Becoming a Parent: Part II
The time has come and your baby is on its way!
Whether you are birthing a child yourself, using a surrogate, exploring adoption, or welcoming a baby into your home in another way, this guide will help you navigate the very special, and sometimes nerve-wracking, period of time when you are expecting the arrival of your child.
Slow Down and Let the Spirit In
Having a child is a spiritual experience, and the numbers tell us so in Judaism. According to Debra Pascali-Bonaro, world-renowned doula, founder of Pain to Power Childbirth and Orgasmic Birth, and one of our friends from the Cycles + Sex expert network, the time during which a child grows is a mystical one:
A typical pregnancy is 40 weeks long, and 40 is undoubtedly one of the most significant numbers in the Torah. Noah spent 40 days and 40 nights on his ark, Moses ascended Mount Sinai for 40 days in order to receive the Torah, and the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years before reaching the land of Israel.
Pregnancy is no exception; it is perhaps the clearest example of a spiritually significant 40-week cycle with the potential and purpose to create new life. Once you can see your or your partner’s pregnancy in this light, its inherent spiritual magic will be impossible to ignore.
Perhaps you’re growing a baby inside of you and you’ve got months to go before you become a parent, or maybe you’re adopting and you just found out that you only have a few short weeks until your child’s arrival. However much time you have, fill your cup. The Jewish sages encouraged spiritual wellness for expectant parents, knowing that you can’t give what you don’t have yourself.
If you are pregnant, your body will nudge you to slow down. You’ll tire more easily, walk more slowly, and eventually need to pause your work and other outside commitments. If you are not carrying a baby yourself, it is equally as important to take time to slow down to prepare for the arrival of your child. This is a time to get your ducks in a row for what’s to come physically and emotionally. Take things easy. Make space for your child’s arrival.
Practice yoga with intention
A yoga practice prepares your body for the physical and emotional work of being a parent, enhancing your wellbeing. If you are pregnant, please check with your doctor first before practicing!
“I found prenatal yoga to be very, very spiritual this time around,” shared Arq community member Sara Onufer. “I found myself emotional in most classes thinking about how life would be changing for me, members of my family, and each mama in the class. We did a beautiful send off for each mom before her due date and shared positive energy and well wishes.”
Aleph-Bet Yoga includes poses in the shapes of Hebrew letters. On a spiritual level, it combines a Jewish intention, or kavana, with the physical effort of caring for your body, as each letter pose has a focus or meditation based on the meaning of each letter. For example, the letter dalet symbolizes a doorway. While practicing dalet, a half-forward bend, contemplate your role as the doorway to new life. This is particularly relevant in Kabbalah, as Hebrew letters are considered vessels carrying divine light.
Visualize meeting your child
Expectful, a platform that makes it easy for hopeful, pregnant, and new parents to meditate, meditation can help you destress, strengthen your relationships, enhance your immunity, and improve your sleep.
As you get emotionally and physically ready for becoming a parent, you may want to consider genetic testing, a complex, there’s-no-right-answer issue.
In the first chapter of our guide to becoming a parent, we address the common recommendation that two biological parents who are Jewish get genetic testing before conceiving. After conception, future parents face a similar decision about performing genetic testing on their baby. The questions and feelings that this decision may raise will draw on your spiritual strength and self-knowledge and require open communication with your partner or other people in your support community. For instance, why might you want this information in the first place? How will you choose to move forward if your baby’s health is not as you hoped it would be?
Arq community member Yaffa Garber shared her story of genetic testing and how she and her husband chose to move forward with the unanticipated results:
I was 10 weeks pregnant when my midwife said, “Hey, I just noticed that in all of your prenatal testing, no one has checked for Fragile X. Do you mind if we run it?” I said, “Sure.” Two weeks later, at about 12 weeks pregnant, I got a phone call while I was at work telling me that I was a permutation carrier for Fragile X and there was a 50% chance I would pass it on to the baby. This was devastating and confusing news.
We did all of our Jewish genetic testing before trying to conceive – how did we not know about this? After meeting with a genetic counselor, we learned that if the baby received my X with the permutation, it would have an 80% chance of having Fragile X. This means a lifetime of intellectual disability, developmental delays, and, possibly, autism.
I scheduled an amniocentesis, since our general rule of thumb is “knowledge is power,” but I cancelled it. I decided I would rather enjoy this pregnancy and not know if the baby would have Fragile X. I also didn’t want to put the baby at risk, since amnios come with a small chance of miscarriage.
We had to ask ourselves some serious parenting questions, including considering abortion. Why do people have children? Is it so that they’ll go to college, get married, and have children? To us, the answer was, “No.” Why do people have children? Is it to love them, enjoy raising them, teach them about life and values? Is it to instill a strong Jewish identity? Yes.
Since we learned that people with Fragile X can lead very fulfilling and medically healthy lives, even if their lives are not what we all picture as normal, we decided to go ahead with the pregnancy and to raise this child to be loving and caring and adapt our expectations as life went on.
There have been very, very tough moments, even from the beginning. When other babies were starting to crawl and babble, he was still lying down. But, he keeps amazing us with his abilities and we would not want him any other way. Our son has opened our eyes to the special needs world and the amazing parents who struggle with way more difficult special needs every day, and we’ve learned that everyone is dealing with something. Even families with kids who can read and drive and go to college still have issues, we just know that Fragile X is our issue, and we are okay with that.
The question of genetic testing is just one opportunity of many to prepare for the type of parent you would like to be.
How will Judaism play a role in your child’s life? How will you, as a parent, contribute to shaping your child’s Jewish experience? How will you provide ethical and moral teachings to your child? How do you want to act as a role model for your child’s behavior? You may want to take the opportunity to connect with your parents or others whom you love and respect and love and learn about their approaches.
Pregnancy is a beautiful, life-altering, miraculous experience that comes with many new physical and emotional experiences.
Arq community member and co-founder of Modern Loss, Gabrielle Birkner, wrote the shehecheyanu, a blessing of praise, on the chalkboard on the back of her front door and recited it every day. She’d say, “Thank you for bringing me to this moment.”
For Rabbi Lori of Open Temple, it was important to have an “awareness of the mundane miracle.” She was in “complete, radical amazement and awe of how the body knew what to do” during her pregnancy. It is the “embodied spiritual power of being a woman,” she believes.
According to Jewish superstition, parents-to-be should wait 40 days to announce their pregnancy, since that is the time when the Talmud considers an embryo to be a fetus.
Fun fact about your fetus: according to Jewish tradition, it has a spiritual life! A baby receives the knowledge of the Torah in the womb, and, right before birth, an angel taps that child on the upper lip and all of that knowledge is washed away. For the rest of our lives, our souls then ache for that divine connection, which can be restored by our inner spiritual work and soulful behavior. While in utero, you might want to sing, read, talk, show care to and even nickname your child.
Quickening, the moment during weeks 16-20 of pregnancy when you typically first feel your baby move, can also be a holy experience. This is the moment you feel life stirring in you. You may want to consider reciting a prayer or practicing a ritual that is meaningful to you to mark this moment.
According to Judaism, it is of the utmost importance to put your health first during all stages of your pregnancy. For example, listen to your cravings. The rabbis say that even if you get a hankering for lobster or bacon on Yom Kippur, you should eat! Pregnant women have also traditionally been discouraged from attending a funeral or visiting a cemetery, given the grief and pain these activities may invite. Modern studies show that a pregnant mother’s stress can have a direct impact on her baby, but we also know that processing our thoughts to reduce anxiety, whether by journaling, meditation, exercise, or support from friends or family, can help.
Consistent with Judaism’s focus on the health and wellbeing of a pregnant mother-to-be, Jewish tradition values sexual enjoyment – an act of love – during pregnancy. In general, the rabbis encouraged couples to be considerate of each others’ needs and comfort during this time, including not having sex if that’s what feels right.
While you are pregnant, you may want to make note of your dreams. According to A Time to Be Born, Jews have long believed in the power of dreams and the lessons in them. Dreaming of many trees was believed to mean you will have sons, and, if you dream of an apple tree growing in your home, that is a sign that you will have a wise child.
Lastly, it is traditional to visit the mikveh during the ninth month of pregnancy. While you immerse yourself, you may wish to set intentions, express gratitude, and pray for others, including people who are hoping and trying to become parents.
Your changing body
Every woman’s experience of carrying a child is unique, including the changing of her body. Ashley Spivak, doula and co-founder of Cycles & Sex, shared an exercise with us to help you connect more deeply with the changes going on in your physical form as your baby grows.
Ashley emphasizes how important it is to start tuning into your body’s wisdom as a way to prepare for birth. One great way to do so is through Body Scan Check-Ins. Aim to check in at least three times a day, and ask yourself the following questions:
What is my mind telling me? What are you saying to yourself right now? Is it a to-do list? A fantasy? What adjectives are you using most?
How do you feel emotionally? Are you tired, hungry, frustrated? In a good mood or bad?
How does your body feel? Tired? Sore? Does your belly hurt?
Write it all down. You are not trying to fix anything, you are simply taking notice. You may start to see patterns and clues about your own mind-body connection.
This will be especially important during labor and birth, when you will need to speak up for yourself and articulate your body’s needs so that you can have the birth experience you desire. You can also repeat this exercise during labor, as a way to check in with yourself emotionally and spiritually, rather than just focusing on the pain and physicality of labor and birth.
Self-care and healthy eating will also support you in feeling your best during an ever-changing time. Listen to the cues from your body on when to have down time, and what nutrients you may need. Don’t stress about indulging in a treat. Your body will be your best guide during this time.
Honor sexual energy
Myisha Battle, dating and sex coach and host of the sex-positive podcast Down for Whatever, knows that women do not cease to be sexual beings when they are pregnant, but the sexual wants and needs of pregnant women may be different from what they wanted and needed before pregnancy. Sex during pregnancy can be incredibly powerful, so it’s important to honor the sexual energy that emerges throughout pregnancy. For some women, this may be consistent and for others it may wax and wane.
Myisha points out that communication is critical to honoring sexual energy during pregnancy. As the body changes and hormone levels adjust to each new phase of pregnancy, there may need to be adjustments made to positioning, pressure and types of sexual play.
Myisha suggests creating an open dialogue about sex with your pregnant partner:
To get started, acknowledge that sex may look and feel different during pregnancy for both parties.
Invite a conversation about what might feel good, keeping in mind that what feels good today may not feel good next week.
Keep the curiosity flowing! When does she feel most sexual? What are her fantasies? Can you enact any of them?
Remain flexible. If there is something that she thinks might feel good, but it doesn’t turn out that way take some time to adjust and move forward. Honoring her sexual energy and needs is key to a truly hot sex life during pregnancy.
Preparing for labor and birth
There are many ways to approach labor and birth, and seemingly more options now than ever before. Setting a plan ahead of time is important, while realizing that your plan may have to quickly change in the moment. Debra Pascali-Bonaro offers this ritual for preparing for the labor and birth of your child:
Prepare to birth the way you live. Regard birth not as an isolated event, but as an extension of who you are and the rituals and beliefs you already practice. Take time to think about how you respond to joyous and challenging occasions. What brings you joy and what helps you celebrate and honor happy occasions? What are your triggers for pain? Do you step forward or retreat when faced with a challenge?
If you don’t like how you react in certain situations that might arise during labor, work on finding a new modality that you can bring with you into the delivery room. Use the time during pregnancy to look at who you are and how you live your life. Allow yourself to consider and tap into new ways of being and to decide what to leave behind and what to bring forward with you into this new chapter.
Once you have prepared for labor, Debra recommends creating a sacred space and birth ambience for your labor and delivery. Here are some elements you may want to include in your birthing plans:
Recreate an intimate setting similar to the one in which your child was conceived. Think about lighting, smells, sounds and what brings you joy. Incorporate song and dance. Create a playlist to listen to and move to during labor or choose a song to welcome your baby to.
If you have physical items that are significant to you, create a birth altar in the labor room and place those items on it. If there are religious practices you incorporate into your everyday life, think about how you can carry them out during labor to help create sacred space.
Celebrating Your Baby-to-Be
Jewish superstition discourages parents-to-be from celebrating until their child has been born. In other words, baby showers are rare in most Ashkenazi Jewish communities. Why? The period when you are expecting the arrival of your child is an in-between one: there is potential for joy, and there is potential for great loss. Rather than invite the Evil Eye, many Jews have erred on the side of quiet and caution.
However, Sephardic Jews jump right into celebrating a first pregnancy in a ritual called kortadura de fashadura (in Judeo-Spanish), meaning “the cutting of the swaddling clothes.” The ceremony centers around the cutting of a cloth that will make the baby’s first outfit. At the moment of the cut, the pregnant woman throws sugared almonds on the cloth to symbolize the sweet and prosperous future she wishes for her child.
One common loophole is creating a baby registry but having your gifts shipped to someone else’s home or put on hold at the store where they have been purchased until after your baby is born, at which point you may promptly pick up your goodies!
Alternative baby shower ideas
Wreath of Blessings
Make a huge, person-sized wreath out of wisteria or some other vine. Ask your guests to bring flowers, ribbon, or even written blessings to decorate the wreath. The expectant parent(s) walk through the wreath – a portal – after a blessing circle, during which the guests offer well wishes to the parent(s)-to-be. Guests may also each bring two candles, one of which they give to the parent(s)-to-be, the other which they light once the child is on its way. (Via Bekah Starr)
Loving Red String
Gather the parent(s)-to-be and their loved ones. The guests offer the parent(s)-to-be courage, nurture, and blessings. Tie a red string around the group, putting your love and protection into the circle, then give the string to the parent(s) to keep with them during the birth, adoption proceedings, or other pathway to parenthood. (via Kohenet Stacey London-Oshkello)
Have each each guest bring a bead. Bless the beads as each is added to a necklace that strings them together. Give the necklace to the parent(s)-to-be as a reminder of the love and support of their community. (via Kohenet Ahavah Lilith Aly Evershine)
Cooking with Spirit
Invite Nancy Wolfson-Moche, a culinary medicine practitioner and food educator, to teach a cooking class for the parents-to-be and their guests. Nancy brings in seasonal spiritual readings for inspiration, feeds the guests, and customizes suggestions of nourishing dishes that friends and family can deliver to the parent(s)-to-be during the weeks after their child arrives.
Blessings in a Cup
Have everyone pass around a cup (such as a kiddush cup) that the parents will drink from, each symbolically putting in wisdom and blessings for the parent(s)-to-be. Once the cup is blessed by everyone, it returns to the parents for drinking down the sweet and delicious blessings. (via Kohenet Annie Matan)
Mourning a Loss
Experiencing a loss – miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion, failed adoption – during the time when you are joyfully expecting a child can be traumatic and may bring on painful and difficult emotions. There is no right way to grieve or heal.
According to Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood – and Trusting Yourself and Your Body, 8 to 20 percent of women who know they are pregnant have a miscarriage some time before twenty weeks of pregnancy.
Dr. Jessica Zucker, a psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health and the founder of the #IHadaMiscarriage campaign, says, “Miscarriage is not a disease. It’s not something that can be cured. Therefore, the sooner we institute new ways of discussing these traumas, the sooner women will feel more connected and receive the support they deserve.” In Well+Good, Dr. Zucker offers suggestions for how to support a friend through a miscarriage and how to talk about your own miscarriage.
While it is not Jewish tradition to sit shiva or recite the kaddish after a miscarriage, it is customary for grieving parents to go to the mikveh. Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikveh, offers a range of original ceremonies that help individuals name the fear, despair, faith, gratitude, and hope that are often part of the healing process. If a child is stillborn, you may choose to have a bris if it is a boy, to name the child, and to perform traditional mourning rites.
Abortion is a deeply personal decision, and Judaism does not detail one particular approach, although the Reform and Conservative movements advocate for abortion access and reproductive rights.
Jewish tradition believes in a spiritual life growing inside of the womb, but, according to The Jewish Pregnancy Book: A Resource for the Soul, Body & Mind during Pregnancy, Birth & the First Three Months, the exact moment when “ensoulment” occurs is, in fact, a divine secret. Judaism does not legally consider a fetus a full person with complete rights until birth. Judaism also values existing life over potential life. If a fetus endangers the life of its mother, many Jewish leaders would consider abortion mandatory.
There are many complexities in the decision of abortion, especially when it comes to genetics and the health of the unborn child. Not everyone has access to such testing, and, for many, it can be cost prohibitive. Also, where do you draw the line? Can a fetus be aborted because of a genetic abnormality or health problem, or is all life sacred? With technology and health care constantly changing, who knows if we will have a cure for a child’s condition within their lifetime? These are challenging questions for which ancient Jewish tradition does not have unanimous answers.
A grieving ritual
Zivar Amrami, an artist and mother, notes that the Zohar teaches us that each soul enters the womb of its mother and this world for a specific mission. Once this mission is complete, the soul passes on. A miscarriage is defined not as a failure of any measure, but as a “falling of divine light.” A message released. Time is not linear according to this mystical text, it is ever contracting and expanding. We thank these souls for entering our realm, for offering their gifts, and we grieve together, in community, at the dispersing of their light.
If you experience a loss during the time when you are expecting the arrival of your baby, Zivar recommends creating an altar in your home to honor this being with whatever brings you comfort.
Perhaps your altar includes a photo, a candle, a book, or your favorite flowers. Return to this altar each day and offer your grief, your gratitude, whatever arises to greet your heart. Let the light this being releases blanket you in times of sorrow, the altar a sacred reminder. Let yourself be comforted with all those who have lost babies they had dreamed of parenting – friends, grandmothers, strangers – knowing you are not alone.
Rituals for All
The Jewish matriarch Sarah laughed with amazement and awe when she discovered that she was pregnant. Whatever your path towards becoming a parent, the months and days when you are expecting offer countless opportunities to pause, reflect, and mark each powerful moment. Below we’ve curated a final grab bag of Jewish rituals that any parent-to-be may adapt and enjoy.
Experience the holidays in a new way
While you’re expecting, the holidays may hold a different meaning for you. Some consider the act of lighting Shabbat candles to be a direct line to pray for children. During Passover, you may relate to Shifra and Puah, feminist heroines and midwives.
Eat your etrog
An ancient Jewish superstition holds that eating the blossom end of the citron fruit, or etrog, allows for an easy labor. To soothe yourself during the waiting period before your child arrives, you may want to eat marmalade, cake, or candy made from an etrog.
Put a sash on it
An ancient tradition calls for a parent-to-be to sew a sash for the Torah, which may then be used for their child’s bar or bat mitzvah and wedding.
Giving charity symbolizes the opening of our hearts and the opening of the womb. Doing good, including donating money to the poor, especially birthing women, is an ancient Jewish custom. It is also seen as a precursor to instilling selflessness in your future child.
While Ashkenazi Jews generally name children after a relative who has died, Sephardic Jews opt for the opposite, naming their children after relatives who are alive to meet them. Does your family have specific naming traditions? It is also common for Jewish parents to choose a common name that is more culturally relevant and a separate Hebrew name that is given to their child for Jewish ritual activities. Jewish parents also tend not to share the name of their child until the bris or the baby naming ceremony.
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Special thanks to Sara Weinreb for co-authoring this guide.