My daughter yells out words in her sleep. At 18 months old, she has a predictable loop: ducky, mama, papa, sock, milk. These sounds come out of the darkness of her room with a sleepy enthusiasm that is downright comical (“monkey”—long pause—”SHAMPOO!”). But there are other words she blurts out in regular rotation that I’ve had to learn alongside her: Nase, Augen, Hausschuhe, Gabel, Löffel.
My husband and I moved to Vienna, Austria, from Brooklyn—where I lived for 12 years—two months before our daughter was conceived. During my pregnancy, I loaded up on books—lots of Ina May Gaskin; What to Expect; Your Pregnancy Week by Week (which I dubbed What to Fear Week by Week). My husband, who is also American, bought his share of books, too, but as a linguistics professor teaching in German, he decided to kill two birds, as it were, and read about my pregnancy in German. This would, he assumed, stretch his vocabulary enough to prepare us for our daughter’s birth in an Austrian hospital, and eventually help him to parent a bilingual child, with whom he’d speak German.
This plan worked well in utero: I have a photo of him reading Faust to my 12-week-along belly. (By month seven, I was tuning out story time with Bose headphones and a movie to give them “alone” time.) But when our daughter was born, my husband realized that like anyone who has learned a language for academic purposes, his vocabulary was sorely lacking in baby words. (Despite taking an intensive course while pregnant, my German was lacking in virtually all words.) How do you say crawl, he wondered? Caterpillar? Teething? What’s the Austrian version of, The wheels on the bus go round and round? We decided it was best to leave German to the natives.
Because Noa’s exposure to the language had been minimal, I worried about thrusting her into a wholly German environment at 14 months, when she started part-time daycare. If you know anything about language acquisition, you know this was a ridiculous fear—children are the best language learners because they can hear and distinguish all sounds (sounds that over time are much harder to grasp). Although they can’t necessarily keep the languages straight to begin with—so “shoe” and “Socken” might end up in the same sentence—they do eventually distinguish them and switch back and forth without any difficulty.
Within weeks Noa was yelling, “Flasche!” (bottle) and “Hausschuhe” (slippers, or “house shoes”—mandatory attire in the classroom). In other words, she was fine—better than fine. She was ecstatic, her little brain lapping up every last drop of whatever language was spoken to her and spouting it incessantly.
It was me I should have been worried about.
Viennese daycares—known here as kindergartens—have a very long Eingewöhnungszeit—literally translated as “getting adjusted period” or “acclimatization.” Dropping your kid off on Day One while she shrieks “MOMMY!” is looked upon as child abuse. I spent four weeks—every single morning for four full weeks—either in the classroom, waiting for the teacher to tell me to step out for 10 or 20 minutes (it felt like waiting in a doctor’s office for very bad news), or, once I was given the go-ahead to leave for an hour or two, camped out in the local café. (That the mother of a young child might have other things to do is basically considered neglect.) After a month, Noa was allowed to stay for the full four hours and I was set free.The Eingewöhnungszeit involved a lot of checking in with the teachers—how did Noa fare for an hour, two, three? Did she eat, cry, poo? I muddled through this in my shameful German. Even though these very kind women articulated every sound as though they were talking to one of the babies, I understood about 35 percent of what was said. Because I couldn’t respond properly or probe further, I nodded and smiled and communicated what I had grasped by repeating it back to Noa in English: “Sonja said you didn’t cry when I left!” Luckily, Noa was so immediately at home on the first day that she made it easy, barely noticing my presence or absence. Still: this isn’t how I thought it would be.
During summers in college, I worked at a daycare center. Being a social person by nature, I loved talking with the parents when they arrived for pick-up, eager to hear about the day’s discoveries and frustrations. If Noa were enrolled in daycare in North America, I would surely be one of those parents: cozying up to the teachers and other moms and dads; anxious to know every detail of Noa’s day. I see the other parents having involved, nuanced conversations with the teachers and laughing with one another here and I can only guess that they all think of me as cold and stand-offish. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.
But circumstances dictate what kind of mother you become more than I could have ever anticipated. Like all pregnant women, I had myriad ideas about how I’d parent. None of the things I was so hell-bent on—no epidural! no formula! wear her on my person for months!—panned out. I had a C-section, my milk took weeks to come in, and my back went out when Noa was 10 weeks old.
The truth is this: I think Noa is raising us as much as we are raising her. I have become Noa’s mother. Had she been different, surely I would be too. The same goes for our circumstances, I presume. Had Noa not been born in Austria—had one year of maternity leave not been the norm; had very good, state-run kindergarten not been affordable, readily available and universally attended; had her parents not been foreigners, forever navigating unfamiliar customs and traditions, always a little lost—I would be a different mother. Watching who I have become has been endlessly surprising—an unfolding that is both full of active decision-making (Noa will start kindergarten at age one!) and, to some degree, choice-less (I’ll be that super uninvolved parent!).
Given that my husband is a linguist and I grew up in Montreal speaking French and English interchangeably, it goes without saying that we’re thrilled to be raising Noa in Vienna, where she’s picking up a second language as easily as she’s picking up every last illness at kindergarten. I am immensely proud—and in awe—of her German. For weeks, I prompted her to tell us about her kindergarten friend Norah, simply to hear her say the ‘rah’ sound—a gutteral, clearing-your-throat, almost Hebrew-sounding rrrrrrrr—in a pitch-perfect German accent that her father and I could never replicate.
Daycare—or childcare of any kind—marks the beginning of a child’s independence, of life away from her parents. This became clear during the first week, as I watched Noa—who is more bull than China shop—explore her classroom and forge connections with her teachers and the other kids—relationships I would soon not be privy to. As thrilling as it was to witness, this transition was also heartbreaking. And it feels even more acute because it takes place in another language: Noa is entering a world I literally cannot understand.
Since she spends half her day in kindergarten, her German is quickly gaining on her English. Thus far, I have been able to decode her half-formed words but now it’s getting harder. The words she’s learning aren’t part of my vocabulary. She’s singing songs I’ve never heard and whose storylines I can’t follow. I don’t know all that’s going on in her life; all that her brilliant mind is computing at rocket speed. My husband and I are no longer the sole mitigators, guardians and curators of her experience of the world. She is her own little being now: of us—and yet wholly, and forever, distinct.
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