Several weeks ago, in the middle of having his diaper changed, my son peered up at me and spoke his first two-syllable word: butter. My husband Kort still asleep in bed, I wondered whether the boy had uttered the brief sound or my imagination had merely conjured it. Standard early-morning mental fuzz could not account for this self-doubt; it sprang from a deep longing, ever since the day of my son’s birth, for him to speak in familiar language.
At 20-months-old, Tomo is considered speech delayed by some medical professionals and parents. My friend Odette’s son, who is just a few months older, wheels off everything from dump truck to meltdown. Meanwhile Tomo’s firm grasp begins and ends with “dad,” which both substitutes for my own nickname and applies to an unending string of objects in his immediate world—milk, tiger, toy, ski sweater.
Thankfully, Kort and I have learned to anticipate Tomo’s needs by reading his chirps and vocalizations. But I harbor fears that his inability to speak may render him unable to connect meaningfully with others and, worse yet, may engender lifelong social anxiety. Before Tomo was even born, I braced myself for the possibility that he might be treated like an outsider. As a mixed-race child, he would be marked by physical differences. Speech, I hoped, would empower him to connect in spite of these visible markers.
For me, such anxieties are not the stuff of neurotic fantasy; they stem from a disquiet that loomed over my early years. As the child of immigrants, I had no common language with my Taiwanese mother. Struggling to bridge the silences and misunderstandings that passed between us, we could only share big emotions. Subtlety of expression, for all intents and purposes, did not exist.
As an adult, I turned to poetry and Buddhist texts to lend nuance to life’s innumerable shades of sorrow and joy, finding comfort in words that could capture and perhaps transform even the most mundane experiences. The Songs of Milarepa gave me hope that the most transgressive acts could become deep spiritual teachings. I turned to Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to guide me through the end of a first love relationship. The precision of Ono no Komachi’s and Izumi Shikibu’s verses—not to mention the tenderness in the Zen poetry of Ryokan—suggested to me that the lyricism of everyday language could be its own upaya or “expedient means to liberation.”
This love for poetry and story serves me well as a writer, but can nevertheless foster an unhealthy attachment to words. When putting together a poem, I agonize over how to say things just right. So when Tomo resorts to using body language instead of speaking, the part of me that privileges words has to take a deep breath.
For a while, I overcompensated for Tomo’s silence by filling the space between us with language of my own. I named the objects he touched and wrote words in crayon on his sketchpad, trying to cultivate his ear and eye for language. I talked to Tomo in English, Taiwanese, and Spanish, likely cluttering his developing brain with more information than it could sort.
When Kort went back to work fulltime after being home with Tomo for nearly a year, Tomo was inconsolable. He wailed into my ears, stood on my lap, and pushed away my embrace. I made promises, assuring him that his dad would come home. He resisted every aspect of our usual routine: fighting diaper changes, refusing to bathe, and all the while crying for his other parent.
After several days of struggling, I gave in. I wept while holding my son and chanting to him softly, “I’m here with you. I’m here with you.” His tiny body relaxed as he put his head on my shoulder and settled into sleep. In that moment, I understood that my incessant chatter—a deliberate effort to avoid the long, sad periods of disengaged silence that I had experienced with my own mother—didn’t serve any purpose for Tomo.
My son felt far from me, until I showed up for him without words.
Though he rarely speaks, my son listens and responds. When Kort sneezes, Tomo runs across the room to hand him a tissue. When I complain of hunger, my little boy extends the hunk of cheese he’s been gnawing on and offers it to me. He communicates compassion in his own way—through actions and gestures. He has taught me that the fixed nature of words cannot capture the minute, complex, and transitory events that unfold around us. The pointing finger, no matter how elegant in its gesture, is not the moon.
Rather, nuance can be found and communicated in complete silence.
It was a relief when a friend of mine—herself a parent with grown children—assured me that all my son’s needs were met. If there were an urgent need to speak, she said, he would let me know. Tomo will ultimately develop at his own pace. No amount of coaxing will accelerate that process.
Now and again, my son utters a random word, just as he did that morning on the changing table. Two weeks ago it was raisin. I jot the word down every time, letting go of any narrative that might connect one to the next. But the writer in me remains curious to see if he and I will someday make a recipe with these words, or better yet, a poem.
More likely, teenage or grown-up Tomo won’t take much interest in that compilation of words. Instead, the fragments of language will primarily serve as benchmarks for my development as a mother. They’ll remind me of how I tried, at first against my own instincts, to listen deeply with all my heart.