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Voices

Something to shout about

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / December 6, 2008
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My Pentecostal neighbor thinks we're not effusive enough when it comes to welcoming newborns. In her native Nigeria, she told us, people dance with tiny babies in the streets, holding them up to the heavens, extolling them as miracles from God.

To demonstrate, when my son was four days old, she performed an unsolicited revival-style prayer service in our family room, raising up her hands and loudly shouting praise to Jesus.

My Jewish parents looked on with vaguely uncomfortable smiles. My 4-year-old daughter, who had been watching a Gumby movie, turned the volume to rock-concert levels, then began to yell, "Stop talking!" The baby, who had been nursing, started to cry.

Those were a loud few minutes, and I felt more than a little relieved when they were over. Still, I've been wondering, in the days since, whether my neighbor has a point. There is something especially joyous about these new little people, yet we treat their arrival into the world in ways that seem awfully reserved. The nurses in the hospital are kind but not exuberant; this is nothing they haven't seen before. The relatives make happy calls, long-distance. Insurance claim specialists offer perfunctory "congratulations" at the end of bureaucratic conversations.

I read up on birth rituals from other cultures: how babies in Tudor England were baptized with water, ash, and salt; how Tibetans present newborns and their parents with scarves; how Hindus touch a newborn's lips with a ring dipped in honey and curds. Yet in the here and now, some ceremonies don't feel right. A bris? No thanks. We had the job done in the hospital, with local anesthetic.

In this era, celebration can be dangerous, we're told: I remember strict rules against giving infants honey, for fear of botulism poisoning. Amid the mountains of paperwork in the maternity ward, I come across a warning: The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children suggests that you not festoon your house with balloons or "It's a Boy" banners. Or else, we channel our exuberance into a digital world, creating baby blogs, sending photos. Even mailed birth announcements seem old-fashioned and extraneous. My husband and I spread the word quite efficiently by changing our Facebook status updates.

It's not the same as shouting from the rooftops, and were it not for the sleep deprivation and the fear of the neighbors' wrath, that's what I'd prefer to do - especially because I've been so surprised about how thrilling a newborn can be. I had become accustomed to the charms of 4-year-olds, who dance and sing and feed themselves and make up terrible knock-knock jokes. So before the baby was born, I'd underestimated everything that newborns have to offer. I'd remembered that they mostly ate, pooped, and slept, and that's true, as far as it goes. But I'd forgotten how fascinating even the basics can be when undertaken by a person who weighs less than 7 pounds.

There's so much to watch with amazement: the way their tiny arms move awkwardly and settle down into an accidental clasp, as if in prayer; the way their mouths form into gassy little smiles; the way their eyes can open wide and search for yours. They laugh in their sleep, they pant when they're hungry, and they sometimes stare ahead in super-serious thought, as if they're contemplating world peace or how to manage federal bailouts.

We take the existence of other people for granted; human beings, even 4-year-olds, are everywhere, and they can sometimes make you frustrated or mad. Staring into the face of a newborn, though, gets you thinking deeper thoughts. What do those eyes really see? What does he think when he hears your voice? When that range of emotions passes over his sleeping face, is he having a dream? Is it happy or sad? How could such a complete and complicated being come to be in just nine months? If there's such a thing as a miracle, this is it - and that's certainly something worth shouting about.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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