Yesterday was Amanda’s first birthday. Celebrated with appropriate fanfare of silly hats, copious Winnie-the-Pooh decorations, and cake smash in her tiny baby hands. Good times were had by all.
With a baby’s first birthday comes the inevitable reflection–where did the time go? My baby’s growing up! I’m getting old! But I will save such over-conventional pondering for another time. No, now I want to take on the scam that is tracking baby milestones. I’m convinced the whole phenomenon is just a conspiracy by the baby product industry to sell baby memory books and other markers of infant nostalgia. Everywhere you look in the baby-rearing world, the same questions appear–when did your baby start sitting up? What were your baby’s first words? And, most relevant to our situation at the moment, when did or will your baby start walking!?
There’s just one problem. When I sit down to try to be a dutiful mother and fill out the details of Amanda’s baby book so that, presumably, she can look back one day and track her development … I find myself unable to provide sufficient answers to those questions. I don’t really know when Amanda started standing on her own. What counts as standing? Pulling herself up on her activity table? Or up on the bookshelf where she can then proceed to fling all the books off the shelves? Standing for half a second on her own before falling over? Does standing for 9 seconds make the cut, or do we have to wait a full count of 10? Amanda’s been saying “Mama” consistently for weeks now. Sometimes it seems to refer to me, but sometimes it also seems directed at the dog? I don’t know exactly when those phonemes manifested themselves as her first official “words.” Don’t even get me started on the question of walking. What constitutes “walking”? Walking independently? Taking one step or two … or three? Walking while holding on to mommy or daddy’s finger? It’s pretty clear when a baby has passed from one stage into another. Amanda crawling all over the house and learning how to torment the poor dog is clearly a very different tiny human creature from the version of Amanda that could for whom it was a great accomplishment to be able to turn her head from side to side when she was placed on her tummy at 6 weeks old. But the precise moments that mark the transitions between these various stages are often fuzzy and quite challenging to note.
My point is this–babies are complicated. A shocking point I know. And yet it seems to be something we collectively forget as we try to track and monitor our children’s development. The transition from newborn to “baby” isn’t clear cut. The transition from baby to toddler? When exactly does that happen? In my more cynical moments, I would suggest that this emphasis on needing to track those precise moments of change and transition in an infant’s life are just one more thing that society as a whole can smugly conspire to make parents feel guilty about. But, ultimately, I think it’s a lot less malicious than that.
As often broken, mixed up, fallible, complicated human beings, we are always trying to avoid dealing with how broken, mixed up, fallible, and complicated we inevitably are. It is so much easier to fabricate clear boundaries and classifications and to try to fit both ourselves and others into those rigid boxes. This is particularly insidious when we apply such language to our spiritual lives when it comes to issues like religious conversion or demarcating who is “in” and “out” of God’s kingdom. If we’re really honest about it though, passing those “milestones” on our personal journey to become more like the image of Christ are just as difficult to pinpoint as determining what exactly constitutes a baby’s first word or a first step. I am reminded of the passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader describing the days and weeks following the spoiled Eustace’s “conversion”:
“It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that ‘from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of these I shall not note. The cure had begun.”
It is fair to say that, like Eustace, we are all on a spiritual trajectory. Some days we will do a better job of reflecting the perfect image of God’s self-giving love in our lives than we will do on others. One day, by the grace of God, we may be fully perfected into God’s likeness (a helpful reminder as we approach the celebration of All Saints’). But getting there will be a messy, ambiguous process full of false starts and incremental transformation. Fortunately, I think God is much more interested in looking at that process than in meticulously tracking our progress along the way.