All parents worry that their child might not be 'normal' right from the first ultrasound scan until he or she leaves home and beyond.
Replacing normal with ‘ordinary’
Is it healthy? This question nags you from the moment you realise you are going to become a parent until, I imagine, the day your child becomes an adult and beyond. It troubles you as you wait for the results of the ultrasound scan and it bothers you as you peer at the inky blackness of the sonogram, trying to discern the human features of the foetus seemingly bathed in the eerie glow of a spotlight.
It plagues you at the birth: those five minutes of weighing and checks to count 10 fingers and 10 toes, and other such indicators of medical normality pass as an eternity until your baby returns wearing a snug, woolly hat and wrapped in a blanket. It is the source of worry in the early days of parenthood as you struggle, sleep-deprived and bleary eyed, to work out what’s going on and whether your baby is in fact “normal”.
I spent Astrid’s first year fretting over her behaviour and questioning my emotions and responses to them. It’s not complete lunacy. There’s more to it than the fevered paranoia of a timid and uncertain parent. It stems to some extent from an instinctive concern for your child’s health. A red rash suddenly breaks out on her face; a prolonged bout of sleeplessness seems to drag on for days; a harsh cough that makes her ribs rattle will not go away: they could be symptoms of a deadly disease or they could turn out, in fact, to be just normal.
Families are the front line of this initial adjustment to what is expected and unexpected in the early days of life. Your parents have, after all, been through it all before. And, of course, the genes fit as well. Synthesising the responses of your child’s grandparents to a child-related problem might be expected to yield an accurate answer, steeped in years of experience and perfectly tailored to your child’s genetic code. However this theory ignores the age-weathered nonchalance, which grandparents often acquire because you were a particularly challenging child, or adopt because they do not want to be accused of interfering.
Books are the next tool for the scrutiny of your child’s normality. The problem with many parenting books, other than their tendency to be duller than ditch water, is the way they have to espouse a neat theory or champion a particular approach. Some books tout harsh rules, depict unrealistic scenarios and advocate uncompromising routines, while others suggest boundless freedom, co-sleeping and on-demand feeding. You tend to acquire books that support your already-formed attitudes to life and your preconceived notions of parenthood. These views may not necessarily be the same as your child’s traits, characteristics and behaviour.
Known as confirmation bias, this propensity to seek out information that supports views you have already developed can have a tapering effect on parenthood. It can narrow normal down to a straitjacket and make even the most conventional child appear strange.
Fortunately the internet, the other source of what is normal during childhood, tends to go the other way. Yet it is just as prone to confirmation bias. You can find information online to affirm or debunk just about any behaviour. Google is the gateway to support all manner of strangeness. For example, Astrid has started holding one ear whenever she hears a loud noise. I haven’t looked it up online yet, but no doubt when I do I’ll find scores of YouTube videos of babies engaged in synchronised ear-holding, a website devoted to ear-holding choreography and an article informing me how holding your ear is part of some intricate pattern of development, and needs to be nurtured. Perhaps it is best simply to rephrase the question. Instead of normal, ask is it ordinary? Maybe we will be less eager to confirm that our child is simply unexceptional and very average.