YO MAMA: Letting baby lead the way
My son sloshes through knee-deep water, one hand holding mine, the other arm pointing out in front of him like a little tree branch reaching for the sun. Spears of marsh grass prick through the mirror-like water and dragonflies zoom around us in the soft evening light, occasionally landing on our arms.
We’ve been traversing this little 10 foot section of shoreline for the last 15 minutes, walking back and forth, noticing little things like wet handprints on a dry boulder, the sound of the boat knocking against a rock, the feeling of sandy grit between our toes. We can hear the faint murmur of voices and a Lou Reed song drifting out from our nearby campsite.
Without warning, my 16-month-old son puts on the brakes and drops into a squat; he’s noticed something.
I look down and peer into the water. At first I can’t see much of anything, our footsteps have stirred up a lot of sediment. But as the mucky swirls settle, I see the long, outstretched legs of a frog.
It’s the first one my son has ever seen and without any fear, he reaches out and gently touches its back. The frog swiftly propels itself forward about 20 inches and stops again. My son giggles happily and sloshes after it some more.
With each trip to the end of the little beach and back, I realize how rich of a sensory experience we are having. We keep noticing new things; the silky slipperiness of slime coated stones, the way a stick floats but a rock sinks, the hollow call of a loon.
The moment makes me think of a wonderful word I learned recently: Umwelt.
Coined by German zoologist Jakob von Uexkull in the early 1900s, the word refers to the sensory bubble that every animal exists within; the set of sights, sounds, tastes and textures in the surrounding environment that it perceives and experiences.
The frog’s Umwelt, for instance, is comprised of cool water, subtle changes in light and darkness, the tiny dimples made by bugs landing on the water. The dragonflies, the loon, and the little water bugs all around us each possess their own Umwelt, their own way of experiencing the world around them.
My son reminds me of that little frog swimming about in this vast lake, the awaiting world around him so huge.
My son’s Umwelt, which began as little more than the warmth of skin-to-skin contact, the smell of his parents, and the taste of milk, is constantly widening. Like a ripple, his sensory bubble is expanding ever outward with each passing day.
It’s astonishing, really, to think about the rate at which babies acquire new information about their world. As adults, we think it is something to learn a new language or skill, but babies are becoming fluent in an entire universe of sensory input every minute of every day.
What’s more incredible, perhaps, is that we were all there at one point. Of course, we don’t remember it. Us adults take for granted, after all these years of regular exposure, the incredible sensory world all around us.
I need only to watch the reverent way my son consumes a ripe plum to see how disconnected I have become from noticing and appreciating the sensory details of my Umwelt.
My dulled senses have, in a way, been reawakened since I became a mother.
I can latch onto my son’s journey, hitch a ride along a path I travelled once a long, long time ago. It kind of feels like re-reading a great book or poem; you get something a little deeper out of it the second time around.
I guess it’s what people mean when they talk about seeing the world through a child’s eyes. But what that old cliche fails to sum up is that you’re not just seeing it — you’re feeling it, smelling it, re-experiencing it.
The splash of a fish rising just offshore brings me back to the present. I try to imagine how my son is perceiving this sound of disturbed liquid, this sudden flash of movement, the concentric, emanating circles pushing outward.
It’s not until after the ripples disappear and we've given this event the attention it deserves that my son is ready to pick up the trail again.
— Charlotte Helston gave birth to her first child, a rambunctious little boy, in the spring of 2021. Yo Mama is her weekly reflection on the wild, exhilarating, beautiful, messy, awe-inspiring journey of parenthood.
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