Something for New Year’s Day: An essay from Stephanie Painter

My Search for a Sacred Lullaby

By Stephanie Painter

It was 3 a.m., and my tiny daughter wailed fiercely at the night. Like a troubled soul singer, she blasted of the aching pain of colic and angst of adjusting to the world. “Everything will be okay,” I whispered, stroking her hair. I could easily have joined her in crying a song of exhaustion and the blues.

That night, the gift of new life was overshadowed by doubts about my qualifications. Competent mothers calm babies with song, but I couldn’t recall a single lullaby. With only nursery rhymes swirling in my head, I shared a tune about Mother Goose. My baby kicked her legs, hollering on. And the world is full of struggle, warned Etta James.

As the hour passed, I reflected on music that brought comfort, seeking assurance that God was watching over us. Then I had inspiration, a first gleam of maternal vision. With autumn leaves falling outside, I recalled my favorite carol. Holding my daughter close, I sang “Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright,” lingering in a scene of sacred peace and beauty. My worn nerves were restored to calmness, and as dawn neared, we slept.

Many nights, we revisited this holy scene. In searching for a lullaby, I’d chosen a carol that was originally written to be accompanied by guitar. In 1818, Austrian organist Franz Gruber’s instrument was damaged in a flood shortly before Christmas Eve. To inspire congregants, he had to create using a new instrument. My role as a mother, with its many mysteries, would require leaning anew on my faith.

The scene in Bethlehem is a long way from the everyday messiness of parenting, however. At home, heavenly hosts weren’t singing softly as I worked to be more loving and patient, and I envied Mary’s grace and suitability for her role. My beautiful daughter deserved a mother who had better credentials for the job. Someone like Mary.

Sometimes I rushed down the hallway for a private cry, wanting only to drop into my queen-sized bed and sleep until noon. Wryly, I told my husband, “Last night, I had to take a break. I sped out of Bethlehem on a motorcycle.” We welcomed a good laugh.

After a night’s rest, I returned to the nursery, finding encouraging growth. As the pediatrician had promised, the colic rolled away after four months, and my daughter soon giggled and played with toys. From the beginning, rowdy noise was part of our world, and we clapped our hands and shook jingle bells in Kindermusik class alongside other mothers and children.

As my girl thrived, I found job satisfaction. Only I knew her favorite spot to peer outside, near the window overlooking a maple tree. Not even her dad knew about this special place. I hummed an Etta James tune, expressing my happiness: “My heart was wrapped up in clover, The night I looked at you.”

Still, there were other occasions when I sped away to escape in a Netflix marathon. Parenting requires work, and that labor can be sticky. Connecting – and reconnecting – with my faith has helped.

While I’m an ordinary mom, I can draw strength from faith and from gathering with others in spiritual community. I can use this inspiration to shape my own modest efforts. After celebrating my daughter’s first birthday, I considered key life lessons to share with her.

Then I wrote a Family Mission Statement and placed a copy on the refrigerator for a daily reminder of my priorities. The tenets include mentoring her spiritual growth and showing her the importance of helping others. “Remember to add joy and humor to daily life!” I also wrote. When my younger daughter was born, I had a perfect lullaby and thoughtful plan to share.

If I could talk to that frantic new mother in the nursery, I’d say, “Hang in there. The spiritual journey, with its opportunity to grow into a better human being, one who can raise good people, will thrill you.”

At church on Christmas Eve, we hold glowing candles and revisit our holy lullaby. One holiday, my daughter, then 14, noticed that her aunt’s hair had caught a spark. Moving quickly to tamp it out, she stifled her laughter as those around her continued singing. Soon she caught up, sounding strong and spot-on in the carol’s last stanza.

These days, moral dilemmas and making the right decisions and choices make up the largest part of our conversations. Sometimes my daughters and I stand beside each other, belting out our pain at the troubles in the world. Some problems may be worthy of a dark blues song. Then there’s always Silent Night’s restorative power.

Stephanie Painter is a freelance writer and children’s book author who lives in Germantown.


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