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Mom in Translation: A Bitter Taste of Honey

A single speck of honey — that’s what caused so much bitterness in this mom's house a month before the birth of her first child

Published on: March 06, 2017

Honey droplets

A single speck of honey — that’s what caused so much bitterness in my house a month before the birth of my first child. 

As Hindu immigrants with roots in India, my husband and I received advice from far and wide on the mandatory customs our culture offers to welcome a new baby. The one causing the strife is called jatakarma — a ritual where, soon after birth, the father of the baby puts a small drop of honey onto his child’s tongue.

Seemingly harmless, right? Except every single parenting book, pediatrician and internet search emphasized in BOLD letters: “Do not feed your baby honey until age 1. May be fatal.”

According to Hindu tradition, an early taste of honey signifies a beautiful life ahead for our baby. But as American residents and strongly science-abiding people, my husband and I were concerned about the health warnings. 

Families back home had kept this tradition for centuries and lived to tell the tale, but I couldn’t help but worry that out of bad luck, it would be our child who was struck down by botulism. 

It was such a tiny drop of honey, nothing more than a symbolic gesture. But everyone we spoke to outside our community remained firm — how could we risk our baby’s life?

 

For weeks, we debated the pros and cons.

“Our mothers will be so happy,” my husband would say.

“Our child could end up sick or worse…” I would counter.

“We all went through it and no one we know had any problem,” he’d retort. 

We were caught between culture and science, emotion and logic. For once, there wasn’t anyone we could turn to who was impartial. Our families and friends familiar with the custom reassured us; there was nothing to worry about. It was such a tiny drop of honey, nothing more than a symbolic gesture. But everyone we spoke to outside our community remained firm — how could we risk our baby’s life?

Also on our minds: The taste of honey was the only part of the jatakarma ceremony we’d be able to do correctly. The authentic ceremony involves Hindu chanting, which neither my husband or I have any expertise in, and other religious components that we wouldn’t be able to manage from a Seattle hospital room. For us, the honey would be the easiest way to emulate an important tradition.

We still hadn’t decided when I went into labor. And for the next 40 hours, I had other things on my mind.

Two days after my son, Veer, was born, my husband brought a little jar of honey to the hospital. 

“What do you think?” he whispered, trying not to wake a nearby sleeping Veer.

I looked at my newborn and reflected upon the thousands of miles — both metaphorical and geographical —  between my baby’s upcoming childhood and the ones of my husband and I. I thought of all the rituals that we’d do away with out of convenience in our lives in America. Of how that little drop of honey would build a bridge between our cultures that nothing else would so early in my son’s life.

“The tiniest speck you can manage,” I whispered back.

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