I have a love/hate relationship with those developmental milestone charts.
On the one hand, they’re helpful in keeping track with your baby’s developmental progress. You know what to anticipate so you don’t get freaked out when the baby suddenly regresses on sleep, for example, or don’t think your baby’s hungry every time he sucks on his fingers. On the other hand, when your baby is developmentally behind, like mine is, those charts get rather annoying.
One milestone I had been eagerly awaiting, ever since we brought him home from the hospital, is Tov’s first genuine smile. He’s been “smiling” since he was a newborn, but those little smirks were not genuine smiles, but baby reflexes, almost always while he’s asleep, or when I touch his cheek. So as cute as those smirks were, they weren’t all that special. I couldn’t wait to see Tov smile for real– for him to look me in the eyes, and then intentionally stretch his mouth upwards into a smile, just for me.
According to those charts, a baby’s first social smile happens around eight weeks, or between six and 12 weeks. Well, six weeks passed. Then eight. Then 10. Twelve weeks. And Tov still wasn’t really smiling. There would be little flickers of sorta kinda smiles, but those smiles were gone in an instant, making me think they weren’t really smiles but random muscle reflexes. Plus, he wasn’t even looking at me when he “smiled.” So I continued to wait. And wait. And wait. Three months. 13 weeks. 14 weeks. No smile.
The pediatrician had told me that because Tov is a premie, he might be a little behind. He might take a year to catch up to the median weight. I was fine with him being a little small– I now understand why so many parents mourn that their kids are growing up too fast. I love Tov being small. It’s good for both my back and my soul that I can still cradle him in one arm. But damn it, I really wanted him to smile soon!
So I tried to hurry his progress along. I looked him in the eye and talked to him, in both Korean and English. He mostly looked away. Stared at the ceiling fan, the wall, the sofa, everything except my eyes. I sat him on his bouncer and read to him. I read him a children’s bible, but he yawned, that little heathen. So I read him a book about choo choo trains, using sound effects and everything, and he seemed a little bit more interested and looked at the book for a few seconds, but didn’t smile, didn’t last more than five seconds before reverting his gaze back to the ceiling fan.
Desperation calls for self-humiliation. I sang. I danced. I sang about hopping rabbits while hopping on all fours. I sang “Jesus loves me” and made hand motions by crossing my fingers and making finger hearts. I sang nonsense– “boop boop boop, la la la, kkaa reeee reeee reee!”– while swaying my hips and flapping my arms like a mad monkey.
All the while, my child looked bored and even…judgmental. This was his expression as his mother sang and danced and made a fool of herself just for the sake of a smile:
That little brat. That little judgy brat. Fine. You don’t want to smile? No smile for you!
But…I can’t help it. I look at that face and my mouth naturally smiles. My mouth naturally wants to kiss him all over. My adoration for him just burbles and froths like a soda fountain, and my child just sips at it, because he is saturated to the tip of his hair strands with his mother’s love, and he doesn’t even know what life is like without it.
Not even four months into motherhood, and I am taken for granted. Woe is me.
Then one evening, we went to a party. It was David’s cousin’s 50th birthday, and they invited us to their house for a birthday dinner. It was the first large gathering we attended altogether since Tov was born. I dressed him up in his cutest outfit, but he pooped all over it– twice– so I changed him into his second nicest outfit. No matter– at least in my eyes, he can wear a poop-stained farty sack and still be the most adorable living creature on earth. I was grateful that others also found him lovable, and Tov received so much love at the party. Aunts and cousins held him, cooed over him, bounced him, cuddled him.
And guess what. That boy SMILED. Not once, not twice, but many times! He smiled and smiled! At other people— while his mother, the woman who carried him in her womb for 35 weeks, who suffered all the aches and indignities and agony of pregnancy and labor, whose shirts are permanently stained with milk, who has aged 10 years and frightens herself every time she looks in the mirror– that mother who sacrificed so much for this child! She! That mother! She sat right next to him watching her baby smile at literally everyone except her.
Oh that little…
Then the next morning. Guess who he smiled at?
Oh no. Not me. Not his poor pitiful mother. He smiled at his father. David was sitting him on his lap, when Tov peered into his eyes and presented him with a wide smile.
“He’s smiling!” David exclaimed.
“What!” I yelped from the kitchen, and rushed over. Tov took one look at me and stopped smiling.
I went back to the kitchen.
“He’s smiling again!” David shouted.
“Oh my God!” I rushed back, and Tov stared at me with no smile.
I did finally see him smile for myself. Why? Because I hid behind the house plants while Tov smiled at my delighted husband. Why are babies such jerks?
I knew that to Tov, he and I are one. He spends more time skin-on-skin on me than with anyone else, and he’s still too young to separate his identity from mine. So I wasn’t hurt. Just majorly annoyed, that’s all. Just like I’ll be majorly annoyed if he says “abba” before “omma” and David is certain to gloat about it.
The next morning, I was nursing Tov while looking at his darling round-cheeked face, when I thought, “Why not pray about this?” It just seemed like such a trivial silly prayer request. But the Bible did say “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In every situation, the Bible says. Not just with serious critical situations, the Bible implies.
OK then. So that morning, I prayed, feeling a little silly, “God, let Tov give me one smile, just for me!”
Tov finished feeding. I burped him. Sat him on my lap facing me. Talked nonsense to him. He stared at me. Then, to my great amazement, he SMILED! Not just a little side smirk, but a full-on eye-crinkle smile!
I almost fell off my chair. “Oh my God! Tov! Did you just smile at omma?” I exclaimed.
And then…he smiled AGAIN! A wide mouth grin! A smile so pure, so guileless, so rich and sweet! All the while looking at ME! Not at the aunties, not at my husband, not the ceiling fan, but at ME! I was so thrilled I smothered him with kisses, to which he responded by turning his head with a grimace. We’ll work on that (or I should probably get used to it), but HALLELUJAH praise the Lord! My child smiled at me!
Since then, Tov has been smiling more and more, and although I’ve collected dozens of smiles by now, every smile is still a heavenly gift, like a kiss from an angel. I waited exactly 100 days for Tov’s smile, and the wait was worth every ridiculous dance, nerve-scratching baby voices, and reading the same boring choo-choo train book over and over.
It’s interesting, that a human being is born crying from the womb, but it takes weeks for the child to learn how to smile. Tov knew how to cry from the moment he arrived, but he needed another human being to learn how to smile, and even then, it can take some coaxing, with lots of eye-to-eye interaction and communication.
I think a lot about the Lord’s joy in us as I experience a parent’s joy over her child’s joy, and how that joy is so interpersonal and communal. I’ve always loved that verse in Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
What a tender, joyful way of expressing the Lord’s heart towards us! Just like I sit Tov on my lap and sing to him, joy burbling as I sense his own joy, smiling a hundred times more at the sight of his one smile, the Lord rejoices over us with gladness and loud singing. We need His joy to learn joy, we share that joy with one another, and we need each other to express that joy.