Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Presence, Not Presents: A Lullabye Lesson

I have never liked the song "Hush Little Baby." I always felt that the song's message was "here, kid, I'll give you anything if you will just shut up!" I even remember saying that I would never sing it to my children.

So, imagine my surprise when my son learned to talk and the first song he requested I sing was that one. (He'd fallen in love with it through our Sharon, Lois, and Bram dvd and through a library book he'd checked out from story time one week.) Of course, it took me awhile to figure it out because he called it the "Mama" song, but when I did learn what he wanted, I sang it. And sang it and sang it and sang it. He was content to have me sing it as many times in a row as I could possibly sing it. He would even complain when I would switch to humming it. "No! No! Mama Song! Mama song!" I kept thinking, what in the world does he see in this song that I don't? Then somewhere around the fourth or fifth night in a row of singing it like twenty times in succession. It hit me. I'd had the song wrong all along.

Contrary to the message of the first couple of lines in the song, it really isn't about buying things to make your baby happy. In fact, no matter what is procured in the singing of the song, everything goes wrong and the baby is not made happy by anything bought! Furthermore, while the beginning of the song asks the baby to "hush," that request is never made again. Instead, the song offers example after example of a mama (or papa) and a baby sticking together through discouraging scenarios. No wonder my son thought it was the "mama" song! While "Hush little baby" is uttered in the first line (and sometimes the last line depending on how you sing it), a word for parent is repeated every single verse! Th real message isn't even "come to me with all of your problems and I will fix them." Quite the opposite! The song reveals time after time how many mistakes parents and children can make from buying your children inappropriate gifts that aren't even authentic (like the diamond ring that turns brass) to crashing the family vehicle (horse and cart).

So, what is the secret message of "Hush Little Baby," that my son somehow got right away, but it took me years and having my son to hear myself? It turns out that the message of the song is really simple but profound. I will be here to love you NO MATTER WHAT. The song is about being an imperfect parent whose only true gift is presence and love. Think about the song for a moment. In almost every version, the ending is always the same: "you'll still be the sweetest little baby in town" or "Papa loves you and so do I." None of the individual problems with any of the presents are ever solved. Rover never learns to bark, the cart, once crashed, is never fixed, but even with all these problems still left unresolved, the assures the baby that "you can rest my child because I love you and I am here for you." Put your trust in me and never fear to be honest with me because no matter what you do, I will still think you are the sweetest baby in town and I will still love you. No wonder the song has had staying power over the years.

So, now when my son requests the song, I don't roll my eyes and I don't dread it. I know that with every line of the song, I am making a very solemn promise to my little boy. I am promising him, that as imperfect and mistaken as I often am, and as imperfect and mistaken as he sometimes is, I will be there for him and will offer him every bit as much love as I have from the very beginning until the end of time. In fact, I now have trouble singing it because it makes me tear up to be able to offer him that kind of vow. So, remember, next time you and your children are having a rough day or next time your "baby" no matter how old asks you to sing him/her a lullaby, that your presence, no matter how flawed, is the sweetest gift you will ever give her or him.

(If you still don't like the original, check out Hush Little Baby by Sylvia Long. She's re-written the words to the lullabye to reflect all the ways in which mamas and papas work to soothe their little ones.)

Thanks for reading,



DoulaSummer said... [Reply to comment]

Fabulous, as always!

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

You are too sweet, Summer!

Sheila said... [Reply to comment]

Funny, I've always thought the same thing. I call it "the bribe song"! But you're right, that isn't really what it's about. My mom and I couldn't remember how it went once, and we made up a half dozen more verses, ending with "And if that doctor kit don't work, Mama's gonna really go berserk!" We both thought it was hilarious how many presents went wrong in that song.

On that note, what about "All the Pretty Little Horses"? It's such a lie ... no way is my kid getting cake and ponies when he wakes up. ;)

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

@Sheila I'm glad I'm not the only one!

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