The first year of life is a sacred but precarious time.
We all arrive from our mother’s womb vulnerable and reliant on others for our every need. Over the course of the year we grow and change more dramatically than any other year of our lives. And we don’t remember any of it. Given the unique and special nature of a baby’s first year of life, there are numerous practices and beliefs in each culture surrounding what will bring about the well-being and protection of that child.
My four children all experienced their early childhood days in Kazakhstan.
We arrived in 1995 just a few short years after Kazakhstan became an independent nation and raised our children there for 16 years. My oldest daughter was 2 when we arrived and my son was 4 months old. In 1997 we added my middle daughter and in 2002 my youngest daughter. As a mom of young children I had an obvious connection with all other young moms, as well as a fascinating inroad into understanding cultural practices and ceremonies surrounding infants and young children. We experienced and even adopted some of these practices ourselves.
In Kazakhstan, it is considered appropriate and right to give a new mother much advice, so I got plenty of it. Some advice was very practical and helpful to me as someone who was new to the culture and climate. Keeping a baby’s head covered at all times and never exposing bare skin on their legs or arms was considered essential. Given the cold climate, I tried my best to follow this. I was also encouraged to shave my baby’s heads. I always got compliments on my son Nate’s bald head, but the truth was that he just didn’t grow any hair during his first year of life. But he fit in very well. Kazakhs also potty train their babies very early on, starting at six months old. I tried their technique and although I was not fully successful, I did achieve partial potty training at one year old which saved me a lot of diapers.
One of the earliest ceremonies of a Kazakh baby’s life is the 40 day celebration called Kyrkynan sygaru. Interestingly, forty is considered a significant number in many major world religions such as Islam, Judasim and Christianity and is associated not only with birth (our entrance into the world) but also death (our exit from the world). When a Kazakh baby is born, he or she is kept away from visitors except the immediate family. This gives the mother a chance to rest and helps protect the baby from germs. The Kazakhs also consider this protection from the evil eye, or evil spirits. During this time the baby’s hair and nails are not cut. At approximately forty days of age, the baby is presented to the community. The kyndky sheshe (literally “cradle mother”) or godmother washes the baby ceremoniously and cuts the baby’s hair and nails. After this, the baby’s name is officially given and the guests are all served a meal.
Upon the birth of our youngest daughter Naomi, we decided to follow this tradition.
We had already named her at her birth in the U.S. but when we returned with her to Kazakhstan at the age of two months, we decided to also give her the Kazakh name Jhansaya which means “beautiful soul.” We had all adopted Kazakh names ourselves, so this was not considered unusual. To this day, Jhansaya is like a sacred, secret, special name for Naomi. We invited guests over, explained the meaning of her Kazakh name, prayed blessings over her and had a meal. Our Kazakh neighbors and friends came for the event, bringing generous gifts to our baby and celebrating with us.
At the end of the first year of life, there is another ceremony for the baby called the Tusau Kesu (literally “cut the string”). This is considered the baby’s first birthday celebration and is held as soon as the baby starts walking. At the event, a white cloth is laid on the floor symbolizing the ak jo (literally “white road”) or way of purity. Then the baby’s legs are ceremoniously tied together with string using a figure eight pattern symbolizing eternity. Then an elder in the family prays blessings over the child and cuts the string. Items are placed in front of the baby like a book, a whip, an apple, a dombra (Kazakh stringed instrument), and money. The one that the baby chooses gives an indication of what their future career will be. After the ceremony a feast is given for all the guests.
I loved the connection that I had with the Kazakh women that naturally came about by raising my young children there.
Although there are many different cultural practices and beliefs surrounding early childhood, we all share the common bond of loving babies and wanting the best for them. Babies are our “amen” to the future and give us the desire to continually strive to make the world a good place for our children to grow up.