At Christmas close to a year ago in a secure juvenile detention center, a group of volunteers had the residents/offenders assemble newborn packages for new moms. There was a beautiful baby blanket, clothing for an infant and an assortment of simple personal items in each package. Besides putting the various parts into a plastic bag for transport and distribution, the boys were asked to write in their first language, Spanish, some words for the mother. The volunteers provided no script or guidance on what to say. After completion, the packets and the notes were put aside.
Many months later as part of a service adventure to the Dominican Republic, a group of dentists brought the bags to disperse to the mothers in the village. One of the women from the team took the gifts around to those with children. She spoke no Spanish and many of the women did not read. To be more personal, the woman asked the guide for the translation of the messages from the boys back in the States.
There were the typical Feliz Navidad and Merry Christmas. However, one message resounded deeply beyond any language, cultural or national barrier. The incarcerated youth simply wrote, “I hope you like your baby.”
I hope you like your baby.
Knowing the circumstances but not the identity of the author, two stories emerged from his six words. One has to believe the suggestion to like a baby was something he had learned personally. It is possible that the boy spoke from a life experience of happiness and intimate warmth. He wanted to encourage a faraway soul and share his security and joy. The incarcerated youth knew what it felt like to have a mother hold him when he was afraid and encourage him to conquer the fear. His first memories were of his mother reading to him every night before he fell asleep. Success in school was his mother’s goal for him, and he strove to accomplish the wish for himself and much as for his mom. Yelling, shouting or hitting was not part of his childhood. His dad sat with him to make a plane or to examine his scraped knee when he fell off his skateboard.
This is what he meant when he wrote, “I hope you like your baby.”
Then again, it is also possible and much more probable that it meant something completely different. Just perhaps the long-distance dream was to encourage this mother to do something that he knew nothing about. He only knew the emptiness of not being liked. The sting of the belt and the slap of the hand were no strangers to him. He ears still rang from the shouting and cussing at home. If he were not the target of violence, it was his mother. Regardless of the victim, he was forever in the viewing audience.
The youth knows love only from its absence. He intimately senses what he needs so badly and wants even more. He is not critical of his mother. He did not say, “Be different from my mother who is never there or who is too busy to notice my presence let alone my sorrow or loneliness.” He knew she tried but that because his father was gone, she had to work at night and sleep during the day. She had the cereal on the table, and he knew where to find the can opener. If drugs were the reason for her truancy, he believed her addictions were not her fault.
One mother in the Dominican Republic received a gift from another mother visiting from the United States. A boy locked up for some crime or crimes against society wrote a message. The missive was simple but profound.
It is a dream, a suggestion or a deep wish for all of us from a kid in jail.
I hope you like your baby.
(Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children’s Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)