Stumbling into Motherhood

Baby Mommy

Babies’ hair smells keenly of humanity. It makes people groan, small but deep–a kind of creaking in their gut as they inhale and say, “Hmmm.”

Babies smell of rusks, even if they don’t eat them. Tiny babies smell like kissing someone in a field; also of milk, and asparagus, and–it’s up to you really–pancakes cooked in the Frytex of your youth; baby lotion, even if they are wearing none; sunshine, even in the middle of winter; and so on. They smell of all lost things, now regained.

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Babies’ feet smell, bizarrely, of feet. It starts early.

Babies’ shit smells a little like ham going off. Also biscuits. Sometimes, if their tummy is upset, there is a whiff of fried egg. One day, much later, you turn from the nappy table and say, “Christ, that actually smells like shit.”

Babies finally smell like you and they smell like your partner. This is as it should be. This was the way they are made. But I wonder if they don’t just take our imprint on to their skin, which is to say, the imprint of the last person to hold them–the mother’s the father’s, the baby minder’s, the woman in the doctor’s waiting room who asks can she “have a go.” Some parents can smell a stranger off their baby as soon as they pick them up–I am speaking of quite normal parents here–they can smell musty old talc, and women who wear Obsession, and the baby minder’s car with its little bottle of aromatherapy oil, plugged into the place where the cigarette lighter used to go.

Perhaps babies are just olfactory blotting paper. They smell of the person who last minded them. They smell of You.

What do we do with babies? We inhale them, our face hovers over them, we hold them and keep a tiny, delicious distance between their skin and our own. We kiss them thoughtfully on the head, and we kiss them playfully in the fat, soft cusion under the chin. All day, we sniff them up and down. We do not lick them.

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About Anne Enright

Anne Enright is the author of two volumes of stories and four novels, including The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, and, most recently, The Forgotten Waltz. She is also the author of Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, from which the above is excerpted. She lives in Dublin, Ireland.

  1. Sofia says:

    What an amazing writing. I could not agree more with all that is written and here I am at work and hoping at this instant to be able to have my two daughters, my babies–one 14 and the other 3–right here next to me so I could hug them, kiss them, and indeed smell them. No matter how old one’s baby is, they will always be our babies with all their smells, whether garlicky (from too much garlic they inhale from my cookings) or stinky dancers’ body. I still love them and will always hug them no matter what.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Sofia, even Anne Enright couldn’t say it better than you just did. Lovely beyond words.

  2. What an incredible excerpt, Ms. Enright. You’ve captured it precisely. I think I’ll go sniff my three-month-old!

  3. Susan says:

    Of all the pieces I’ve read (and didn’t really “get”) about bonding with your children, this strikes me as a major part of its beginning; the way they smell. They mostly smell wonderful, and you just can’t get enough of them. But, there’s just enough of the not-so-good to help you look at them objectively so you can be a parent. I know parents who think their kid’s shit didn’t stink, and the kid is usually a mess!

  4. Rick Casner says:

    Lovely. Just true and lovely.

  5. Lana says:

    I firmly believe that smells awake some deep entrenched memories in our amygdala. Nothing can take me back to a specific day like a smell – it is like a time machine:) This is a beautiful article that brought me to tears as my girls are slowly spreading their wings and looking outwards (New Zealand? Norway? Help!!!) I still want to smell their hair:( Thank you, Anne Enright, for dragging me back to those days of sweet baby smells:)

    • Julie Dreyfoos, LC Production Manager says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more Lana, my boys are entering their final years of college and Anne’s piece took me back to the days of babyhood and playing ticklish footie games with them. I love the idea of a “smell time machine,” even though it brings tears to our eyes.

  6. A says:

    My siblings and I definitely got licked as babies.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      A, if it makes you feel any better, I’m thinking you and your sibs are not the only ones…

  7. Shelly says:

    Just this morning, as I kissed my grown daughter, I marveled that her head smelled exactly as it did when she was a baby. My, what beautiful memories that smell recalled.

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      Hi Shelly, I am truly envious. I just tried sniffing my teenage son’s hair and it had an aroma reminiscent of dirty sneakers, wet dog and hair mousse. You were very lucky to have a daughter!

  8. Kim says:

    What beautiful words! I can attest that every time I come home, I pick up each baby, hold them close to my cheek and breathe deeply. It’s like a drug. Once you inhale, you can’t get enough.

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      Hi Kim, I remember those days. That lovely scent made everything right with the world. Love those babies, they grow up all too quickly.

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