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Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 9 (2005) 69-89

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Nurturing Herself, Nurturing Her Baby Creating Positive Experiences for First-time Mothers through Lullaby Singing

Becoming a mother is one of the most defining moments in a woman's life. For the majority of women today the joys of motherhood are both real and plentiful. However, hand in hand with the great joys of motherhood can come great sorrow, anger, frustration, pain, confusion, and constraint. The modern mother lives in the constant shadow of her own mother's abilities and the mother myth.1 She continually asks herself, "Am I doing a good job? Is this the best thing for my baby? Why won't my baby stop crying? When will my baby go to sleep?" and ultimately she may feel as though she doesn't measure up. The modern mother tries to balance an attempt to conform to the romanticized and imagined constructions of motherhood with the reality of her daily experiences and life as a mother.2

Women today are no longer "thoroughly at home with being at home."3 Instead, they are primed for achievement, to want and expect to have it all at once—career, house, husband, children, and happiness.4 For many women, the reality [End Page 69] of bringing a life into this world disrupts this picture-perfect image of the ideal woman.5 There is a mismatch, long shrouded in a conspiracy of silence, between women's expectations of motherhood and what they experience, what they feel and how they manage as mothers.6 Other realities set in such as feeling out of control, loss of freedom, loneliness and isolation, entrapment, lack of achievement and recognition, and interruption to personal interests. A mother catches sight of herself in the mirror and sees a clear message—she is not the woman who has it all and so is a failure. However, mothers have been taught how to wear the many masks of motherhood well. These masks are in fact "an assemblage of fronts, mostly brave, serene and all-knowing," used as a coping mechanism to silence, muffle, and disguise the chaos and complexity of a mother's lived experience.7 The modern mother lives in the constant shadow of her own mother's abilities and the mother myth.8 The naked truth of motherhood is that not every woman copes, and prolonged feelings of not coping can lead to a number of mental health issues for the mother and her baby. They may also affect her relationship with her partner.

Singing lullabies has long been a part of many mothers' coping and survival tools, particularly when soothing a distressed baby. Several studies have examined the effects that lullaby singing has on infants, their sleep patterns, and mother-infant bonding. For example, studies have examined the effects of music on selected stress behaviors, weight, and caloric and formula intake of low-birth-weight neonates in a newborn intensive care unit.9 They have also examined the therapeutic effects of music and of mothers' voice on premature infants, with overwhelmingly positive effects.10 Similarly, studies with newborns show the value in using lullabies to promote sleep.11 Other studies have shown how music, including lullabies, promotes meaningful mother-infant interaction.12

While the primary purpose of the lullaby is to put children to sleep, in many cultures the performance [End Page 70] of lullabies serves other secondary functions such as enculturation of the infant in musical as well as conceptual and social terms.13 Babies are recipients rather than performers, and thus lullabies are not intended to be sung by children but rather to be sung to and for the child by an adult. Most often, the performance of lullabies is considered to be the domain of women, and these musical moments can provide the infant with significant physical, emotional, mental, and social contact with female relatives, particularly the infant's mother. As sung texts...