I’ve got streaming radio on right now. Mabel just caught a few words of the latest song.
“Christmas, Mommy! Christmas!”
Seven months ago Mabel joined our family. She spoke Amharic, a beautiful language from her birth country. Unlike many 20-month-olds, she already expressed herself well in her native language. Then we came along.
For the first few days in Ethiopia we heard one phrase over and over again, translated roughly to “Hey you!” Wherever we would go, she would holler “Hey, you!” to strangers. I assume she was trying to find her way back to something familiar. Hey, you! Will you take me back? Rescue me from these strange people! Hey, you! Help!
Today, she can sing her own endless version of Jingle Bells. She recognizes lights, Santa, and snow. A new world has opened up. There are a lot of Christmas words to learn! As a former Spanish teacher, I study her language development like it’s a part time job. Every word and concept she discovers is like a newly discovered country. This is an adventure. But it is also a loss. As she fills her language centers with a new language, another one is slowly slipping away. (But that is another post.)
The milestones have continued steadily for seven months.
In the beginning, she had big thoughts to communicate to us, but didn’t have the words for them:
- I’m scared.
- You’re scary.
- Where’s my home?
- Where are my nannies?
- Will you feed me enough?
- Am I safe?
- I’m all alone now.
We had big thoughts for her, but didn’t have the words for them:
- Trust us.
- We will meet your needs.
- We are not going anywhere.
- You are safe.
- We love you.
And most importantly,
- I will be right back.
- This will just take a minute.
Yes, I wanted my daughter to feel loved. Yes, I wanted her to know my unwavering commitment to her, but we quickly discovered that the most powerful concept that we needed to communicate was “We will not abandon you.”
We will be here. Even when you can’t see mommy (because she’s in the shower or taking care of George or taking a nap), she will never leave you. Daddy will come back upstairs. George will come home from school. Nobody is really going anywhere.
The first day that Mabel was in our custody, she started using English words. Her linguistic abilities astounded us. By the time we had our first check-in with the social worker at six weeks, she already had fifty words in her vocabulary. Now we can’t even count them anymore. Many two-year-olds have a dozen or so words, and our daughter can now hold a conversation that lasts for several minutes. But one phrase eluded her for months:
I’ll be right back.
By the time an average child has reached 20 months, she has heard “Mommy will be right back” maybe thousands of times. She may not know exactly what the words mean, but she is comforted by this. She goes into daycare, or nursery, or nap time with that phrase on her lips.
But Mabel had no idea what we were trying to say. And those phrases are abstract. “Be right back?” You can’t draw a picture of that. You have to live it, prove it, be it every day over and over and over. But Mabel just didn’t get it.
For five months of Mabel’s life, bedtime was tragic.
For five months, there would be no childcare outside of mommy and daddy.
For five months, church nursery was impossible.
For five months, Mabel clung to us, afraid to be left behind or abandoned.
Then one day in October something changed. One day she was afraid. The next day she trusted. And it was all about “Mommy be right back.” When she learned that phrase she was able to let go and nap. She was able to let go and have a babysitter. She was able to let go and go to Sunday school. She was able to let go of Mommy and find comfort in Daddy’s arms. It became her mantra.
Going to bed, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”
Going to church, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”
Sending us on a date, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”
I thought “Mommy loves you” or “Mommy cares for you” or “Trust Mommy” would be the most powerful concepts in our attachment arsenal, but for now, it’s “Mommy be right back.”
This Christmas, as Mabel sings carols to us, as her eyes light up when she recognizes Santa Claus in pictures, as she tries to figure out the little people in the manger scene, we are filled with tidings of comfort and joy. For a two-year-old, the Good News is about being safe, wanted, loved, fed, and never far from home.
This Christmas, her first Christmas in English, Mabel knows the Good News: Mommy will always be right back.