By Julia Soto Lebentritt

Recently, a literacy program serving teenage mothers decided not to have a lullaby workshop. They were going to spend the money to buy cribs instead.

I said, “Cribs? Is this what a literacy program should be spending its money on? The mother is the crib. The infant molds to the human cradle of the mother’s arms, breasts, lap, body, breath, voice....”

Another name for lullaby is “cradle song”. Perhaps one of the most frequent of all concepts to be met when someone (like me) studies lullabies on a world-wide basis is that the words for a song sung to put a child to sleep in many languages include the cradle: e.g. German “wiegenlied”; French “berceuse”; Cantonese “yao lan chi’u”; Spanish “cancion de cuna”, and many more.

The common term in English speaking America is “lullaby”, a term which carries the baby-talk connotations of communication, as well as what Peter and Iona Opie noted as “the earliest quiescence word in cradle songs....”

But a mother from the island of Santo Domingo explained that “cuna” is not only the cradle or crib.

“Cuna” is the way the mother accomodates the baby. “Cuna” is the way the baby is held in arms, the crib, or any other place, thing, or way provided for the baby’s rest. “Cuna” means origin, native land, family lineage, source….

The teenage mothers’ literacy program was materialistic. Rather than inspiring mothers to be intimate with their babies, the focus was on acquiring things. I felt that the administrators were turning down an opportunity to teach and empower these mothers through that first human relationship using the cultural histories collected from elders, and the histories the mothers themselves own.

Music cannot live without a dance. Is the lullaby no longer popular because the mother’s dance is dying? The hushing, humming, chanting, holding, wrapping, cuddling, kissing, patting, drumming, shaking, listening, turning, changing, crying, training, playful ways of intervening and negotiating peace?

In Troy, N.Y. on a corner across from the probation office, I heard the unanswered cries of a restless child, belted, isolated, and angry in an unattended stroller waiting beside a nervous young woman. This is the siren. I do not know how to intervene yet. Other passersbys looked concerned at the caregiver who dares to look straight back swinging her legs nonchalantly knowing we do not approve. Did she become callous and hard-eyed because someone treated her the same, neglected on the corner?

Road rage begins in the cradle. Baby’s crying means war. Mother’s singing means peace. In the end, mother wins. But the lullaby is a learned form and symbols. The slow loss of the capacity to use the lullaby forms is ultimately a loss of the individual’s own capacity for the experience of soothing and being soothed.

Lullaby is a practice of saying goodbye; of trust building and negotiating security, that tomorrow’s day will come with a mother alongside us. This home is the cradle and the baby is planet earth, our mother.

I know I have discovered something deep about the world’s lullabies. The word lullaby itself means songs of the cradle and links to “going home.” Farewell, comforting, and putting to sleep, is a deeply bonding teaching that nourishes the soul.