Before I was a parent, I used to have a good idea of what a genius was. Or at least, a general idea. A genius was someone with a sky high IQ, a giant brain. Sometimes these Mensa folks were full-time nerds, but often, a genius was someone whose brilliance added something practical or beautiful to the world, whether it was through scientific discoveries or important works of literature or new philosophical theories. You could be a musical genius or an artistic genius or a genius at, I don’t know, studying the mating patterns of fire ants. The point is: I think I had a basic idea of what constitutes a genius. Einstein, Mozart, Curie — that whole crew.
Then I had a baby. And with that baby came a very unexpected side effect: All of a sudden, my bar for “genius” lowered. By a lot.
By way of example: When my daughter was born, she had freakish neck strength. She could hold her head up from the beginning, a fact that I shared ecstatically with my non-child-having friends.
“She can ALREADY hold her head up!” I would say excitedly. “I think she might be some sort of athletic genius.” They would nod and pretend to care, which was a kindness.
When she was 3 months old, she would grab a toy and try to chew on it. “That’s a SIX MONTH milestone!” I would exclaim, thumbing through the phonebook to try to find the number for the Guinness Book of World Records. “I think she might be a literal genius!”
“Why is she a genius?” my husband would ask, absentmindedly, from the other room.
“She’s a genius,” I would say patiently if not slightly exasperated, “because she just put a rubber duck in her mouth.”
When, at 6 months old, she was babbling nonstop, I would whip out my phone to record. “She said ‘ba’ and ‘da’!” I cried. “She’s a literary genius!” Maybe I was raising the next Hemingway? She certainly had his proclivity for short words.
Of course, if there was anything she was actually a genius at, it was getting me to lower the bar. Babies are masters of this. Like how the first time I slept for a three hour stretch after my daughter was born, I was practically giddy, punching the air.
“I have so much energy!” I cried. “This is amazing!” All because I had gotten a measly three hours of sleep. And I’m sure that while I was going on and on about how I felt completely refreshed, totally like a new person, my daughter was secretly smiling to herself, knowing that she had successfully and permanently lowered the bar of what an appropriate amount of sleep was.
So maybe the smartest thing about babies is not that they learn to babble, or to stack blocks, or to smush food into their mouths. Maybe the smartest thing about babies is that they get their parents to re-calibrate their expectations so completely that no matter what our babies do, it seems like the best, most brilliant thing any baby has ever done.