Community Baby

A friend once shared a story of an American woman who moved with her young family to Myanmar and gave birth there. A short time later, the midwife handed the baby to one of the village women in attendance, who, in turn, took the newborn girl on a circuit of all the surrounding villages to introduce them to each other. The infant was passed from hand to hand and didn’t return for several hours. 

When I first heard this story I imagined the mother’s worry as her breasts swelled with milk and no infant to suckle. I imagined her longing to hold her baby, and her exhausted alarm at the child’s disappearance. Then the wisdom of this practice dawned on me. The mother had no choice but to rest as the mountain people welcomed her child, held her in their calloused hands, and looked into her eyes as they sang traditional songs of welcome. Perhaps someone nursed her if she fussed (which she likely did not). Perhaps they bathed and swaddled her. Most important, they introduced her to her expanded network of kin - the wider community that would share in her upbringing and protection as they anointed her with their love, their smell and touch, as well as their rich and varied microbes and the microbes in the soil of her new home.

I couldn’t help but contrast this scenario to my own experience of childbirth and early motherhood: laboring in a hospital for 18 hours, with my parents in the waiting room, my then-husband by my side trying to be helpful but unsure what to do, and our empty house awaiting our return.

Picturing these scenarios now, a moment comes to mind when my daughter was three months old and I took her to a gathering on the other side of town with the teachers I had worked with at an elementary school in East LA. I didn’t really want to go because it meant a long drive with my baby strapped into the car seat behind me. We couldn’t see each other unless I positioned myself so to be able to watch her in the rearview mirror, but even then, she still couldn’t see my fac. Looking out the window, she saw only endless freeways, skyscrapers, and other cars. We hurtled from freeway to freeway until at last we arrived. 

The room was packed, the conversations loud, the air thick and overheated with so many people in it. How I clung to that baby of mine all that hot afternoon, both of us sweating, our clothes sticky and damp, our hair plastered to our glistening foreheads. I am embarrassed now – and sad, to remember that I never put her down, and didn’t let anyone else hold her, in spite of my aching arms.