“That’s it! We are giving the baby solid food!” I yelled out loud to no one in particular after tossing yet another pair of ruined pajamas in the trash.
A week’s worth of exploding diapers finally did me in, and I hoped that some rice cereal might firm things up in the poop department. I didn’t originally plan to make the meal into a symbolic event, but somehow my baby’s first bite of cereal became a significant rite-of-passage for our sometimes-too-secular family.
Growing up white and Protestant, I was often jealous of the coming-of-age rituals experienced by other kids. I longed to don a white, wedding-style dress and celebrate my First Communion or stand in front of a crowd of friends and family, reading the Hebrew text at my Bat Mitzvah.
My elder daughter, Grace, lit a fire under my years-old ritual envy when I told her that we would soon be giving her little sister a taste of solid food.
“Tonight, Mommy! Can we do it tonight?” she screeched in delight and jumped up and down on the sofa. I remembered a recent conversation with a friend who is part-Bengali about her son’s traditional First Food Ceremony, and an idea slowly began to take hold.
“Why don’t you create a centerpiece for the table tonight?” I asked Grace, thinking that this would add some color to our drab dining room table and keep my preschooler busy for about two minutes.
Grace scrambled around the house and returned with a silver platter, five tiny votive candles, several small trinkets and charms, three sand dollars, and about 2,347 sequins. She piled the whole mess in the middle of a floral tablecloth and set to work. By the time dinnertime arrived, we had a beautiful kid-created focal point for our meal.
We dimmed the lights, lit the candles, pulled the highchair up to the table, and I ceremoniously dished out a couple of tablespoons of rice cereal sweetened with some expressed breastmilk.
“Um…I feel like we should say something formal,” I said. “Maybe we should sing a song?”
“How ‘bout ‘Baa-Baa Blacksheep?’” Grace chirped.
And so we did. And after serenading our baby with the chosen tune, each member of our family took a turn presenting her with a tiny spoonful of cereal.
I doubt the event in any way resembled the time-honored Bengali tradition of my friend’s family, but I felt immensely grateful for this small rite-of-passage that welcomed our baby girl, once again, even deeper into the fold of our family.
In this increasingly secular society I seek out ritual wherever I can find it, even if I have to make it up. This is why we had Grace baptized at a family church back in Texas and why we dedicated Rosemary at our church here in San Francisco. Not because we believe in original sin, but because we wanted a symbolic spiritual welcoming into a community brought together for reasons that transcend the everyday. An acknowledgement that our souls run deeper than the sum of our biological parts.
Even though our family’s First Food Ceremony may sound childish and silly on the surface, it gave me goosebumps, reminding me of the bittersweet fleeting quality of babyhood. With each new milestone for our children, we parents cross a new threshold and say goodbye to a place that will be gone forever. And therefore each of these milestones is worth a pause, a prayer, and a reflection. No matter if we voice a hymn, chant a mantra, or merely sing “Baa-Baa Blacksheep.”