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Welcoming Baby; Birth rituals provide children with sense of community, culture

Published on: May 21, 2005

Bringing a new baby home is one of
the most exciting universal human experiences. For most parents, it is
a time of celebration -- when families and communities come together to
honor and welcome the new child.

Rituals and ceremonies that mark a child's birth and survival are
common worldwide. In the United States, baptism and male circumcision
are two of the more familiar baby traditions, but there are many others
that are less visible. These rituals not only celebrate and acknowledge
the child, but can also serve as an important way for families to
solidify their connection to community, heritage and culture.

"Rituals are evidence that one is authentic and belongs," says Maria
Root, Ph.D., a Seattle-based clinical psychologist and identity
development expert. "They are about knowing where you come from." For
parents, birth rituals and ceremonies provide an immediate sense of
connection as well as inclusion of the child into the clan, tribe or
community, Root explains.

Although babies aren't yet fully aware, these rituals are important for
them as well, she adds. Along with being the first introduction to who
they are, they also serve as guideposts as they grow and develop their
own sense of identity. Even if they drift away from or reject their
heritage, their early experiences give them a place to return to if
they so choose.

"Parents re-tell the stories of the rituals to the child as they get
older, giving them a path back to connection," Root says. "With these
rituals, the parents give the child a road map home."

This can be particularly important for parents who have recently come
to the U.S. from other countries. As families integrate into American
culture, traditions such as baby ceremonies can serve as an important
anchor to their history.

ParentMap spoke with three local couples about their baby traditions and rituals, stemming from five different cultures.

Although Sivaraman Balachandran was only 7 years old when he came to
the U.S. from India, he still remains very connected to his cultural
and religious heritage. So when his first child, Maya, was born a year
ago, he and his wife Jennifer decided they would give her a traditional
Hindu welcome. "It was an important way for me to keep my traditions
alive," Sivaraman says.

In most Hindu communities, when a child is born the family has a naming
ceremony, or Namkaran. Often held on the 11th day after birth, it is
the first samskara, or sacrament, in a Hindu's life, and a way to name
and bless the child. Although the ceremony is common, there can be some
differences in how it is performed. "Hinduism is a huge, complex
religion with many variations in traditions, ceremonies and beliefs,"
Sivaraman explains. His family is Tamil Brahmin Iyer, an Indian
subgroup that is defined along ethnic and caste lines, so his
daughter's ceremony was based on those customs and practices.

On the day of the ceremony, Maya's grandmothers and some of Sivaraman's
female cousins placed bangles and anklets on her hands and feet.
"Traditionally, it would be my sisters, but in this case my cousins
acted as the baby's paternal aunts," he says. His cousins chanted
mantras, or sacred invocations, into Maya's ear. Sivaraman and Jennifer
then spoke her name into her right ear. "We say the name so that it
registers in the baby's brain and the parents' voice pattern is also
registered," says Sivaraman's father, V.J. Balachandran. Sivaraman and
Jennifer then wrote her name in a plate of uncooked rice.

"If we would have been in India, the ceremony would have been about
four hours long, and a priest would have been present," Sivaraman says.
"There would have also been a Homam, a fire that serves as a witness to
most Hindu religious functions. It really wasn't feasible for us to do
the full ceremony, so we opted for a simplified version," he explains.

They did, however, hold a more complex ceremony when Maya recently
turned 1. Another important milestone in a young child's life, the
Ayush Homam, or first year fire, is a way to wish the child a long,
healthy and prosperous life. A priest performed Maya's ceremony at
home, chanting mantras in Sanskrit and lighting the traditional fire,
fueled by ghee (clarified butter). Maya wore a silk dress given to her
by the paternal side of the family, and the house was filled with
flowers, milk and rice.

"The one thing we didn't do was shave Maya's head," Sivaraman says.
Typically, both Indian boys and girls have their heads shaved and their
ears pierced on their first birthday.

Sivaraman notes that Jennifer, who is American with a Lutheran
religious background, has been very willing to incorporate her
husband's traditions into their budding family's life. "I'm in a
multicultural relationship, so we can't do everything in a Hindu way,"
Sivaraman adds. "I'm trying to keep my traditions alive while at the
same time respecting her traditions."

The couple is already thinking about having Maya baptized. "What's
great is we have similar ideas about religion," he says. "We both like
the idea of exposing our kids to many religions and cultures."

Halina Alex is only a year old, but she's already been shown many
cultures. With a Filipino mother and a Navajo and Caucasian father,
both of whom are Catholic, she is being raised with a unique blend of
traditions and beliefs.

Halina's first ritual was one that is familiar to many Americans --
baptism. "We wanted to make sure that she was baptized in the first six
months of life, something that is very important in the Filipino
community," says her mother, Charisma, who came to the U.S. when she
was 8 months old. "Over a hundred people came to her baptism." In her
community, Charisma explains, many families try to keep their babies in
the house as much as possible before baptism, perhaps out of a fear
that they aren't yet fully protected.

Another common Filipino custom happens when a baby visits a relative
for the first time. "Whoever owns the home gives the baby money,"
Charisma says. "This is thought to bring the homeowner good luck. My
baby got quite a bit of money that first year!"

Some Filipino beliefs about babies aren't always obvious to outsiders.
"In my culture, it's not good to praise a baby because it is thought to
bring 'usog,' or bad luck, to the child," Charisma says. "It can be
awkward when you are at a non-Filipino party and people start excitedly
pointing out how cute the baby is." There are a variety of ways in
which Filipino parents ward off usog, including putting a dot of
lipstick on the baby's forehead to keep away evil forces.

According to Charisma, another common Filipino belief is that eating
clams will increase the production of breast milk. "My mother was
constantly making me clam soup when I was breastfeeding," she says. 'I
have to say I got pretty sick of it after a while!"

During her first year, Halina was introduced to her Navajo heritage
through her father's family. "My mother-in-law brought her a
cradleboard to help her sleep better," Charisma says. "She used it for
at least the first two or three months." The Navajo have traditionally
used cradleboards to keep babies comfortable and allow mothers to work
and travel. Navajo mothers would swaddle their babies tightly in a
blanket, then lace them securely onto the wood board, which could
easily be leaned against a tree or hung from a saddle. Many Navajo
babies are still placed in cradleboards, as it is thought that the
security of the board produces a calm personality, as well as a strong,
straight back.

As Halina grows, her parents will continue to expose her to their rich
and varied cultural traditions. Charisma doesn't foresee any problems
with integrating the customs of both sides of the family. "My husband
respects a lot of the things that we are doing, and I respect what his
family wants to do," she says. "And it helps to have the common ground
of being Catholic."

When Jack Lloyd was in the hospital a few months ago with his laboring
wife, Etta Duncan, it was a completely new experience for him -- even
though the couple already has a 15-year-old daughter and 3-year-old
son. "At home in Liberia, no men are allowed around the woman until the
child is born,' he explains. "This time I was there and it was hard. I
saw all of the pain for the first time."

Almost everything is new for Jack and his family these days. Forced to
flee the war in Liberia, they came to the Seattle area almost two years
ago. This major move has meant that some of their cultural traditions
are starting to fall by the wayside as they integrate into American
culture.

"We are not really able to do as many traditional things here," he says. "We are going with the American way of life."

Although the experience with their newest child, Ella, has been
primarily an American one, Jack remembers well the traditional ways in
which his people, the Bassa tribe, welcome and care for new children.
There are 16 different tribes in Liberia, and "they all have different
customs and beliefs about babies," he says. "It is also different
depending on whether you live in the city or in a more rural area. In
the city you have more of a Western influence."

Bassa parents typically keep a newborn inside the house for two weeks,
although visitors are allowed. Jack explains that this is to protect
the child. "When you do bring them out, they are open to the
community," he says. "Everyone knows the day that the child will be
brought out and there is a big celebration to welcome the child. People
bring money, dry meat and lots of palm oil."

Early on, parents tie a rope with beads around the newborn's waist.
This is a way to measure the growth and progress of the child in the
first weeks and months. "When the rope gets tight, then you know that
the baby is gaining weight and is fine," says Jack.

Another custom is to put cayenne pepper in the newborn's nose. A member
of the immediate family, usually not the mother, first does this when
the child is 2 or 3 days old. This is repeated maybe four or five times
as the baby gets older. It is considered a way to initiate the baby
into the rigors of living.

"This is important," Jack says. "People will come and ask you right
away -- 'Did you pepper the baby?' The belief is that the pepper will
make the child courageous and strong, and will help them withstand life
and not be sickly." Liberians frequently use cayenne pepper to treat
colds and other minor aliments, he adds.

Jack is particularly proud that in Liberia, it is common for men to
help women with daily chores and tasks, something that is not
necessarily true of all African cultures. Liberian husbands and fathers
will often assist with cooking, feeding the baby and cleaning cloth
diapers. "We'll even help with laundry, whatever we can do," he says.
"If a woman has a child, you have to help her so she can be happy!"

Although the couple is currently drifting away from some cultural
traditions, Jack predicts there may be a return to Liberian customs
fairly soon. "My mother-in-law is supposed to come," he explains. "Then
everything is going to change, I tell you!"

Lisette Austin contributes regularly to local publications. She lives in Seattle with her husband and 4-year-old son.

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