Our baby Sam is a pretty laid-back kid. He cries for one of only a few reasons--either he's hungry, he's cold, or he's tired. Mainly it's when he's hungry. Consequently, a major part of his existence (and consequently my wife's and my own) revolves around milk. He eats a lot, though as he nears two months of age he's eating with less frequency but greater volume.
Sometimes Sam doesn't eat all of the milk that my wife's body has created. So Caro pumps this excess milk with a breast pump. Initially the breast pump seemed to me like just one more gadget to clutter up space, but I was quickly convinced of its utility. If my wife didn't express her milk, it would build up in her breasts and maybe cause an infection. And expressing it with a hand-powered pump would be tedious and slow. With our trusty breast pump, she can just plug it in and get pumping.
For a while we would store this expressed milk in the fridge or the freezer. But since Caro is always with Sam, we never used the stored milk, and it invariably went bad. Nowadays we just throw it on our plants, for which the milk serves as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. It pains me to "waste" this breastmilk, but we've found out that there's no milk bank in our town to share our bounty with others. At least if we throw it on our plants the milk goes to good use, and eventually nourishes us again when we use our herbs and other potted veggies.
One time a few weeks ago my wife had to run some errands, so she left me alone with the baby. He got to crying desperately, yearning for milk, so I took out a bottle of recently-expressed, unspoiled milk from the fridge and heated it up a bit. Sam had never drunken from a bottle before, and I had mixed feelings about it. Our hospital had warned us that the best thing for newborns is to drink breastmilk directly from the source. Sucking a bottle is different from sucking a tit, and babies can get so used to the bottle that they don't want to breastfeed anymore. On the other hand, Sam was hungry, and the option of occasionally bottlefeeding him could allow my wife a bit more freedom of movement when she had to take care of work or other obligations.
So I gave Sam the bottle, which he initially couldn't manage very well. The milk came out in a strong stream that he would choke on, and I had to pull it away now and again for him to swallow. It occurred to me that a tiny baby probably doesn't even know how to swallow as a separate act from sucking. For a while Sam was not at all on board with the whole bottle thing, which while it frustrated me, also assuaged my fears of his becoming a bottle addict. Finally he and I got the hang of drinking from the bottle, and it felt special to share with him something that he had only done with his mom before. But my wife soon rushed home to breastfeed him, and we haven't had a repeat experiment with the bottle.
In my wife's urgency to return home and breastfeed Sam, I detected sort of a jealous guarding of the special shared space of breastfeeding. Even when I had finally gotten Sam to drink from the bottle more or less contentedly, Caro could barely stand to have him eating from a source other than her breast. There must be something instinctive, primordial in the mother-child bond formed during breastfeeding.
We've also heard some stories recently about other mothers that zealously protect their breastfeeding bond with their children. For instance, a friend of ours was recently at his niece's house with his daughter. The daughter was hungry, and though she eats solid food now too, I guess she wanted breastmilk. Our friend's niece also happens to be breastfeeding her daughter, so she gave her baby cousin a little suckle. When our friend's wife found out, she was livid. On the other hand, we've heard stories from aunts and grandmothers about women relatives who lived together and shared breastfeeding duties communally among children and nephews alike.
While I am not very directly involved in Sam's milk supply, I have sort of carved out a niche in another type of sustenance: music. I'm usually the one that sings to our son, mainly to help him fall asleep, but also sometimes just because I like singing to him. I'd say that our music selection is broad but not very deep. I remember a lot of lullabies and kids' songs that my mom used to sing me, but for most of them I only know one verse--sometimes not even that! There's Baa Baa Black Sheep, the Muffin Man, Hush Little Baby, Farmer in the Dell, things like that. I recently called my mom and told her that sometime she'd have to refresh me on the complete version of those songs, but she said that she didn't know the other verses either. She usually just sang me the same damn thing over and over again until I fell asleep!
I also remember snippets of traditional songs from my grammar school music classes. Red Red Robin, John Henry, Casey Jones, Little Orphan Annie, Erie Canal, In the Good Old Summertime... Of course when I was a kid I thought these were all stupid and corny, and spent most of the class time snickering and mocking with my friends. It never occurred to me that music class, which seemed like a pointless inanity, was a training for life, adulthood, parenthood. I think this is a real shortcoming of modern, consumer-style societies. Kids are naturally short-sighted and a bit sarcastic, and traditionally the role of adults has been to temper this, to give them long-term perspective or even impose certain things that they knew was for the kids' own good. But if the surrounding culture is also short-sighted and sarcastic, and cynically dismisses anything old or traditional in favor of the newest flavor of Fruit Roll-Up or the new release of Ninja Turtle toys, kids never overcome their worst childish tendencies. And they become adults like me, robbed of the sustenance of traditional music and culture because as kids they were too stupid to appreciate them, and the adults in their lives too timid to force the issue. The internet is a decent remedy to this though--I can look up any song and find the lyrics, if I really want to.
I also sing Sam a lot of religious songs. Admittedly, the Catholic songlist is more somber and less singable than the US Protestant classics, and during my childhood the Catholic church in the US was caught between the influences of post-Vatican folk music and a general aesthetic Protestantization. Parish churches were getting away from icons, statues, even crucifixes, heading toward an architecture more reminiscent of basketball stadiums or Walmarts than Gothic exaltation. Our songs were either insipid guitar-strumming tripe, or rollicking Protestant tunes. All this, in addition to my contact with the more southerly, Baptist half of my family, means that most of the Christian music I know is more Protestant than Catholic. Amazing Grace, Were you There, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, His Eye is on the Sparrow, How Great thou Art, things like that. I've also been singing and playing for young Sam an amazing tape of Sam Cooke and his pre-fame Christian group, the Soul Stirrers.
The dearest songs to me are those that my dad used to sing as I fell asleep. Sixteen Tons and Tom Rush's On the Road Again are the two I remember thus far, but other songs sometimes come to me in bits and pieces. Again, I don't recall all the verses to these songs. I can find them on the internet, but I don't want to hear anyone else singing them, lest I lose my scant remaining clear memories of my father. So I recently had a buddy listen to On the Road Again and transcribe the lyrics for me.
There have been a few times when I've been charged with Sam for long stretches. Sometimes it's to get him to sleep, sometimes just to play with him while my wife is busy with other things. Most recently I had to keep him asleep during the half-hour or so of a banging, whirring MRI scan. So over the din of the machine, I kept up a steady stream of whatever songs I could remember. In such situations I often rediscover popular songs from my own youth that had long been buried in my subconscious. Obviously much of the rap and New Jack Swing I came of age to doesn't translate well to baby songs. But the rock music I discovered as a teenager has been coming back to me. Sweet Child of Mine, Plush, When Doves Cry, Sweet Leaf, Little Wing. I'm surprised at how much of the lyrics I can come up with on demand.
As I sing all these songs to my boy, I realize with wonder how different his life will be from my own. The music I grew up with, the street corners, the TV shows, the racial and social tensions of 1990s Chicago... I can describe all these things to Sam, and he'll be able to understand them on a conceptual level. But many of the influences that so shaped me, who I am, won't be present in Sam's life. That said, my father's upbringing in a decrepit working-class Okie slum, my mother's coming of age in a small Midwestern industrial town of the 1950s, these things influenced me profoundly. I never experienced them firsthand, but both through the stories of my parents, as well as through their way of thinking and raising me, I came to know and be shaped by my parent's childhood realities. Surely something similar will happen with Sam, whether he's growing up in central Colombia or 21st-century Chicago (and frankly, I often feel that our bleak, humble central Colombian town has a lot more in common with my childhood environs than does modern-day Chicago!).
Aside from music and books, there are other ways I'll try to expose Sam to the good things of my culture, my upbringing. Last week I was at a friend's house, and I made a bonfire with his kids. I had long been planning for this--this friend is the guy who's been receiving my wooden building waste from the house rehab project. He's got a big pile of junk wood in his yard now. Some of it he burns in his fireplace, but most of the wood and cane is too long, quick-burning, and often lead-painted for indoor burning. The best way to get rid of such wood is a big, old-fashioned campfire. When some friends visited us in January, I asked them to bring Hershey's bars and graham crackers expressly for the bonfire I wanted to make.
Anyway, my friend's kids and I built a high tepee of old cane and floorboards, with paper and dry grass stuffed within. I explained to them the dynamics of fire, so they'd understand why we were laying the wood in that way. Then we waited a few hours for nightfall. When it finally came, we set the blaze a-roaring. Even though we'd only built the tinder about half as high as I used to back home in Wisconsin, the flames leapt up and threw off a fierce heat in the chilly night. I was actually sort of worried that the flames would set afire the woodpile, which we'd built the bonfire uncomfortably close to. I kept the water hose close at hand, and in the end we had no problems.
This type of bonfire was totally new for my young friends. It appears that one thing that still defines us in the US vis-a-vis other cultures is our sort of backwoods culture. Lots of us know how to lay a good fire, pitch a tent, sort of the basic things we learn when we go out camping with family, or to summer camp.
I told a ghost story around the fire, a modified version of something my mom used to tell me when I was little. It's about a fat kid who visits an old woman neighbor every day, and she slowly gets younger and more vital, while the little boy gets skinnier and wastes away. It was a bit subtle for my younger listeners, but the older kids got it and dug it.
Then we beat down and spread out the fire a bit, and I whittled some sticks down to a point. It was time to make Smores! The kids and I roasted our marshmallows, then I showed them how to load up a graham cracker sandwich. This delicacy was a big hit. I felt like I was really bringing special experiences to these kids.
We finished the night by looking at the stars. I'm no expert on constellations, and I depend on the northern ones to get my bearings, which right now during our equatorial winter are hidden near the horizon. So Orion was the only thing I could show the kids, but they thought it was pretty cool.
Sam spent most of that night indoors with relatives. We figured it was a bit chilly for him to be outside. But I hope things like bonfires and ghost stories and camping will be a part of his youth, just as they made me part of who I am today.
As I finish this blog, I realize that A Prairie Home Companion just finished this week's show, and I missed it. This was another semi-regular feature of my childhood, listening to Garrison Keillor from our cozy digs in central Wisconsin. Again, thanks to Internet, I hope to share this with Sam and Caro in the years to come.
And I hope my readers will share with me special things from their childhoods that they feel are important for me to expose Sam to. In the meantime, I leave you with a lovely column from Keillor about parenthood, summer camp, and God's protection of our kids.