When your child does not speak, you call me.

Oh, not at first.

At first, you savor the thunk of his legs against your hip, the snap of his teeth around those first few bites of apple, the thwack of spoon on pan.

His cry splits your heart.

But soon, he’s 18 months or two years old, and you stop listening to what you hear and start listening to what you don’t: “Mommy.”

Or “daddy.”

Or “I love you.”

Then, you call me. I’m a speech therapist, and it’s my job to help your child communicate.

There are a million tricks of the trade, but a lot of my advice boils down to this: Talk to your child. A lot.

They call it a “language rich environment.”

The idea is to surround your child with a vast sea of words and let him loose to splash around.

You’re encouraged to narrate your actions to expand upon your child’s attempts at talking.

“We’re driving now! Look, see we just passed the school.” Or, “More milk? You want more milk in your glass? OK, I’m pouring you more milk.”

Every waking moment of your child’s day is an opportunity for learning. In the car? Describe what you see! On the playground? Describe what you do! Doing chores? Turn them into language games!

It’s an evidence-based practice.

It works.

And it’s utterly exhausting.

I felt like a good parent. I felt like I was doing my bit. And I felt like screaming.

And before I had kids, I had no clue. No, I waltzed around giving advice, oblivious to my clients’ red-rimmed eyes, their glazed nods.

It took savoring the thunk of my son’s legs against my hip, the snap of his teeth around the apple, the thwack of his spoon.

As my son’s first birthday approached, I circled him like a language-obsessed hawk — watching, waiting.

When he said his first word, I gasped with relief.

But I couldn’t rest on my laurels.

I knew what a parent’s role was; I knew my duty.

I had to stuff language into him until he couldn’t keep it down anymore and the words came jetting back up.

“Here we go! We’re walking! You’re using your feet! Look! You have toes! Mommy has toes, too! Look at mommy’s toes; they’re long!”

I felt like a good parent. I felt like I was doing my bit. And I felt like screaming.

A few months before his second birthday, in the middle of yammering about all the different shoes we keep by the front door (“Mommy’s red shoes! Daddy’s blue shoes!”), I ran out of steam.

I was a demented tour guide in my own home.

And I was done.

My son is more than his speech.

He is his own small person, choosing to howl or boogie, to scribble or eat crayons.

And I am more than my son’s therapist.

Yes, I owe it to him to make sure he grows up in a home filled with words.

Language is one of the greatest gifts we have to give.

But I also owe it to him—and myself—not to turn motherhood into a grind.

So for now, I’m easing up.

And if my son heads into adulthood knowing a word or two fewer, if his sentences come a beat or two more slowly—I accept it.

When your child doesn’t speak, you’ll call me. And I’ll tell you: Talk to your child. A lot.

But I’ll also tell you that sometimes it’s OK to be quiet.

To stop and wait, to listen to her breathe.

This week, I parked the car (Beep beep! Vroom!), wedged him into the stroller (Buckle! Straps!), and took my son to the zoo. There was work to be done, after all. (Giraffe! Slither! Gallop, squawk, hop!)

We rounded a corner, and I closed my mouth.

Behind their glass, two sea lions reared close enough to slap our faces with their fins.

They were dancing, or fighting, twisting the water and the air into one long skein.

My son laughed.

I shut up.

Anne Timberlake is a mom, licensed speech-language pathologist and professional recorder player (yes, really!) based in St. Louis, MO. She writes about music and mothering at AnneTimberlake.com.

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