Mommy Chronicles

A funny look at motherhood and the mayhem it causes.

July 23, 2001

Baby's first word: It's for the birds

I have discovered another myth of parenthood. At last I think I have. And that is the myth of baby’s first word.

According to the myth, baby’s first word is pronounced clearly and loudly. It is often accompanied by the music of harps floating down from a sky lightly padded with clouds. And it sounds like this: Mama.

What I have learned is that baby’s first word doesn’t really go like this at all. Rather, it sounds more like this:


At least I think it does.

Allow me to explain. About three weeks ago, our babysitter came back all breathless from a trip to the park. “I may be crazy,” she said. “But I think Lucy is trying to say bird. She keeps pointing at birds and saying boowee.”

Yeah, yeah, I thought. You’re not crazy, Laramie. Just insane. There’s no way Lucy could be saying bird right now. She’s not even 10 months old. She hasn’t babbled the way she is supposed to. And I’ve been paying her to practice saying Mama, all to ensure that on the glorious day when she says it, my position as the center of her universe is sealed.

What I said was, “Hmmm. Even if she is making that sound, it’s unlikely that she’s connecting it with an actual bird.”

Nonetheless, Lucy and I started spending a lot more time staring at the bird’s nest outside the kitchen window – the one she has been staring at, at the expense of my efficient baby-feeding program – for several months. (I finally had to turn the high chair the other way a while back so Lucy would stop looking at the birds, and start respecting the spoon.)

Then, a few days after the boowee incident, something interesting happened. Lucy, Adam and I took a little vacation to the San Juan Islands. As we were barbecuing a couple of steaks and some corn, a seagull the size of a terrier landed on the deck rail right next to the grill.

Lucy pointed to it and said, “B-b-b-b-irddddhhuh.”

This touched off a major debate between Adam and me. Did she say “bird”? Or was it, as he claimed, “bickie”?

The one thing we did not debate, however, was the fact that Lucy had pointed to the giant seagull, and she had uttered a word very close to the one we English-speaking adults apply to winged, egg-laying creatures with feathers.

As unlikely as it was, Lucy had said her first word. And the word … was bird.

More or less, anyway.

My brother-in-law, Michael, clued me in to the fact that unlike what I was expecting as payoff for all those hours where Lucy and I rehearsed the fine art of saying “mama,” a baby’s first word pretty much happens when parents decide it has happened. Lucy was pointing at a bird, saying something that sounded an awful lot like bird. As far as Adam and I were concerned, it was time to get out the camcorder and send her application tape to Stanford. Birdbrain nothing!

This baby is clearly a genius. We have proof. And it sounds like bickie.

After that, Adam and I became overbearing parents and presented Lucy with far too many opportunities to say bird. I think she got bored with it. Either that, or self-conscious, because half the time, her eyes would get wide and she would press her lips into the line necessary for producing the “B” sound … and then she would exhale quietly, tentatively. Buhhhhh.

The message was fairly clear: Quit pressuring me, Mom and Dad. Wait ‘til next week, when I’m 10 months old.

Only she doesn’t have the words to say this. She had to use the word she had and modify her delivery. Clever baby.

And no, I am not reading too much into the situation. If that were the case, I would also claim that Lucy can now say “kitty,” even though the most that has come out of her mouth in the vicinity of the cat is a sloppy khehhh.

I might also claim that she can also say “bye” because she once waved and said a tiny “bye” to Laramie a minute or so after Laramie left the house. I’m not saying that. All I’m saying is she might be able to say bye.

Put two of those “byes” with her other word, bird, and she’s got a good start on a Broadway career. (Of course, my own Broadway career ended shortly after my tap-dancing lessons began. I was about 10, but was blessed with the grace and flexibility of an 80-year-old woman. Or maybe a chicken. Or maybe an 80-year-old woman standing on a chicken’s shoulders. The bottom line is, Lucy is unlikely to be genetically equipped for Broadway, even if she can almost say Bye Bye Birdie.)

More important, Lucy doesn’t need Broadway because she has added a new word to her repertoire, a word that could lead her to a career in broadcast journalism: hi.

And this time around, I am certain she means it. When she sees the dog, she says, “hi.” When I’m lounging on the sofa, having a moment of denial that my day largely consists of crawling very fast after Lucy, she pulls herself up, breaks into a huge smile and says ... “hi.”

She’s even taken to greeting the small baby who sometimes grins at her from the mirror. It’s utterly delightful.

No, she is not saying Mama, which means I am nobody’s hero. Nowadays, when I even practice the Mama sound with her, she fakes me out by making the “m” shape with her lips, then curling it upward into a silent Mona Lisa smile.

It makes me realize that Lucy knows a lot more than she’s letting on. She knows, for example, that n-o means, “Stop taking CDs out of the holder and throwing them around the floor.” Or “The dog dish is not your personal spa.”

She just looks over her shoulder and keeps on doing whatever naughty thing she was doing. And if she happens to look up and out the window, she might flip me the one word that started it all, a word that is oddly appropriate, given her defiance: bird.


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