children in preschool through fifth grade. This was my job for almost 7 years.
I thought I was good at it. Actually, if I may toot my own horn, I thought I was pretty great at it. To my defense, colleagues and parents have told me this, as well.
Let me reiterate: I “thought” I was good at it. Now, my son is delayed with his speech and language skills, and this has caused me to question myself personally as a mom and professionally as a therapist.
Let me back WAYYYY up.
Despite my knowledge on child development, I was TOTALLY that mom who checked all the growth and milestone charts religiously. I was probably overly paranoid. (You can take probably out of that last sentence!) I truly had good intentions! I’m sure most new moms can relate; I just wanted to ensure my son was on track. Even though I can recite most of these milestones verbatim from my studies, I still referred to them “just in case” I missed or forgot something.
At 4 months old our physician was amazed that our son would take an oral vaccine willingly because I signed “medicine” and he immediately opened his mouth. By 8 months Jase would hold his hand up high and sign for “milk” to let us know he was thirsty. He said the words “Mama” and “book” (buh) out loud, in context, more than once. By 9 months he added “Dada”. He understood these words, too.
He was eating a variety of foods, enjoyed reading books, and played appropriately. Jase was a very strong baby! He could hold a plank for a few minutes by 8 months and walked with assistance at 9 months; he could crawl and even climb stairs by this point, as well.
Cue me: “My baby is a genius; he will rule the world.”
(Okay, not really my thoughts… but kinda.)
Honestly, I was happy he was doing well! Our 12-month checkup went superbly! Phew, we made it through the First Year and we made it through with flying colors!
But shortly after… that “explosion” of language I was eagerly waiting for… that moment when vocabulary is just blossoming in your child! The look in their eyes when they “get it” and FINALLY you are able to use words to communicate: to connect. This moment I have been anticipating because it is such a precious moment, both in their development and in your own personal relationship with them… well, it never came…
Then, around mid-summer, Jase did start to make improvements. I noticed some words! While in the mountains on vacation he imitated “trees”, demonstrated better listening skills (retrieving specific toys when asked), and he played well with some toddlers his age. I thought to myself… okay, maybe I am just being paranoid!
But a few weeks later and that “explosion” still wasn’t happening… I wasn’t hearing “Mama” anymore. Our “mmm” approximation that we used for milk was gone, too. I was worried.
My work with children with unique language and learning disabilities has shown me just how much some of these young kiddos struggle. I have seen children lament before the End-of-Grade Test: “Why do I have to take this? It says third grade! I’m doing first grade work. This is too hard! Why do they make me take this; they know I can’t pass it!” (Tears… if ever a moment should have been recorded and sent to our legislation it was this totally candid moment.)
Children with special needs have a HARD road; their parents have a HARD road. This is not easy. I prayed relentlessly: “Please, Lord. I know these kids’ struggles. I don’t want this for my child!”
And, these were my feelings on the “other” side of the IEP table, as a provider. I thought I had empathy then. But, now seeing my own child not meet the mark, seeing him marked as “behind” his peers… It was heart-wrenching and devastating.
I feel my job as a mother is to raise my child to be kind and loving towards others, to be well behaved and disciplined, and to teach him and help foster his growth and development to prepare him for school. Mothers, by default, are all speech-language pathologists. Mothers everywhere teach their children to listen, speak, and communicate; they teach them the basic skills necessary for learning, and then continue to aide their learning in preparation for school and life.
But, sometimes, children have delays with speech and/or language and their mothers have to rely on a professional to help them and their children overcome these deficits. It’s literally my job to help children with these issues. Why am I failing my own child? How have I been unsuccessful in my role as BOTH a mother and speech therapist?
How have I let my MOST IMPORTANT student ever, my own blood, fall behind?
I had studied various 18-month-old developmental charts prior to our check-up. At our visit, I sat down to complete the paperwork. I checked all the boxes. Can your son do X, Y, and Z independently: No, no and no. I cried. At a glance, I could see the questions probing for Autism Spectrum Disorder. It cut me like a knife in the gut to answer, Yes, to some of those questions. I felt hot. I looked down at my son, playing with the train station in the lobby. (Why, why must he be playing with trains?! While I’m filling out the Autism questionnaire?!)
I didn’t even need this sheet. Before even setting foot in the office, I knew my son was delayed. I knew exactly what our deficits were.
How did this change so quickly? In less than 4 months? (Jase’s 12- month appointment was actually closer to 13 months, and his 18-month checkup was early due to my concerns.)
Our pediatrician (whom I love) walked in. “Well… you’re the language expert… tell me what you think.”
I hope he was prepared for my soliloquy.
After voicing all my concerns, my observations, our progress, regressions, milestones met and not yet conquered, I told him I was worried about language, concerned with Autism, and planned to move forward with testing. He agreed. He was very kind, with excellent bed-side manner, and told me I was a great advocate for my son, and that sometimes kids just are a little slower to learn, especially boys. But that early intervention was vital should there be true underlying issues.
He began his checkup.
“Did you know he has fluid in his ears? Has he ever had an ear infection?”
No. And, NO!
What? My child can’t hear?
Literally. I slapped myself in the forehead.
Step one, Jenn. When ANYONE comes to you in the schools, or even when parents message you on Facebook, (Love ya’ll! I am happy to help! Keep the messages coming!) and they say their child has a speech “problem,” what do you ask?!
“Has he had his hearing checked?”
Step one, Jenn. STEP ONE! How did you miss this? Jase had NEVER had an ear infection. He had never so much as TUGGED at his ear. And, honestly, he responded “pretty well” to his name up until the past few months. Hearing just never seemed to be on my radar.
So, now my brain is spinning. Or, actually, it isn’t. It’s stopped.
He can’t hear. Well, no wonder he can’t talk if his ears are drowning in fluid. Okay, we can fix this.
We made plans to see an ENT; I continued to touch base with professionals to move forward with testing (once our hearing was cleared).
The next few months were ENDLESS appointments and meetings.
Ya’ll. I went to school for this. THIS IS MY JOB. I understand all the medical, educational and developmental jargon. I perform these EVALUATIONS. I WRITE these reports. I pass out THE SAME parental questionnaires. I sit in on observations, conduct testing sessions, attend meetings (and more meetings) all throughout the year. I REPEAT. THIS IS MY JOB.
AND IT WAS COMPLETELY OVERWHELMING BEING THE PARENT.
I cannot even begin to fathom how a parent outside of this discipline feels while going through this process. There is so much thrown at you all at once. And, please know, every professional I worked with was amazing. It’s just a lot! The amount of paperwork, information, life decisions… (ya know, it’s just your child’s future…) It’s a lot to take in!
During Jase’s initial testing session I wanted to puke. The entire time. I sat on my hands and tensely bit my lip to keep myself checked as the “mother” and not as the “therapist”. When results were reviewed; I cried. The results came back nearly identical to my concerns. Yes, we were slightly behind in language. Yes, hearing appeared to be the problem. No, it doesn’t appear to be Autism, but they could recognize concerns and we would keep an eye on it. Jase’s scores were actually a bit higher than they anticipated. It appeared his cognition compensated for some of his language delay.
Tears. Big, fat, ugly tears. At this point, tears of relief because a diagnosis of ASD was not given. But, also tears because we have a confirmed: Yes. Your child is behind. With language. Mrs. Speech-Language Pathologist.
Many months later, and many appointments and visits with ENTs, developmental therapists, case managers, Speech-Language Pathologists…. To make a long story short (okay… it’s already a long story long… but to make it not “quite” as long) the fluid in our ears eventually went down, Jase began receiving services through the CDSA, and we began therapy to target language and behavior in his daycare setting.
We were making progress.
But, not as quickly as I would have liked.
The thing with developmental delays, speech/language disorders, or any other type of learning or language disablity… is that even when children begin making progress, the expectations are continuing to grow. And, rapidly! You are always playing catch up. You make all this progress… yet, you are still behind. It’s like trying to place in a marathon, yet you started the race hours after it began.
I dropped off my child everyday for over 6 months, some mornings at 6:30, not to pick him up until after 5:00, so that I could spend my days helping other kids and adults improve their communication skills.
All while my son was struggling with his own language.
No. Just No. It tore me apart inside. It ate away at me.
So, I put on my big girl panties. Crunched some numbers. And, finally put my family first. I quit my job. (Well, sorta.)
I arranged to work PRN one day a week as a speech therapist and continued to work my direct sales job online when possible. We decided to cut out daycare completely; we would find other ways for social experiences for our son. We looked for ways to be creative and save a little here and there.
And now, 4 days a week, I am home. I get to be mom, teacher and therapist. We are able to play, learn, grow, and love! We cook, go for walks, run errands in the community. We make-believe, we create, we read, we discipline. We make messes and (try to) clean them up. (We are learning!)
I adore Jase’s therapist; and even after we decided I would be staying home, we are continuing to use her services. Working in a school system meant working with a community—a family. We were the providers, and the students our children. When we had a difficult case, we collaborated. Having Jase’s therapist has been a God-send and a great help in finding creative ways to break through to him.
Ya’ll. I’ve been home a month. My son is now beginning to speak in sentences.
And, one of those was “Ooh ‘tay, Mum?”
And it brought on all the tears. The good kind, though! Tears of joy, following so much concern and anticipation.
Also, tears that made my nose stuffy and subsequently made me choke a little more. And puke a little more. But, that’s not the point.
This was one of those “moments” I’d been dreaming about since becoming pregnant. TALKING to my son. KNOWING what he thinks. SEEING the thoughts inside his little head. CONNECTING WITH HIM THROUGH LANGUAGE.
This is the purpose of language; it connects us. Whether it be orally, through gestures or sign language, or in written form. Language is what allows us to share our hearts and minds with another person.
And, more practically, it’s also what allows my son to tell me when he’s thirsty, instead of just having a tantrum. It allows him to have choices throughout his day, instead of being told what to do because he can’t express himself. This cuts down on a lot of his frustrations. It’s what allows him to understand me when he needs to PLEASE quit hitting that button on that toy that Nonna bought that makes SO MUCH NOISE. (I kid, kinda.)
The growth I’ve seen in Jase in the past 6 months has been amazing. Though slow, the steady progression has been present. The change in the past month is a blessing! I’m so thankful I’m here to witness this! I’m a part of this! I’m giving this everything I have. I owe this to my child. This is my most important job right now: to cultivate my son’s communication skills.
We had our “baby” IEP meeting the other day. Jase met so many of his short term goals. When we developed goals a few months back, I had my therapist hat on. I tried to think of all the facets of language and target all areas. I wanted Jase to follow 1 and 2 step directions. I wanted him to grow his vocabulary. I wanted him to use language to greet, protest, request assistance, and make his wants and needs known. I wanted him to use language socially with peers, to take turns and to follow classroom rules and routines.
“Is there anything else you want to add? Any other goals you’d like?” the clinician asked.
Cue more tears. (I cry a lot!)
I wanted him to say “Mama” again.
It was his first word. But, we lost it. And, in its place, Shane and I both became Dada. Which, I won’t lie, infuriated me and made Shane laugh. I carried you for over 9 months. I gave birth to you. I still have asthma as the weirdest side effect of pregnancy ever. Please call me Mama!!
My oh-so independent toddler met that goal: he decided to grow up so quickly he went straight to the teenaged version of Mom, but with a British twist—“Mum”. And now I hear it ALL DAY LONG.
And I LOVE IT!
So, yes. We have mastered 1 step directions and related 2 step directions. We are following routines much more easily. Our vocabulary is blossoming and we are beginning to use 2 and 3 word phrases and sentences. We are greeting, protesting (a LOT!), requesting food and using help, using please, and thank you. So many other skills are developing with his cognition and play schemes. It’s amazing witnessing this.
And we can say “Mum”!
We can even use it in a sentence!
“Ooh ‘tay, Mum?”
I’m so glad I choked that day.
There are lots of developmental charts around, but I love this one from First Years, as it breaks down hearing, speech, language (yes, there is a difference) and cognition. It also has examples and smaller age brackets for months!
(And, just quickly, Speech is regarding the actual sounds we produce while speaking. Language is the entire system of communication. Language is further broken up into Receptive (how well we understand language), Expressive (how well we speak or write language), and Pragmatics (the purpose or intent behind our communication).
If you have concerns about your child’s language, check it out. Your mama (or daddy!) intuition is there for a reason. You know your child better than anyone! Reach out to a speech-language pathologist in your area, or ask your pediatrician for a referral.
Also, please know that ALL children from birth through three have access to testing and services through early intervention programs in your state; they may vary depending on which state you reside within, but NC’s link is as follows: http://www.beearly.nc.gov
And, beginning at age three, children could qualify for school based services if they meet criteria. (Yes, even if your child is not in school yet!) Contact your local school system if your child is over age three or approaching this age for help.
Finally, to all the speech-language pathologists, educators who foster speech and language skills, and parents who are your child’s biggest advocates, teachers, therapists and coaches from birth… THANK YOU! You are playing such a vital role!! Thank you for the incredible work helping our children!