I am trapped in a small room alone with a blonde 2 year old staring at me from a polka dot stroller. He’s the son of my patient who couldn’t find childcare this morning for our nutrition counseling appointment.
“Will you watch him for a couple minutes while I run to the bathroom?” she had asked, wiping some sort of sweet potato goop off her sweater. “Sure!” I had said, “No problem”. But it is a problem, because I have no idea what to do with a 2 year old for 2 minutes. I don’t have children, don’t want them, never have, and have mostly equated spending time with them to being on an awkward first date which I’m eager to see end. Usually, during these uncoordinated moments, someone else has been around to fill in the blanks, make the faces, show the magic tricks, know the latest lego’s. Sitting here, staring back at this tot in Baby Gap’s finest, my head is a cavern of “I’ve got nothing.” .My dozen or so babysitting experiences from 25 years ago yield no brilliant ideas and I feel like an actor suddenly transported into a play whose script I don’t have.
I’m a nutritionist who works with adults battling health issues. I listen to medical histories, explore eating behaviors, educate on mineral deficiencies, and recommend ways to lower cholesterol, and avoid gluten. Amidst a sea of knowledge of the latest studies on fish oil, turmeric and avocados, I realize I am completely inadequate when it comes to toddler speak.
I start to sweat. I can’t have my patient return to the room with the two of us blankly gawking at each other. I feel like we must be engaged in some sort of discourse, or game. He needs to be giggling or cooing at something I’m doing as entertainment. If she can’t trust me with a two year old, why would she rely on me for medical advice?
“So….how are you?” I ask. He doesn’t respond, just pops another Cheerio in his mouth absent mindedly. I’m not sure “How are you” is a popular opening gambit for this demographic although it will often release a flood gate from my usual clientele.
“I like your plaid shirt!” I offer.
He looks down at his plaid shirt but doesn’t express a great deal of interest in the shirt or me. I’m panicking. I look around my office for child friendly conversation starters. The framed painting of a radish, two office chairs, nutrition textbooks and jars of grains and beans don’t stimulate any conversation topics.
I grab a food model off my shelf and gently shake it up and down.
“Look, it’s a box of gluten free pasta!” I say, holding it like a puppet bouncing back and forth.
“Look at me!” I continue, imitating what I think sounds like Kermit the Frog’s voice. “I’m gluten free pasta! Dum da dum dum.” He is staring. The quiet that follows feels eerily uncomfortable.
“Isn’t this a nice logo?” I say back in my normal voice, shaking with effort. “And it’s super yummy! Do you like pasta?” He nods cautiously. Progress. I’ve made a connection! Where to go from here? Quick, keep going, I urge myself. I glom onto my success with the pasta comment.
“Pasta, Pasta!” I sing in my jazziest voice. I’m googling my brain to remember what they sang about on Sesame Street back in the 1970’s when I was watching. Did they ever talk about vegetables or fruit? Should I start reciting the alphabet? Discuss numbers? Might he be interested in reading over some blood labs with me? “Look at this high cholesterol. Can you say ‘243?’” Surely my patient must be finished in the bathroom! She said “a couple minutes”. It’s been at least a half hour that I’ve been stuck here babbling about noodles. What else do 2 year olds think or talk about? Poop? That seems an inappropriate topic, although it’s guaranteed that I’ll be speaking with my patient about her poop sometime within our session. While I scramble to find a captivating box of high fiber crackers, my patient re-enters the room, looking refreshed, shirt free of all tuber remnants.
“Thanks for watching him” she says.
“Sure!” I say brightly and the 2 year old shifts in his stroller. He has my number. He knows I panicked. Thank God he still has limited vocabulary and can’t reveal my fumblings. I make a mental note to myself watch Bob the Builder, go to the legos website, or Google “how to speak with two year olds” in preparation for next time. I begin the session with my patient and relax into adult conversation.
“So, tell me how things are going for you.” I ask. And as she launches into her list of challenges and successes around reducing her sugar intake and increasing her vegetables, I think “Ah yes, THIS, I can handle” I see her son out of the corner of my glasses watching me curiously, perhaps wondering what our next encounter will be like. Chances are I’ll be dancing around my computer, shaking a bottle of Vitamin D pills for percussion and building a sand castle of quinoa as he stares blankly once again, catching me in my own clumsy foolishness.