Milestones, Missing from the Books

For the longest time, I’ve been aware that the baby books—you know, those infant year tomes you fill with firsts—both have it right and are misleading. What’s right is observe and celebrate your children’s “milestones.” What’s misleading is, to me, twofold: for one thing, you can’t possibly remember everything that happens, book or no book. The other, though, and the one I got pretty intrigued with a few years back is that there are so many things to notice, ones a baby book ignores. And well beyond that first year, the fact is that our kids are hitting subtle milestones all the time at every age.

Here’s an example from the days when I was first taking note of this phenomenon: there was the, my preschooler can buckle the seatbelt when he climbs into his booster seat moment. Note that part of why this milestone is important: I no longer had to go to the backseat and buckle the child in. I could simply get into the car.

I was reminded of this so-many-overlooked-milestones idea over the weekend watching my toddler daughter (she’s two and a half, plus) pick up scissors in the studio at the Carle Museum and proceed to hold them correctly and to make feathery cuts along the paper’s edge. I marveled, you know how to use scissors? I had best get the kid-scissors out at home. And when I made this observation about her and scissors, I was surprised and unsurprised. She’s been filling in the Sudoku puzzles after her papa finishes the newspaper’s crossword puzzle, after all, as in making marks within the tiny boxes for a few weeks now. This is called Saskia does the crossword puzzle. And her brother, Remy, at the same age, was quite adept at—and worked prolifically with—stickers. I have thick piles of sticker creations from our shared early morning work sessions. I kid you not: he made sticker pictures while I kind of, somewhat, a little bit worked. We did this every single morning before anyone else got up.

As I was mulling this phenomenon, I came across Rebecca Woolf’s ode to her daughter’s turning two, a slideshow featuring photos from her daughter, Fable’s, second year on earth. Woolf writes: “So many changes occur between a first and second birthday and looking back at pictures of Fable barely standing, (Fable, like Archer, didn’t walk until she was seventeen-months) practically bald, I can only imagine that this time next year I’ll be banging my head against the wall same as I did tonight, remembering all the wonderful things and times I apparently forgot.”

The thing about the just-turned-tot going from nearly bald and barely walking or the preschooler buckling the seatbelt or the teenager getting dishes to sink and laundry to hamper (enough of the time to “count”) is that if milestones are most often “about” something, that something is increased independence.

For me, personally, seeing those moments in that context took a long while (as my stepfather always said of our first child—and for him, grandchild—“Why should his feet touch the ground? Everyone wants to carry him.”). That kid’s feet do touch the ground these days—he’s walking to school as I write this—and even now, sometimes, the fact that his busy schedule—high school student and stage manager of the school’s fall production, Hamlet, locals, mark your calendars—takes him away from us so much of the time makes me a little sad. I miss him (not always, I’m not solely a mushball and when he’s grumpy and hanging around, I miss him not one bit). I have to get used to missing him, though, because ultimately what he and I share is wanting him to keep finding that independence and discovering the world beyond our house (and then, indeed, coming back and sharing what he’s been up to and eating copious amounts of potato chips and leftover pasta).


I’ve also been thinking—again, not in the baby book model, but another must-observe-carefully development—in terms of Saskia’s emerging awareness about being adopted. The conversations I had freely when she was smaller, I no longer do, because I realize she may well be listening, not necessarily intentionally or intently, but she really can pick up on anything. Like that fallacy that there’s one “the” talk about sex, I know there’s not one conversation about adoption, which is why we’ve been—and continue to be—open about it around her, and with others. There are things, though, the less easy things, I don’t discuss now (like the saga of the first father’s having threatened to seek custody). I’ve started to think a lot about whether there should be “a” talk, though, a kind of laying out of this truth of hers—and ours.

From all I’ve read and all that people have shared with me, embracing her somewhat more complicated than some people’s family constellation will be a process, like a river trip, complete with ebbs and eddies and rapids and current and battling the wind and enjoying the view. I feel protective of her in this regard, tender really, and hold onto these things in hopes they help: she’s a happy girl—loved, secure, connected, comfortable—and she has so many loving people wanting her journey to be stellar and simultaneously, willing to keep eyes and heart open when things feel rough. At every difficult passage I’ve gone through with my kids, that first part—faith in their solidity—supports the second part—willingness to open my eyes and navigate what’s less than comfortable or easy.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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