This essay originally appeared on Sound on the Sound in December 2012.
There was no music during labor. I had made plans and playlists, of course, but in the end everything happened too fast for me to even pause to consider whether I was in a Constantines or a Yeah Yeah Yeahs mood. (Mostly I was in the mood to have this baby, and now please.) And then he was there, and I wanted to hear nothing but the sound of his sweet breathing. We spent thirty-six hours in the hospital and never turned on the TV or listened to the radio. And so, at two days old, my son had heard no music.
Without the accident of birth time or the vagaries of shuffle to determine my son’s first notes, I was left to do the job on my own. Has anything ever seemed more significant? Naming, the child, of course, had weight and import, but it had also been a shared duty (and, in truth, had been quite easy). The music thing, not so. My husband knew better than to question my cult-like obsession with this assumed ritual, and abandoned many years ago any attempt to alleviate my pet neuroses. My sudden desperation to get this exactly right was mine, all mine.
During the early days of motherhood, one of my private joys was to steal my son away to my bedroom and play music for him, just the two of us escaping from the loving but noisy hustle and bustle of visiting family. We played everything – Americana, classical, pop, hip-hop – in a grand experiment to find out what he liked. Lying him gently beside me on the gray-striped sheets, I’d ask, “What do you think of this one, Little Critter?” and cue up a classic or interesting or beloved track. If he showed interest, I’d try to chase down his taste through similar songs. I became a human Pandora station, tuned to the Edmund channel.
It was spectacular just watching him listen. The first time he heard Moonlight Sonata, he stopped nursing, slack-jawed, as if he’d literally forgotten how to do it. His eyes fixed ahead at nothingness as he listened with all his being, the way I did in high school, spine pressed against the hard wood floor of my cluttered teenage bedroom. During a discordant, percussive section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, he suddenly brought his fist to his mouth to suck, self-soothing through the challenging and unfamiliar sounds.
Other days I listened for myself, navigating my own new territory of needs and emotions. “Parenting,” my husband said, “is taking your heart out of your own body and putting it in someone else’s.” My chest had been cracked open and sewn unevenly back together. Sometimes I needed a salve. I became obsessed with the goes-down-smooth sing-alongs and religious imagery of Cataldo’s Prison Boxing. “In some not small part of me I’m struck by a feeling of grace.” I sang to my baby, I sang in the shower, I listened and hit repeat and listened again, singing from the heart and from the diaphragm.
Sometimes I needed a salve, and sometimes I needed sandpaper. It was late one sunny afternoon that I pressed play on Hey Rosetta!’s “Welcome,” a song which had made me cry in public at Sasquatch when vocalist Tim Baker had prefaced it with, “This song is about having a baby.” (At six months pregnant, that’s all it took.) But if in May it had brought tears, at the end of August I was so raw it made me bleed. “You’ll be a bright light / coming out of the dark.” Hope and pure, elemental joy coursed burning through my veins. Sometimes you have to go all the way through a feeling and come out the other side. I let it bleed. “Sorry this is it / It’s cold and hard and badly lit / And there’s no backing out of it.” I clutched my baby, sobbing through and past the point of being able to form the words, torn to pieces and put back again, shattered by how much I loved this tiny creature. “I’ll say it again / I’ll say it again / I’ll say it / You’re the most incredible thing.” He’s the most incredible thing.
In the end the first record was Bry Webb’s Provider. I realized that it had to be: the album my favorite musician had written for his own infant son, the album I had rarely taken off the player during pregnancy. I danced my own son in my arms around the kitchen the afternoon of our arrival home, watching him listen with seeming intent to the certainly-familiar songs that had carried me through the joys and anxieties of the previous nine months. And then it was done. The barrier broken, the days of music begun. I smiled. We danced. I look forward to so many more.