When my oldest son was six months old, the teacher at baby music class scolded me in front of the group for speaking to him in my usual voice.
“Babies respond better to high-pitched voices, with lots of glissando and exaggerated vowels. Like thii-iis!” She dragged out the word using a high cooing tone. “It makes them feel more connected to you,” she said.
I didn’t know what glissando was, but I did know she hadn’t given the father sitting cross-legged next to me on the rug the same lesson, or encouraged him to put on an artificial voice when he communicated with his child.
Haunted by her suggestion that I might not be connecting deeply enough with my son, I tried to take the music teacher’s advice. When I forgot to talk in my new mommy voice, I worried that my normal speaking voice sounded un-motherly and that I wasn’t being nurturing enough. After about two weeks, though, I had to give up.
Motherese, also known as Infant Directed Speech or, to use layperson’s terms, baby talk, has both fans and detractors. There are studies that suggest it benefits children’s language development and then there are studies that suggest the reverse. Setting research aside, I’ve never been comfortable speaking Motherese because it makes me feel like I’ve relinquished some crucial part of my adult self. It makes me feel like an imposter, like someone other than me. To give up my true voice has always felt like a sacrifice, and while motherhood comes with many sacrifices, that is not one I’ve been willing to make.
When my three children left infancy and entered the toddler and preschool phase, I similarly opted out of next-level Motherese: cute made-up words. Sometimes in groups of moms I’ve felt uncomfortably like an outlier because of this, but over the years, I’ve learned to give myself a pass from using words and phrases like: potty, criss-cross applesauce, boo-boo and its sad cousin owie. And, my least favorite of all, sugar bugs.
If you haven’t heard this last one, sugar bugs is mommy-speak for cavity-causing germs inside the mouth. When my youngest son was four, we were at the park and another mom used that term multiple times while giving her child a healthy snack instead of the sweets he was lobbying for.
“We don’t want those bad sugar bugs on your teeth! No, we don’t! No sugar bugs for you!” My son listened to this for a while and said cheerfully,
“My mom calls them bacteria.”
I didn’t know whether to be proud or mortified.
It’s not as though I talk to my kids like we’re in a Congressional sub-committee meeting. I have always spoken to my children with spontaneity, warmth, and affection. My whole family enjoys whimsy and word play. We use some silly terms my children coined themselves—goofy words that have special meaning within our family, like a running gag or fun inside joke. But this is different from the fake-sounding sing-song of Motherese because it has grown organically out of our family life, and, as such, doesn’t feel put-on or artificial to me. My hope, as time goes on, is that speaking to my children in frank and authentic terms will set us up for years of spontaneous and candid discussions.
I don’t think I’ve compromised my sons’ early language development by not speaking to them in an exaggerated sing-song tone an octave higher than my natural voice. I don’t think they’ve felt any less mothered or that our bond has suffered. I also don’t believe a mother is going to hinder her children’s verbal skills by calling a dog a woof-woof, if that’s what she wants and is natural for her.
Still, I prefer not to talk that way. I like knowing that my sons have always heard me speaking in my authentic voice—a strong, clear, quiet but decisive voice—using the language that feels true to me.
Rosemary Harp is a Chicago-based writer of fiction, essays, and reviews. She is working on her first novel. She has three school-age sons, to whom she has never spoken baby talk and whom she tries not to over-parent. They seem to be doing ok.
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