The Margaret Mahy playground, Christchurch. Photograph: Donna Robertson

The word I wish I could take back

If there was one word you wish you could take back in your parenting, what would it be? Gem Wilder questions the language of motherhood and the way we talk to our children.

Motherhood comes with its own language. As soon as you find out you are pregnant you acquire a whole new vocabulary: Ante-natal, post-partum, meconium, placenta, nuchal fold, lactation, and so on and so forth forever and ever amen. Some of these new words can inspire a plethora of emotions and memories. Words like ‘latch’ can bring on a cold sweat. My sympathies to you if you gave birth in a New Zealand election year, when every utterance of the word ‘labour’ can reduce you to a sobbing mess rocking on the floor, nothing but a bundle of PTSD and hormones.

There are words that come freely with motherhood that are suddenly easier to say than ever before. Words like “I love you,” and more than that, “I love you so so SO much, you make me so happy, come here so mama can snuggle you to pieces”. Yep, you’ll say these things, and you won’t even gag when you do. You’ll say them in public without an ounce of shame. You’ll say them even as you are wiping your kid’s snotty nose with your bare hands because you don’t have any tissues, and you’ll mean them sincerely.

You will understand a language that makes no sense outside of your small family unit. My family knows that ‘Bawnmolly’ was my nephew’s word for lawnmower when he was a toddler. That ‘donner’ was the cord on the side of his sleep sack that he would wrap around his hand as he sucked his thumb. We know that when his younger brother asked for a ‘cuggle’ he wanted to suck on the side of his mother’s thumb, her skin tough and dry from many a night spent soothing her boy. We know that when my daughter talks about ‘pippit’ she means cricket, and we laugh when she talks about how pippit players wear iPads. When my daughter pipes up from the back seat of the car, excited about having seen a ‘pane,’ I have to decipher whether she means plane, train or crane.

There are the words that people get wrong, like my daughter’s name. People that have known her since she was born, who hear us pronounce Kōwhai with a long o, like core, then call her Kowhai, co, as if it doesn’t matter how they say it. As if it is still her name if they pronounce it an entirely different way. I knew this would happen. I have no regrets when it comes to my daughter’s name. She will tire of correcting people, or not. Maybe she won’t care. Maybe her presence in the world will inspire a few more people to learn the correct pronunciation of the beautiful native tree she was named for.

There are the words we use as terms of affection for our children, the nicknames that they endure. My bunny baby, kokomo, koko pops, my only sunshine. And the words she uses to define us, her parents. Mama. Papa. Titles we earned and owned the second she took her first breath.

My daughter is three and a half now, a chatterbox with a growing vocabulary. I hear her mimicking me often. I hear her testing out new words to see how they feel on her tongue. A few weeks ago she was describing an incident that had happened to her at daycare. “I was feeling…” and she paused, thinking of the right word to describe her emotion, “…frustrated” she finished, confident that she’d used this new word correctly.

All of these words I treasure. I wouldn’t take back a single one of them. Except… there is one word that I have overused during my time as a mama, and that word is ‘careful.’ I utter it numerous times a day. When my daughter is climbing along the top of the couch, when she is carrying a glass of water, when we’re out walking, when she’s playing rough and tumble with her cousins, when she’s curiously stroking a baby, when she’s climbing out of the bath. I say it, and then I see it. I see my daughter being careful. I see her playing at a playground and avoiding ladders she thinks she cannot climb. I see her wary of the touch pool at the aquarium, standing in such a way that she can look at the starfish below with no risk of getting her hands wet.

I see her being careful, being cautious, being wary.

Careful is the word I have used the most since becoming a mother, and I hate it. I don’t want it to be the word that defines my motherhood. If I could start over I would tell my daughter to have fun. I would let her learn for herself what she is capable of, before planting the seed of danger or failure before she’s even tried something. When I told her to be careful I did so out of love, but also out of fear. I’ve learnt my lesson though and these days I sound like a cheerleader, or a motivational poster. “You can do it!” I call from the sidelines. “Just try it!” I plead. And hopefully, if I keep this up, before too long she will start to believe me.

If I say it out loud enough times, maybe that’s what she’ll start hearing inside her own head.

Gem Wilder is a writer, mother, DJ, dancer, and arts lover. She grew up in Lower Hutt in the 80s & 90s, where not much had changed since the infamous Mazengarb Report days.

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