We file into the basement with our babies, all just weeks old and cocooned in their new infant car seats with brightly colored toys dangling from the handles. The stairs are narrow and carpeted; I’m worried I might slip and fall. We each look around self-consciously, eyeing the other parents and babies, eager to connect and not seem as neurotic as we feel. The couch has been pushed up against the wall, a large blanket splayed out on the ground, ready for a circle of parents and babes.
We pull our baby out of her car seat and claim a spot on the ground. I glance sideways to see if anyone notices her Pavlik harness, a velcroed navy strap that wraps across her chest and pulls back her legs to keep her hips and knees flexed at all times. She’s been in it since she was a newborn. She was breech and therefore at higher risk for hip dysplasia, where the ball of the baby’s hip isn’t aligned correctly with the socket. It’s a simple fix, really: just wear this harness for the first few months of life. But it’s our first baby and I awkwardly try to hide it under a flowered cardigan. It has the unfortunate effect of making her look like she’s wearing protective pads under her shirt, like a tiny bald football player.
We’re gathered with these strangers to form a new parent group. All novices, we live in the same general area of the city and are first time parents. Each week we meet in someone’s house to socialize and learn the ins and outs of caring for a baby from a guest speaker. This is our first week and our speaker is tasked with encouraging us to sing to our new babies. Music is important for brain development and none of us want our babies to have lackluster brains. She hands out a thick paper packet of children’s song lyrics, neatly laid out in three columns of black and white type. I recognize most of the titles, but don’t remember them well. Circled together with our babies lying at our feet, she announces we’re all going to sing a song.
Silence hangs heavy in the room when our leader asks for a song suggestion. No one wants to be first. Undeterred, she cheerily chooses Skinnamarink. I vaguely remember the song but can’t recall any of the lyrics. Before I know it, voices have begun to fill the air, but they’re so hesitant and weak that all I can make out is the leader’s clear tones, her words stretched out as if extending each syllable could encourage us to actually contribute. I myself have begun frantically flipping through the stapled song packet, looking for said song so I can at least move my lips to the lyrics and pretend I’m participating. I want to be a good mom. My husband sits next to me, legs splayed out, leaning back on his arms. He’s not even trying to sing, has a nonchalant face of indifference. Maybe he doesn’t care about being a bad dad. He doesn’t sing under most circumstances and certainly won’t attempt a song who’s title isn’t even a real word.
Someone to the left of me is haphazardly trying to keep up but only getting every few words. It’s distracting as I flip through my song packet and pretend I’m really focused on my baby. She’s lying mid circle and aware of the strange sounds emanating from the surrounding adults. I’ve sung to her before, of course, but always in the privacy of my own nursery, shielded by a closed door and darkness, rocking her in our new cushioned recliner without any witnesses. My voice cracks as I try to catch up: “I love you in the morning and in the afternoon…” I realize the leader is doing hand motions as well. How is she managing that?
The song ends pitifully absent of actual singers. More sideways glances and rueful smiles from everyone. Our poor speaker is flipping through the song packet, trying to find a tune we might actually know and sing. I’m suddenly angry at her: who is this music maven with her overwhelming packet of lyrics and what gives her the right to force us to sing like we’re some sort of indentured chorus? My baby’s brain will be just fine without all these nonsense lyrics swirling around, thank you! I sit back haughtily. It feels better than admitting I’m embarrassed and insecure. And now a little worried about my baby’s brain.
Five years and two more babies later I sit on our weathered living room rug changing my three-month-old. My five-year-old daughter hovers over me, eager to make faces at her baby sister and participate in the domesticities of caring for a little one. My three-year-old son is napping upstairs so we can take our time. As I pull out the wipes my baby locks her steely grey eyes to mine. I smile and unconsciously break out in song. “Skinnamarink-a-dink-a-dink, Skinnamarink-a-do! I loooove you!” My older daughter joins in, mimicking my hand motions. She knows the song well. I raise my hands in a circle above my head: “underneath the moooon!” I tap her nose playfully whenever I proclaim, “I love YOU!” My youngest baby coos and explodes into a wide grin. She loves the song and it’s become my favorite to sing, the nonsense syllables and message of undying affection. I hear my son stirring as he plops out of bed, his heavy footfalls stamping overhead as he clambers to the staircase. My five-year-old and I finish off the song with a flourish: harmonized and glowing. I swoop my diapered baby onto my hip. I can already sense her brain developing nicely.
About the Author
Mary Pan is a writer and family medicine physician with training in global health and narrative medicine. Her work has been published in several online and print publications including Intima, Coffee and Crumbs, Hektoen International and Mamalode, among others. She writes regularly about motherhood and medicine on her website (marypanwriter.com) and in undecipherable scribblings in her Moleskine notebook. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three young children.