Sisterhood Blog

Beyond 'Superstition': The Wisdom of Waiting for the Baby Shower

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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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.

Karen Paul-Stern Sat. Sep 5, 2009

Debra, I too, have three healthy children and have had four pregnancies. Unlike you, my fourth was born at 34 weeks, and died 5 days later, after 2 months of bedrest at home and then 2 more months flat on my back in the hospital (with a 2 year old at home.) We held him for the first time as he died, extricated from the machine that we had hope would keep him alive. His name was Ari.

Although I am not a convert to Judaism, I might as well be for all the teaching I had from my Jewish mother growing up. It wasn't until I met my husband, who came from a Conservative kosher home and is actually a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, that I began to learn about and incorporate Judaism into my life. And I was beyond thankful to have it when we brought Ari into the world.

While I was on bedrest, people at our Reconstructionist synagogue would say the mi sheberach for me every week. Just thinking about that still makes me cry, 11 years later. After Ari was born, we were visited by friends and our rabbi, whose wisdom and kindness helped us make the crazy decisions we had to make in those five days. After Ari died, our rabbi guided us but ultimately empowered us to decide how best to handle the burial and then the shivah, and the year-long mourning, despite Judaism's prohibition on saying kaddish for someone who is fewer than 30 days old (a prohibition also rooted in kindness, for there were so many babies to bury back then, it was believed it would help the mother to be alleviated of her obligation to mourn. Today, of course, we understand the need to mourn the loss of even such a short life, and Judaism's mourning process is also rooted in psychological sense.) Saying kaddish for our baby was one of the most moving, grounding and important things I have ever done in my life.

I would not have come through this experience without the supportive nature of the Jewish community in which we have chosen to live. And I more fully understand the seemingly "primitive" prohibitions that Judaism imposes, such as not revealing your child's name prior to birth or not bringing the baby furniture into the house. It's common sense.

Each time I meet a young pregnant woman, my heart skips a beat. I pray for the best outcome, but know the worst can and does happen. And you're right - our up-to-the-minute, Facebook society makes the possibilities of having to deliver unthinkable news that much more daunting and painful.

I appreciate your words on this subject, and also wish Rebecca nothing but the best. May she bring a beautiful baby home swaddled in lovely colored blankets, and may her friends and family shower her with love and gifts ... with a baby in her arms.

Sarah Sun. Sep 6, 2009

So much of what people call "superstitious" in Judaism has always seemed to me more of a precaution against overconfidence. I find it hard to accept ideas like the "evil eye" at face value, because attributing all this power to some vague evil force sounds a little sketchy for a fiercely monotheistic tradition. What I really think it is (and certainly what I mean when I use expressions like "bli ayin hara" - "without an evil eye") is that we don't want to get too sure of ourselves, count our chickens before they're hatched, etc. Or, to put it in more "religious" terms, we want to remember that as clear as things might seem to us, we're not in charge of the world and we never really know what's going to happen.

Debra, I share your sentiments about the potential horror of having to dismantle a nursery and tell everyone you know that baby ______ will never be born. I have sometimes wondered if I'm just morbid, since so many people seem not to be bothered by that, so I appreciate your posting on the subject - especially as I can imagine it must still be somewhat painful to discuss your miscarriage.

I think there are probably a lot of factors behind the widespread expectation of preparing so fully (and publicly) for a birth - the sense of invincibility of which the young are often accused; a growing need for instant gratification; a facebook culture of sharing everything about oneself with everyone one knows. But I will never understand it.

Why should the stranger on the street need to know my baby's gender before birth? Why can't all those well-meaning friends and relatives wait to buy the onesies and blankets when they get the phone call from the hospital? We may be reduced to brief hospital stays these days, but it's still long enough for someone to run out and buy a car seat and a few outfits and things. And I promise, the baby won't notice or care if the room's not painted blue/pink. (What are the odds that baby's going to be in that room much in the beginning?!)

It's easy to label someone as "superstitious" - but a lot of "old wives" really knew what they were talking about.

Marianne Tue. Jan 26, 2010

Thank you for your lovely article. I am a Roman Catholic and am not alone with other members of my faith in agreeing with the Judaic approach to pregnancy. We do not hold baby showers in my family, nor do we share the news until the 12-14 week of pregnancy. This philosophy is rooted in the idea that a baby is a gift from God and we should never presume that gift is ours until it's in our arms. I've faced a lot of resistance with my in-laws about my desire to NOT have a baby shower, find out the sex or prepare the nursery until my little one arrives.

I am comforted by the wisdom of my Jewish brothers and sisters!

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