ZONGILE NHLAPO: Motherhood isn’t defined by my ‘non-verbal’ son calling me mom


Around Halloween last year, a colleague came by my desk asking about my child’s excitement about the day – who he wanted to dress up as and all of it. He prefaced it by sharing how his child, about the same age as mine, had pestered him to no end about the day, so he wanted ideas on how to go about it.

In not so many words, I told my colleague that, well, it didn’t matter much to my son and was a day like any other, and that if we’d wanted to do something, it would’ve been a parent-led and parent-centred thing.

What followed was a confused look, because which 4-to 5-year-old child isn’t at least generally curious or excited about Halloween and the likes?

But it was a look I know too well, and one I’ve recently learnt how to somewhat deal with. I then quickly tried to close the confusion gap by telling him that my son is currently in a category some specialists refer to as delayed development. I remember him letting out a mini-gasp, staring at me blankly for a second, then saying "Eish. Oh, I see", before walking away.

Mnqobi (aptly named by his dad) is 4 years old. He is our first-born child, who presents with what specialists may call typical autistic characteristics. These include but are not limited to restricted or repetitive behaviours and interests e.g. he wants the same colour pillowcase, drinks from the same juice bottle, puts his gadget in the same place before he sleeps, etc; and almost obsessive interests - currently he’s into playing with laundry and the swirling motion of a washing machine, and can line up just about anything in a perfectly straight line.

Notably, in the broad category of delayed development, there may also be language, movement, cognitive, or learning skills, whose development differs from child to child.

And where communication is concerned, ours is currently largely “non-verbal” - generally characterised by a lack of or limited use of verbal communication. It’s via gesturing, sounds, sporadic words, seemingly (and sometimes funnily) made-up words, and phrases. At times, the communication is interspersed by a great deal of crying, which we’ve learnt is mainly out of frustration owing to missed or miscommunication - basically us ‘not hearing him’.

He will, however, high five, sometimes fist bump, maybe let out an almost silent hello when you greet, or simply just give you one look, a broad smile, and walk away. His "bye-bye" is enthusiastically loud, and so is his "huggy huggy”.

He is accordingly in speech therapy ("making great progress" - not my words) and occupational therapy and other intermittent therapies, and recently started school in an environment that caters to him.

So, Halloween?

Simply, he can’t as yet comprehend what it is. To paint an even better picture, he can’t yet play pretend – teacher, superhero, plumber, etc, preferring solo play, and half the time plays ‘around’ his little sister instead of with her.

So, as I was pondering about Mother’s Day this year, that Halloween memory came to mind.

You see, Mnqobi recognises that I’m someone important. I’d dare say he knows I’m his mom, even if he can’t put a word to it. Every time he cries, he comes to me for comfort. When he’s hungry, he comes to me, says "khekhe" or "yummy" (which is symbolic of hunger or whatever he’s desiring at the time). Every time his feet hurt because of his AFOs (ankle foot orthoses), he comes to me and says "suuz", which is symbolic of these shoes hurt, or let’s put the other ‘normal’ ones on.

But he doesn’t call me mama or mommy or ma. And will he ever? I don't know, but I certainly hope so.

What I do know is I have had to redefine motherhood as I’d initially imagined it prior to having him – and not only in broad strokes, but in small strokes as well.

That has included doing away with utopian fantasies I once had of what my motherhood journey at this stage would entail – yells of mommy this, mommy that, stories about what happened in school, and bedtime story routines. And that's not to say these things will never happen, but it's not my current reality.

Yet, while our mother-son relationship isn’t typical, it’s incredibly special in its own way.

It is in the non-verbally expressed I miss yous - characterised by him coming to sit next to me, almost suffocatingly, when I come back from work.

It’s in the non-verbal I love yous – expressed by him coming into our home office saying huggy huggy, even as he does it every hour I’m on shift when I'm working from home.

It’s in the when are you paying me attention? Characterised by him sitting outside the same office door playing with his toy until I take my tea break so he walks with me.

And it's in his humming until he literally finishes his food, by which I know I've prepared a pretty delicious dish.

Now, this acceptance and realisation have not always been easy to come to. I won't romanticise it one bit, as I’ve woken up many days with some pain, some confusion, and bone exhaustion because it’s tough.

Worrying that if he’d ever be lost at this age, he wouldn’t be able to say his name or his mom or dad’s name is hard. Beyond communication, lovingly and patiently mothering meltdowns that have been described as 'outside normal’ can take a toll. And not being able to pinpoint where your child is feeling pain because he can’t verbally tell you (or the doctor) hurts.

My husband once described it as walking in the jungle and not knowing what’s going to come next, but pressing forward regardless.

Yet in all of it, almost every night, stubbornly and resolutely, I can feel the burning assurance that I’m the woman for this job. I’m by no mistake Mnqobi’s mother.

And so I guess we’ll keep redefining motherhood and the mother-son relationship as we figure it out daily - as we celebrate the small wins of words attempted, pronounced, and or said with meaning and as we celebrate loosely stringed phrases and how far we go on a Cocomelon song.

And I’ll keep telling him I love him, because it’s true, with every fibre of my being - even as he doesn’t, and can’t yet say it back.

Will he ever say it back? We hope so. And if he doesn’t, would it change anything? Absolutely not.