Friday, May 8, 2009

Mothers and Kids and the Scents that Bind Us Together

“And how should a baby smell in your opinion?”
“A baby should smell good!” the nurse {Jeanne Bussie} replied.
“What does good mean?” father Terrier’s voice sounded booming. “Lots of things smell good: A nosegay of lavender smells good. Chicken soup smells good. The gardens of Arabia smell good. How does a baby smell?” […]
“It’s not that easy…” the nurse began “because…they don’t smell everyplace the same, although they smell everyplace wonderful, father, you understand…on their feet for instance, they smell like a smooth, warm pebble ~no, make that clay…or like butter, like fresh butter. And on their torso they smell like …biscuit soaked in warm milk. But on the top of the their head, right there on the crown, right here where you don’t have anything anymore” and with that she touched the centre of the bald spot on father Terrier’s head, who, affronted with this stream of detailed nonsense had remained speechless and had submissively bowed his head, “here, they smell exquisite! Here, they smell like butterscotch, so sweet and wonderful, father, that you can’t really imagine! If you smell a baby there, you will love it, whether it is your own or someone else’s”. [*]

When I first read those memorable lines in Patrick Süskind’s classic novel Das Parfum, the story of a man with an extraordinary sense of smell but no personal odor of his own, I was but a mere teenager. The thought of having a baby of my own was not even a spermatic idea at the back of my mind; it was simply an indefinite non-entity! I was never one to coo in maternal mode upon seeing babies ~although I always had a fondness for small children and their intelligent way of interpreting the world~ and one who never heard her biological clock going ding dang dong “time to have a baby”. Love for a man took care of it. And I never had a sick day or perfume-free day all the while.
We often hear “you can’t judge unless you’re in someone’s shoes” and that goes doubly so for parenthood. But upon smelling my own, I remembered how those lines from the novel took their own life, their own truth, and the miracle was happening right under my own… nose! It’s indecipherable for anyone who isn’t a mother and it’s the special bond which forms between two beings at their most primal level. Like we choose a mate that their natural odor pleases us, so our offspring bear in their genetic makeup the scented fingerprint which ties them to us, making us able to differentiate our own among many. I often linger over my sleeping child inhaling deeply the yummy smell with eyes closed...And I can imagine that an adoptive mother grows to learn ~and eventually love~ their children’s smell, just like they learn to recognize their tastes and their idiosyncrasies. Because that personal scent is a constant reminder and a symbol for nurture and love.

But babies very quickly show off how they are able to smell their mother out as well! This is why I forwent the beloved Mitsouko and my emblematic Opium fumes for a while to give a chance for this special bond to form and for fenugreek tea to make me all maple-y smelling. It’s enough to breastfeed once to see how the baby turns its small nose and mouth to the sweet scent of milk like a hungry little puppy; that nectar of nature meant to help it grow, to help it become the man or the woman who will be in later life is naturally scented with a vanillic aroma which is perpetuated through baby food later on for a reason. Reminiscences of those tender moments are never far off, read like a language of smiles and smells.

The pleasant is never coming without the less enjoyable and changing nappies soon gets you intimate with the urinous muskiness of baby pee (which has an eerily animalic quality like that of real deer musk and the background of Guerlain's Shalimar) and the sulphurous odor of poop as soon as a mixed diet is introduced. Perhaps the baby’s own reluctance to get disgusted by the excrement however is the most interesting observation and one which you have to see with your own eyes to attest that although nature has guided us through smell into making the healthiest choices, our aversion to poop is not hard-wired genetically but is a product of cultural integration.

An olfactory inquisitive mind can have a field day while adventuring into the Land of Baby Smells: A whole industry is making changing a nappy its focus and every little thing has an odor of its own ~from the paper-mill cedar scent of nappies themselves which remind me of L'artisan's Dzing! to the heliotropin and linalool of scented toilettes/wet-wipes with their nod to Après L’Ondée ; and on to the rosy-almond scent of the nappy cream and the vanilla, geranium and citrus of Johnson's & Johnson's baby powder. The sweet smelling hesperidia and lavender colognes for kids like Tartine et Chocolat Ptitsebon by Givenchy or Petit Guerlain , put on clothes, are not an act of sexing the baby up or hiding their glorious olfactory fingerprint, but a gesture of bien-être dans sa peau, a very European traditional gesture of propriety. My mother did it to me, I do it to my kid!

Yet what I am most interested in is how the child gets to get guided through life from the olfactory point of view. The eyes light up at the smell of food cooking, giggles erupt when warm milk fills the kitchen with its comforting scent, inquisitiveness starts when presented with a new flavor such as sour pineapple, garlicked meat with okra or the earthy aroma of lentils’ soup. How nostrils quiver when out at play and a small flower gets under the nose. How animals, places and people are identified and often compared by smell: “This is the bakery where we’re greeted by the scent of fresh bread- circles with sesame”; “That’s Freddy the tabby who smells like cassie” and “Where is my sweet-smelling papa?” I intend to give that kind of education to my kid and let it form its own olfactory landscape where no smell is bad and no flavor is not to be tasted; and thus hopefully create a sensuous human being who will enrich others.

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Please visit also Smelly Blog for Ayala Sender's piece, Illuminated Journal for Roxana Villa's piece and Scent Hive for Trish's piece, for more scented thoughts on motherhood!

*translation from the Greek edition by Perfume Shrine.
Art Photography by Spyros Panayotopoulos/eiakstiko.gr and istockphotography.com


  1. E,

    First I must say you have chosen such gorgeous photos! Just lovely.

    And I agree that there is little more delightful than witnessing a child smell a new culinary delight (or dislike!) for the first time. That pure response of smell and taste, devoid of social restrictions is a wonder.

    Happy Mother's Day!

  2. Fiordiligi15:15

    As you know, my dear E, the maternal gene passed me by, but that is a beautifully-written and charmingly illustrated piece nonetheless! I used to like wearing
    Petit Guerlain after my evening bath, I must confess.

    Happy Mothers Day to you and all the mums reading this.

  3. Happy Mother's Day, E.

    A fantastic passage to open with, and yes, so true...I shall forever, even when rocking with little recollections or connectivity among them, have a happy poignant memory of the tops of each of my child's heads.

    By no mistake, I am sure, was my interest in perfume not started until my youngest had been around for a decade. I, too, nursed my children, and remember how amplified all my senses were...and how I could see them exercising theirs.

    I also remember walking gardens with each of them, and how each took his time smelling and exploring, how each evolved preferences and danced around getting to know some of the ones that were more "difficult" for them (yet continued to try.) I even remember how the older one could reach out and grab for certain plants when I named them, even before he could speak their name.

    That same child had but one "material" comfort, his blanket. BUT...he hated when I had to wash it. He always said it took a couple of days before it was "real" again. He would always grab the edge and pull it up to his face...not to cover his eyes, or feel its texture, but to take great deep intakes of breath. You could literally see him relax, begin to smile, drift off to sleep...

    Thank you for bringing me back to a place that will always bring pleasure. I love the project; have been to Roxana's blog, and shall visit the others forthwith.

    I wish all those who mother and have been mothered a Happy Mother's Day.

  4. How wistfully lovely !
    I'm completely 'verklempt'.

    You nail it, lady.

    I echo those sentiments; although 18 and 21, my sons still love to rest on MY pillow, bury their faces my neck or breasts-
    And, as infants, I would leave a worn nightgown in the crib, smelling of me, and Feminite de Bois or Mitsouko.

    On rainy days, we'd raid the spice shelves and sniff EVERYTHING !

    Run around in the mud and roll and sniff it all, like happy hounds.

    Happy Mother's Day to us all-
    Male and female alike.

    Some of us were never adequately mothered; some are bereft; some do our mothering in many ways- rather than the biological route-
    And EXCEL...
    [That means YOU, Fiordiligi girl !]

    Bleesings to you and yours, Ms. E.

  5. Happy Mother’s Day !!!

  6. A post full of love.
    Happy Mother's Day to all mothers reading this.

  7. Trish,

    thank you so much!

    It never ceases to amaze me how children are innocent of the ways of the world: everything is new, they discover things every day and they are eager to taste, explore and savour every little bit of that vast unknown world.

    We've lost this somehow and it makes me wonder: Why is it that as one grows up one sheds that curiosity, that desire to try out for oneself and conforms to accepted opinions??
    I attribute it to a desire to blend in but I would be happy to hear more theories.

  8. Dearest D,

    you're so sweet! I believe that mothering comes in many guises and sometimes that maternal instinct comes out at unexpected situations and moments: to take care of someone, to nurture, to be tender to people...You certainly have all those qualities from what I know. :-))

    Thanks for the warm wishes, honey!

  9. Happy Mother's Day to you and all mothers!

  10. S,

    sweetie, thanks so much for chimming in and had I known I would have invited you too (there's next year I hope)! And how interesting and true what you say, how poignant.

    It's wonderful to guide them through life with this love, this desire to have them grab the best of it.
    How tender that your kid does that with the blanket and how comforting it must be. Yes, there's definitely a potent relaxer in human smell, in the proximity of another being through the sense of smell.
    My own does the same with the little blankets and the furry toys. In fact it's so pointed that when he puts his little hands around me he smells me like that, my face, my neck, you can see his nose drawing a deep breath in and it's sooooo riveting!! I LOVE those moments.

    Happy Mother's Day to you!!

  11. Honey I!!

    Aw, my sweet I, you're the embodiment of a giving, tender person and it makes no surprise to anyone who knows you that your boys are still so very affectionate with you.

    And there's certainly a great deal of truth in what you say: mothering takes all shapes and forms and it's a wonderful experience for those who do it (and those on the receiving end too naturally!)

  12. Happy Mother's Day D! Thanks for stopping by!

  13. N, dearest,

    thanks so much for your wonderful wishes and your comment.


  14. Dear P,

    thanks so much! Happy Mum Day to everyone!

  15. So much beauty here in your memories, the prose and the photos. The paragraph from Das Parfum that you open this post with is divine and so appropo.

    This morning on a walk in the local mountains with my friend Meghan, I had an experience which reminds me of this quote of yours, "our aversion to poop is not hard-wired genetically but is a product of cultural integration."

    As we walked the trail Meghan stopped to analyze some poop. She began telling me a story about the animal and what it had eaten. I was so intrigued. Who knew excrement has so many tales to spin.


  16. Amy K01:28

    A pediatric nurse once told me a newborn's sense of smell is so acute that some will refuse to drink from a bottle if their mother is anywhere in the house because they can smell her, even from another floor, and wonder why on earth they should suck on a silicone nipple when there's a perfectly good set of breasts to be had. My own daughter will be two months old on Monday, and I spend hours holding her warm, sleeping body against my chest and greedily inhaling the smell of her head. It's the best fragrance in the world. Thank you for this beautiful scented tribute to mothers!

  17. A lovely post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! I must confess an aversion to children (probably brought on by watching the awful behaviour of younger cousins) so am always surprised that I find the smell of babies so appealing. They do smell sweet and milky - I have always wondered how they can smell like that and isn't it sad that we lose that smell as we get older?

  18. Wow! Beautifully written!

    It's funny how you think you know someone's passions just by reading their blog everyday (it's like a relationship of sorts, with someone you've never met and only ever imagined). But I truly had no idea how passionately you could write until reading this post........and what I liked most was that the perfume only played a supporting role in your wonderfully written article.....a reminder that some of the most beautiful scents don't come from a bottle.

    Bravo, and Happy Mother's Day.


  19. Rox,

    thank you honey :-))

    I think what has happened to you is what I call having an open mind: excrement speaks volumes about animals and their way of living!. Even for humans too. I shall never forget the day I was with another archeologist on the excavation at Akrotiri and they were amassing fossilised excrement to get it to the lab where it would be treated with solvents to reconstitute its initial texture (and smell!) to analyse the food patterns of the inhabitants of the dead city.
    It was plainly obvious from the sight of it that they were consuming lots of figs, though!
    So you see, I'm unphazed.

  20. Amy,

    you're welcome and thank you for your kind words and your most interesting contribution!! How fascinating. Makes sense too if you think about it.
    Enjoy your own lovely baby and inhale as deep as you can that exquisite smell....

  21. Hi Audit!

    Yeah, sometimes children (even one's own!!) get on people's nerves, they can be so bratty! I guess there is some finetuning to be done which isn't always easy to do.
    But what you say is most certainly true: they have this milky, cuddly smell about them, like fluffy biscuits. I think it has to do with nutrition and of course being so very young ie.lack of mating hormones to make them smell feral. They do consume lots of sweet dairy (the kiddies' milk has a different flavour than grown-ups' milk; I am surprised how kids enjoy all that yucky sweetness myself). So that's my theory, until disproven.

  22. M,

    aww, thanks! I guess the subject inspires passion in me. :-)

    I'm very glad you say what you say, that you totally "got" what I was trying to convney: That some of the most wonderful scents are around us and not out of some perfume vial. An invitation of sorts to smell out the world! Like I hope our children will be eager to do.

    Thank you again and happy mother's day!

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. Helg, what a beautiful piece as well as the photos you chose. Is that your son sniffing the rose? Gorgeous photo and lighting!

    I got Petit Guerlain for my daughter as well. She used to like that one as well. I like the delicacy of mimosa in that particular one.

    Happy Mother's Day!

  25. Hi my dear Ayala!

    Thank you sweetie, much appreciated. I guess Petit Guerlain has a soothing effect on kids and grown-ups as well.

    Have a great day with your kid and a safe trip! :-))

  26. Elizabeth06:17

    What a perfect Mother's Day entry (for those of us in the US). So poignant and thoughtful. While I love pretty baby smells, I have actually been enjoying the fact that my 2 yo's feet smell like feet now! I've also been inculcating my own love of perfume into her, and she now asks for it, even as she runs away because the dauber tickles her.

  27. Anonymous14:17

    Dear E,

    Happy Mother's Day to you, and thank you for the gift of this post. The best part of my day is when I slide into my bed beside my sleeping not-yet-two year old, take his warm little foot in my hand, bury my face in his neck and just breathe. Nothing compares to that. But, since we are also on the topic of human smells which might be construed as less delicious, here is my tale of the smell of the top of my baby's head. The same not-yet-two year old cut his head in a fall just a week ago; whilst waiting in the emergency room for stitches (a long wait, we arrived at 9 in the evening and left at 4 in the morning) I had plenty of time to contemplate the smell emanating from the top of his head. Snuggled as he was on my chest for most of the night, it was difficult to avoid the powerful smell of blood and raw flesh wafting from my son's sweet downy head. It was a fantastically sharp, metallic smell that was also cloying, like the smell of raw steak. By the end of the night I was getting nauseated by it and can still remember it now. And yet, this was, more than the faint smell of soap, milk or whatever babies smell of, the very primordial smell of my son; more intimate than anything else. I am not sure whether I will ever think of the top of a baby's head as smelling sweet, milky, powdery and warm after this experience.

    Thank you again for this beautiful post, E.


  28. Dear Natalia,

    thank you for your wishes and may I reciprocate and hope you had a good day with your family!

    It was so vividly painful what you described and so poignant I was reading with a little chill on my spine. Luckily I haven't experienced something like that (yet? I am knocking on wood!) and I can see how anxious and scared you must have been. (((hugs)))Blood does have a primal "red alert" hard-wired into our brain, doesn't it? It is however as you say: a primordial connection because this is how we're all built from the inside. I guess doctors and nurses are used to it, although it does shock us a bit (or a lot).

  29. Elizabeth,

    thanks honey! It gave me great pleasure writing it. Hope you had a wonderful mother's day!
    Teeny tiny feet that smell like feet; isn't that precious! Love that you're introducing her into perfumista stardom, she sounds like a perfectly adorable child.
    How we are eager to share with them what gives us so much pleasure, eh?


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