B’sha’ah tova, Rebecca — congratulations on the upcoming birth of your baby. I hope that all goes well for you and the baby. You write that the pregnancy is leading your husband to connect with his Jewish roots in new ways. Becoming a parent can do that to you. If you want to read more about it, I recommend Chana Weisberg’s book “Expecting Miracles: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Pregnancy Through Judaism” (Urim Publications 2004).
Having been pregnant four times and as a mother of three, thank God, healthy children, I have to disagree with your assessment of Jewish customs around pregnancy: the practices of waiting until at least after the first trimester to make it public, of not sharing the names you may have picked out, of not preparing a baby’s room until the birth, and not having a shower beforehand.
I don’t consider them “superstitions,” as you called them, but rather practices rooted in wisdom that made sense when they began, probably many generations ago, and that make sense now, too.
The truth is, a baby is not a baby until he or she is in our arms, alive and well, and each time it is a not-so-small miracle. I never understood God’s immanence in the world until I looked into my first child’s eyes for the first time (and then I promptly threw up, which I attribute to the C-section anesthesia more than my epiphany).
God forbid any of these things should happen to you or anyone we know, but stillbirths occur, many times for reasons that doctors do not understand. Jewish law reflects what I consider a very wise approach to understanding fetal development — status of full “personhood” does not occur until the head or at least a limb has emerged from the womb.
A fuller discussion of these issues can be read in David Feldman’s book “Birth Control in Jewish Law” (New York University Press, 1995).
I’ve long been uncomfortable with the current vogue of telling the world the gender and name of the baby months before the due date — for reasons traditional and perhaps Jewish as well as for more modern reasons around women’s right to choose abortion. Conferring too-early status as a person on a pregnancy reflects a very Catholic or evangelical Christian notion of the status of a pregnancy — that an embryo is the equivalent of a full person from the moment of conception. It impacts the way we think about abortion.
On a personal level, I really appreciated the difference in the Jewish approach when I had a bad miscarriage toward the end of the first trimester of my second pregnancy. I had become pregnant with our first child as soon as we started trying. It took longer to get pregnant with our second, but finally it happened. When I went in for an early first sonogram (because of complications with my first pregnancy, my doctors liked to look early and often) the technician found a “blighted ovum,” which still sounds to me like the name of an 11th plague.
Basically it means an empty sac — a pregnancy began but ceased to develop. My body, however, still “read” it as a viable pregnancy, pumping out the hormones that gave me all the usual feelings of early pregnancy. Worse yet, my midwife wanted to wait two weeks or so to make sure I hadn’t misdated the pregnancy and to be sure that it wasn’t just too early to detect the fetal heartbeat. I hadn’t and it wasn’t, but I had to stay in this pregnant/not-pregnant state. It was miserable. About 10 days in, I miscarried terribly, so violently that I had to be rushed to the hospital for a procedure to stop the hemorrhaging.
While I recuperated, sitting in my grandmother’s old easy chair and under an afghan she had crocheted, I thought about an article I’d read by an evangelical Christian woman who had miscarried many times and regarded each of those losses as the loss of a child. She named each one and thought of them as angels in heaven.
I felt sadness and loss, but not the deep grief she had. Rather mine was sadness about the loss of potential. And I felt grateful, in that moment, to be a Jew and to have this tradition and perspective around pregnancy loss.
When I hear parents-to-be talking about baby Brandon or whoever, when they are just a few months pregnant, I worry a little for them. I hope they get to hold a healthy new baby in their arms. But if they don’t, I think of how much harder it will be for them to recover if they have a completed room to dismantle and a thousand people to inform that baby Brandon will not be coming home. Do people post that kind of thing these days on Facebook?
I don’t think it’s superstitious to wait to announce a pregnancy, but rather common sense. Jewish customs around all this may be rooted in an ancient or medieval reality when neonatal loss was commonplace, which thank goodness it no longer is, but they still have valance today.
I wish you the best with the rest of your pregnancy, Rebecca, and the arrival of your first child. There will be plenty of time after the baby’s birth for your relatives to monogram those baby blankets! And it’s lovely to receive gifts once the baby is born, at the brit milah or simchat bat you may hold.
After the baby’s born, if you have the time and energy (which you won’t), you may be interested in reading “Parenting as a Spiritual Journey”(Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer or Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ “Becoming a Jewish Parent” (Harmony Books, 1999).
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a Forward Contributing Editor, and author of “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001) — a book inspired by the birth of the daughter conceived immediately after the miscarriage, and published immediately after the birth of her third child, also a daughter.