the hand that fed
Such a lovely, joyful image. Hard to imagine that not long after this image was taken the woman was murdered by her husband, leaving that smiling child alone, this beautiful child who laughed and played with her friends at school within walking distance of where I sit.
She was flown to England—I read in the local paper—flanked by two social workers, so that she might attend the funeral of her mother whose body was taken there earlier. Arrived on Friday, torn from her only family’s arms on Saturday to return to the U.S. until custody plans are sorted out.
An unspeakable crime yet far too common. A tragedy beyond comprehension.
What reached me at my core were the words of the child’s Aunt (who the article said has worked as a war-zone photographer for AP and Reuters):
“Our niece is the only living witness to this case […] and up to now I believe she hasn’t spoken […] Even at the funeral she was cold. I have watched my sister raise this child. Samara has hardly ever eaten food on her own. Her mother would hand feed her. Samara was the only child my sister ever had. My sister loved her dearly and every meal was fed to Samara. And now suddenly there’s no one there feeding her. There’s no one there doing anything for her.”
What an image. Such sadness in those last two phrases, “there’s no one there feeding her…”
I know all too well that for many Americans the thought that a mother might hand-feed a child might ring odd, even offensive after a certain point in the child’s development. Yet this very image represents for me the deep love of her mother, the intense loss for the child. Let me explain why…
In our culture children are taught to be self-sufficient, independent and strong, practically from birth. We “train” them to sleep alone, letting them cry it out in cribs behind closed doors. We prop them up in high chairs and present them with bowls of finger foods, encouraging them to explore and toss the food around, to smear it over fingers and face and walls, teaching them that to eat they must learn how, alone. Independence. Self-reliance. Self-control. We instill in our children from a young age these goals (although I would hasten to say not always so successfully).
“Until now, feeding your baby has been your job. But as your baby gets older, your little one will want to do this more and more on his or her own. […] Encouraging finger feeding helps your child develop independent, healthy eating habits. Finger feeding — and using utensils a little later — gives babies a measure of control over what they eat and how much. Sometimes they’ll eat the food, sometimes not, and that’s all part of the process of learning self-regulation.” (kidshealth.org)
The idea is that if your child gets used to having you rock him to sleep, or he always falls asleep while nursing, he won’t learn to fall asleep on his own. When he wakes up during the night — as all children and adults do as part of the natural sleep cycle — he’ll become alarmed and cry for you instead of being able to go back to sleep. (babycenter.com)
Do a google search for hand feeding and you come up with things like “hand-feeding a koi” or “hand-feeding a moose,” but few references to hand-feeding a child, yet it is done in so many parts of the world. You also come across a bunch of crazy forums where people debate the “crazy” immigrants who do this bizarre thing, one of which cites a dictionary definition of “spoon-fed” which notes that beyond the literal meaning of feeding with a spoon it is also “treating another in a way that discourages independent thought or action, as by overindulgence.” God forbid…
The passage about the mother hand-feeding her child struck me so deeply because I know that within her culture that is an act of love, of nurturing, of sharing, of intimacy.
I read the passage to my husband with tears in my eyes. He understood the weight of those words, coming as he does from a culture where hand-feeding a young child is quite common. He understood the intimacy of the act, the poignancy of the Aunt’s words and what they really meant. Together we mulled over for the gravity of the situation.
He then ever so gently reminded me that one of the reasons that children are hand-fed in developing nations is that food is not so plentiful, so by controlling what goes into a child’s mouth food stores are not only maximized but the mother can be certain that the child is fed the sufficient amount. Practical wisdom at its very best.
But that’s not the only reason, of course. We sat for several minutes reflecting on this child and hoping that she will soon be united with family and will be nurtured and loved and comforted.
Far more important than the fact of hand-feeding was the hand that fed.