Thursday, May 5, 2011

and while you're at it, give her a bath


From In Mother Words, by Susan Byrum Rountree, 
Copyright 2003 (revised May 2011)
When I gave birth to my daughter on a frigid morning in December almost 28 years ago, I thought that meant I had become a mother. A baby to rock and coo to, that’s what I’d wanted for so long. But it wasn’t until a few days later that my transformation occurred. It happened when my own mother, who’d come to take care of us for awhile, walked out my front door with my husband and said: “Give her a bath while I’m gone.”
Now you have to know my mother to understand the power of these words. Take a bath, she was always telling me while growing up, and make it scalding. It’ll serve to scrub away whatever ails you, be it headache, splinter or broken heart.
She’d been right, of course. I’d even followed her advice not four days before. Tired of being swollen and perpetually in wait, I lowered my nine-months’ pregnant body into a scalding tub and sat, knowing this was exactly what my mother would advise me to do. And believe me, it soon cured what ailed me and my baby. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, the baby who would be named Meredith told me it was time to come into the world.
A week later, when Mama handed my daughter over to me before heading out the door, she knew full well that “Give her a bath” was code for me — her own baby girl — to take my place among the mothers of my family. It was time, not to take the bath, but give it.
Of course I resisted. I’d watched her give Meredith a bath on the giant sponge on my tiny bathroom counter, but aside from wringing a dripping washcloth over her squirming body, I’d never been in charge. I had no idea how much baby bath to use or if I should wash her hair. Where would I put her while the water was heating up? What if it got too hot? How would I, with only two hands between me, find all the soiled places between her folds, hold her slick form without dropping her on the floor?
I heard the door slam behind me and pondered all these things in my heart. Then I stared at the pink form in my arms, realizing for the very first time that my mother would be going home soon, and this baby was mine to keep.
As I remember this, I think about the time we’d been studying the Chinese culture in 6th grade, and I asked my mother if I could take one of her china bowls for show and tell.
“Only if you don’t break it,” she said to me. So I wrapped it carefully in newspaper, put it in a paper grocery bag and set out. That afternoon I triumphantly walked the mile home, juggling my mother’s bowl and an armful of books. I made it all the way to the back door, then paused, the books and the bowl in one arm, trying to open the door handle. Need I say more?  If I couldn’t be trusted with a china bowl, how on earth could I be trusted with a baby?
I thought about not giving my baby a bath at all and just saying I did. I mean, she looked clean enough to me. But after 20 years of living under the roof of the master of bath giving, I knew full well she’d find me out.
Poor Meredith. I tried to be gentle. Her wide eyes watched as I tested the water and soaped the soft cloth. She was tiny, slippery, not six pounds, but to me she weighed 16. I was as careful as I knew to be, and after a minute or two, my heart slowed a little, and I began singing to her, marveling at the very idea that this tiny form was so much a part of me.
When my mother came home that afternoon, Meredith was not only clean, but fed, burped and sleeping. I had finally begun my journey as her mother.
Soon enough, though, you learn that when you are out in the world with your new baby, everyone becomes your mother. They are well-meaning when they tell you you’re holding her the wrong way, offer advice on how to properly burp her or what to do if she won’t stop crying. Sometimes their advice is worth keeping.
I learned this lesson on my first trip out of the house with Meredith when we paid our first visit to the pediatrician’s office, that command post for mothers who claim to know more about how to raise a baby than other mothers in the room.
 This was January, middle Georgia, and though that part of the South is known more for its gentle winters, 1984 began as the year before it had ended, biting cold and blustery.
I had dressed Meredith for her outing, first in t-shirt and diapers, then in tiny white tights and pink sailor dress. Next came a hooded sweater and socks. After that, a quilted snowsuit that was so big her feet didn’t reach the toes. Then came a blue toboggan, bought when we thought sure she’d be a boy. The final layer was made up of two, mind you, two soft blankets.
 So tightly bound was she that you could barely see her tiny face. Her body wouldn’t bend in the car seat, not doubt, since she’d doubled her weight in the 10 minutes it took me to dress her. Never mind. My baby would not be catching cold in this weather.
When I reached the doctor’s office, the nurses gathered around to see her. I beamed, at this most perfect creature I’d created, almost by myself.
“Take some of these covers off this baby,” said one of them, surely a mother of 10. Could she tell that I’d been at it less than two weeks?
 I stood back, mortified, as she began to peel the layers away from my newborn, revealing the face of a child who has loved hot weather ever since.
 “Always be sure that you give her space to breathe, ” the nurse told me.
(If I’d tried to take Meredith out of the house when my mother was still visiting, not doubt she would have been the one to give me this advice. I related this story to my sister, and she admitted that though her daughter was born in the middle of August, the first time she took her outside, she wrapped her accordingly. My mother, who was a witness to this folly, was quick to remove the layers from my niece, lest she have a heat stroke. )
Give her a bath, give her room to breathe. I think of my own mother, and how many times she bathed me, not only in scalding water to scrub my ills away, but in the love she gave while I was growing up. I had no other model and surely I didn’t need one. She gave me room to breathe, too, to learn the ropes without her looking over my shoulder every minute.
We all need the bath to still us, and the breathing room to keep our lives moving forward on our own power.

Bathe the baby. Then give her room to breathe.
When I look back on these almost 28 years of being a mother, I know I’ve tried to follow these two rules. Both my children, now grown, know all about the power of the hot bath, and though they may think I’ve suffocated them with my questions about their lives, I hope they can appreciate those times when I’ve given them some needed air, allowing them to shape their own futures the way they see fit.
One day it will be my turn from my children to mother me. I hope they’ll remember that I’ll need to be bathed, not only with water, but in love and understanding. And I can tell you for sure, I will never outgrown my own need for room to breathe.