We happened to arrive just before a scheduled story time. Great! I thought. What perfect timing!
Unfortunately, story time was aimed at two and three year olds. My kindergartener listened, skeptically, to about three minutes of the cutesy wootsy story and song about ducks and then mortified me by announcing, quite loudly, "THIS IS SO STUPID!" So much for that outing, right?
But something else happened while we were there, something that left an impression on me.
There was an arrestingly adorable boy running around the aisles -- a bright-eyed little towhead named Andrew. He was 19 months old. I know that because I overheard his mother answer a stranger's question. And then I heard the familiar pause, and the apologetic follow-up. "He's just very small for his age."
Oh man, have I been there. My heart sank, reflexively.
I used to say the same thing. Every time. And I still do occasionally, when I can see people looking askance at my tiny son, who at five-and-a-half weighs 33 pounds sopping wet and stands a mighty three foot-four. We used to joke that he was going to drive rear-facing. I know what it feels like to have your husband accidentally dress your almost-four year old in his nine-month-old brother's shorts. And have them fit.
Oh my! said a well-meaning mother at the pool last summer, eying my two boys, who are almost exactly three years apart. You sure had them close together, didn't you?
Well, no. I didn't actually. Not at all.
Ethan has always been small. He was born small -- a few ounces shy of six pounds -- at 38 weeks, due to a somewhat mysterious condition called "IUGR," or intra-uterine growth restriction. Getting him to grow during his first few years was torturous. I held my breath at every weigh-in and familiarized myself with every weight gain trick in the book. One handout from his doctor's office read like some sort of diet parody. "Never eat vegetables plain!" it warns ominously. "Add butter, margarine, cream sauce, hollandaise, cheese sauce, salad dressings, sour cream and mayonnaise." (Not all at once, I hope.) "Plain crackers should have cream cheese, cheese spread, peanut butter, jelly, or margarine to increase calories," it goes on. It recommends canned fruit in heavy syrup over fresh. And my personal favorite, "Choose meats breaded, fried and sauteed in oil or butter." Well, who wouldn't? (There's also a recipe for a chocolate peanut butter milkshake that has -- I kid you not -- 1070 calories a cup. And that's seen as a good thing.)
I never realized, though, that having a child of Ethan's size carries its own unspoken stigma in Momville, where small babies are often viewed as second class citizens. On the mothers' message board I used to frequent, it was standard practice to return from well visits and post your baby's "stats." And though few might admit it aloud, ironically, in a culture where thinness is obsessively prized by adults, when it comes to babies, bigger is most definitely seen as better. "Isabella is in the 95th percentile for weight AGAIN," a mother might crow. Those damned percentiles were seen as scores, as if a baby deemed to be in the 90th percentile for weight was somehow being given a higher grade than one in the 30th. The mothers of babies who were "only" in the 50th percentile or less often posted nervously about what could be wrong with their children. It was hard not to feel defensive, or make self-mocking jokes about our featherweights. My son finally hit 20 pounds at his two year well check. Is there such a thing as a 20 pound two year old?, I asked the pediatrician, only half kidding. He finally debuted on the weight charts -- hello first percentile! -- some time last year.
I know where this comes from, of course. Whether nursed or fed formula, our babies' size can feel like the one tangible, measurable manifestation of our parenting, especially in the first few months of life, when they bring so little else to the table. (Think about it: Why do we put newborns' weight and length on their birth announcements? Um, because there's nothing else to say about them?) Those that grow big and, well, fat, are clearly doing fine, their little plump bodies a literal reflection of their health. And those like Ethan? Their charts are stamped with the gloomy "failure to thrive" label, with all the implications therein.
I watched with great interest, as both a mother and a journalist who's written a great deal on science and health, as the doctors walked the fine line between "He's just small" and "There's something amiss." We tried desperately not to intervene unless it was truly warranted. But one test led to another and another. Poor little -- literally -- Ethan was poked and prodded and schlepped to myriad doctors, one all the way in Philadelphia. At 14 months, after an endoscopy suggested he might have a rare form of food allergy, Ethan was put on a so-called "elemental" diet. For two months, he wasn't allowed to eat or drink anything -- nothing -- but a foul-smelling prescription formula. We propped him in his high chair that Thanksgiving with books and toys, hoping he might not notice the feast he couldn't take part in. For one horrific week I have mostly blocked out of my memory, he had a feeding tube in his nose. Until Dr. Bob Wood, the brilliant guru of pediatric food allergies at Johns Hopkins, stopped the madness. "There are only so many ways you can torture an essentially healthy child," Dr. Wood told us in his measured, reassuring tones. "There's nothing wrong with him."
So in our case, it was all a bad dream. Though he continues to be monitored by doctors we trust, the current feeling is that Ethan is perfectly healthy. He's just...small and thin. Like lots of kids. Like lots of adults. It's nothing for us to be ashamed of. Or apologize for. Or feel the need to explain to random strangers who ask how old he is at the bookstore or the pool. The vessel my amazing, precious son came in is just...small. Not bad. Or diminished. Or lesser. Just small. He's anything but failing to thrive in the things that matter. In fact, I could fill this space with nothing but a record of his breathtaking achievements, the things he can do so effortlessly that belie both his size and his age. But then I would really be breaking a mom rule.
Saccharine aphorisms are hardly my strong suit, but there is one I repeat over and over, like a mantra.
When it comes to Ethan, I always say, we like to focus on the things about him that are big: his heart and his brain.
I shared that thought with Andrew's mom at Barnes and Noble the other morning. I hope one day four years from now, she'll hear another mom defensively explain that her son is small for his age. And she'll pass it on.
Photo by Matt Mendelsohn
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