Published on September 7th, 2017 | by Cheryl Klein


Words With Friends

We are driving up the coast. The sun is setting, or what my son—ensconced in his rear-facing car seat behind us—calls “darking.” He is in the loopy throes of pre-sleep.

“Tri truck noise!” he announces. All his statements end with exclamation marks, defying everything I learned in my introductory creative writing classes. “Tri truck” is, of course, fire truck. Like 99.9% of the toddler community, he loves fire trucks. Also trains, classic cars and construction vehicles. At least once a day, I wonder what toddlers who lived before the steam/automotive age were into. Wagons?

“Tri tuck noise!” Dash says again. “Tri truck noise tri truck noise tri truck! Noise! Aaahhhh-woooo-wooo-wooooo! Tri truck noise!”

His other mom and I want him to sleep through our long drive, but we can’t stifle our laughter.

“That was quite the intro, Dash,” I tell him. “And then the actual show, the siren, was pretty short.”

Sometimes I talk like this—half to him, half for my own amusement. But that’s shifting. When he was a baby, and the point was to get him used to the sound of words and my voice, I narrated as Cheryl: woman approaching middle age, writer, person with a mildly sarcastic sensibility. Now that his relationship to language is progressing, mine seems to be regressing so that we can meet in the middle. I don’t mean goo-goo gah-gah stuff; I mean the kind of transactional, utilitarian conversations you overhear in international terminals and tourist markets.

Now, I say things like, “Good morning, Dashaboo. Let’s do clean diaper, then I’ll get you bottle milk. We’ll do diaper the no-owie way.”

I am learning his language as he learns mine. I drop prepositions. A no-owie diaper means I will magically find a way to ensure that the Velcro doesn’t chafe, which I sometimes accomplish and sometimes don’t.

My partner, the therapist, talks about how a lot of parent-child dynamics are co-created, a beautiful and messy tango. Language falls into this category. Dash calls smoothies and anything that comes in those little squeeze pouches with the twist-off top “owl” because we have a set of reusable pouches shaped like penguins, and he thinks they look like owls. When my finger hovers over the smoothie button on the blender, I tell him I’m getting ready to make “loud owl.” When I hand him store-bought pouches, I ask “Do you want apple-strawberry owl or apple-pumpkin owl?”

Until recently, he called the TV “animal,” because the first show he watched was Masha and the Bear, an enjoyably weird series about a mischievous Russian toddler and her loving-but-long-suffering ursine caretaker. Sometimes they are visited by an orphaned baby penguin and a panda who is a Chinese chef.

Now he watches lots of shows—too many, undoubtedly—and says “tee-dee” instead of “animal.” Someday he will say “smoothie.” To raise a child is to navigate a minefield of preemptive nostalgia, every word and stage and outgrown onesie bursting on the scene only to warn you of its quick and inevitable disappearance.

I want to record all of Dash’s toddler-isms. Nana for banana, agua before he knew it was also called water, Art Cennerner for Art Center (his other mom’s place of employment). He has alternately referred to popsicles as popcorn and motorcycle. He reminds me that words I consider unrelated in fact sound alike: echo and taco, onion and Minion, T-bird and neighbor.

But, I don’t, because my phone is old and hardly has any storage left, and whenever he sees I’m recording, he wants to turn it to selfie mode and make faces. And because I haven’t figured out how to delete photos and videos from my phone without simultaneously deleting them from the iCloud. There must be a way, and it’s on my to-do list, along with properly disposing of all our dead batteries and hanging pictures in the living room of the house we moved into a year ago. When Dash is writing his college essays, I know will kick myself for having saved space on my ancient phone for a million podcast episodes.

When a friend was hugely, uncomfortably pregnant with a daughter, she half-joked, “Is it true what they say about baby girls stealing their mothers’ beauty?”

Another friend, a writer married to a filmmaker, told me that she and her partner had decided to have just one child “because parenting is a creative act, and it takes creative energy, and we want to have enough for her and for ourselves.”

For me, even with one child, there is never enough energy. It would be an exaggeration to say that Dash has stolen my language (the only beauty I ever really had a firm grasp on), but before he was born, I averaged four or five hours of extracurricular writing a week. Now it’s more like an hour and a half. Before he was born, I read a book every week or two. Now it’s more like one a month. Now I stare at the sub-par words on my tiny phone screen. I could read magazine articles, at least, but so many days and especially nights, all I can manage is Facebook and Twitter.

C.C. and I waited a long time to adopt Dash. I made these trade-offs with open eyes and zero regrets, but I still mourn my erstwhile literary life, and I’m still frustrated by how little time I have for the things that allegedly make me myself. On bad days, I’m even a little resentful. Not of him, exactly, but of my own limitations. If I’d been a fertile straight girl who’d accidentally gotten knocked-up at 25, I can only imagine the rage and resentment I’d harbor, even if I loved that hypothetical kid just as much as I love Dash. During our long wait, I convinced myself that parenting—not art—was the indulgence, the mark of good fortune, the fruit that remained just out of reach. I wasn’t wrong. And yet.

At two and a half, Dash is flirting with independence and rebellion, but deception remains beyond him. He whispers his plan to himself like a cartoon villain who’s just captured the hero. Waving a pool noodle, he murmurs, “Hit Mommy.”

Recently he was begging for “tee-dee” and I was telling him no, each of us performing our archetypal roles with precision. Finally he said, “Ten. Nine ten.”

Taken aback, I said, “Are you telling me I need to turn on the TV by the time you count to ten?”


I was at a loss. This was C.C.’s and my tactic to help him make transitions: In ten seconds, we’re going to say goodbye to the park. In ten seconds, you need to give Amaya her truck back.

The only answer here, of course, was another cliché: I’m the mommy, so I get to decide whether we watch TV or not.

I distracted him with a popsicle (popcorn/motorcycle).

Some days he tells me to leave the room so he can have Mama all to himself. Some days he sits in a halo of MagnaTiles and yells “Mommy build! Mommy build! MOMMY BUILD!” while I drag my feet and reply to comments on Facebook and berate myself for being a terrible mother despite all my longing for motherhood.

But some nights I read him Mighty, Mighty Construction Site, and when it’s time for the pumper truck to unfold its boom, he cracks up at how my lips look when I say “boom,” and I say it over and over again.

I practice having faith that my relationship to writing and language is like my relationship to my family: deep and resilient, ebbing and flowing. I might neglect it at times, which will never feel great. But it won’t be shaken entirely that easily. And just as I’m nicer to C.C. and Dash when I can sneak away and put in a little writing time, I hope my writing will benefit from their cross-pollination—from the addition of owl and animal and Dash’s funny Spanish-esque use of “a” before certain words. Mommy a working. Mommy a writing.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her MUTHA column “Onesie, Never Worn” was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2022. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.

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