Amanda Koppelman Milstein is a freelance writer and evaluator who lives in Washington, DC. She has a masters in Public Policy with a focus on Poverty Alleviation. She enjoys seeing how much butter and heavy cream she can put into baked goods, performing standup comedy, and secretly sometimes pronounces her tavs as savs when her father isn't around to hear.
Nine Months of Spitting (and Other Superstitions)
June 6, 2013
"Jessica Valenti is INSANE!" I said to my friend.
I developed this opinion while reading her book, Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness, in which she says, "It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to choose what circumstances my daughter would be born under, and it certainly never crossed my mind that I could wind up with a sick baby."
I, on the other hand, never considered that I might have a totally uncomplicated birth and end up with a spectacularly healthy baby — which, thank G-d, is what ended up happening. Jessica Valenti and I should have averaged our points of view — we might both have been better off and more prepared.
My husband and I decided to not bother printing out my birth plan, as we pretty much wanted them to do whatever it took to keep my fetus and I alive (although I did discuss with my weight-obsessed practitioners that I would strongly prefer if they could refrain from calling me obese while I was pushing). I sung my blastocyst/embryo/fetus songs that highlighted the fun we'd have if it didn't die in utero. I spoke only in the conditional. I worried all of the time, when I wasn't being flat-out fatalistic. I joked that I had turned into the superstitious Polish grandmother I'd never had, and lightly coated everyone and everything around me with spit (peh, peh, peh).
When we told my relatives we were pregnant, the religious ones responded with "b'sha'a tova" which means something like "at a good time." It is traditional to say that instead of "mazal tov," as saying mazal tov would assume that you already are the beneficiary of good fortune. The less religious relatives shared the stories of pregnancies that had not worked out, as if to make sure I understood — if my inherently superstitious nature wasn't enough — that nothing was guaranteed. The message was the same from both sets of relatives — don't get too hopeful. It's not all superstition, everything really doesn't work out.
In addition to not saying mazal tov, there are a variety of Jewish superstitions around pregnancy, ranging from not bringing stuff for the future baby into the house (or buying it at all) before the baby is born, not naming it before its ritual naming ceremony, and generally acting like the blastocyst/embryo/fetus inside you is not a guaranteed future child. Not having a baby shower is pretty standard as well, which, not wanting to eat cakes shaped like babies, I was pretty happy about. When someone at my husband's company generously asked if we wanted them to buy us a stroller before the baby was born, I sent my husband a two-word email: "fetus killer!"
Other pregnancy superstitions include avoiding fingernail clippings, which when seen by a pregnant women are said to cause miscarriage. This is a particular favorite superstition of my husband, who hates that I bite my nails when stressed. The authors of The Jewish Pregnancy Book list several additional superstitions, including women carrying around written-out prayers, special stones, amulets, and red thread that had been wrapped around the tomb of Rachel.
Superstition doesn't stop with pregnancy alone. Another custom is to bite the top off of an etrog on Hoshahah Rabbah, a day at the end of Sukkot, which is supposed to help women have an easy labor. I was already in labor during Hashanah Rabbah, but I bit the top off my etrog and I have to say, the actual awful bit of labor went by pretty quickly, although I don't think citrus played any role in it. We now use that same etrog for the havdallah ceremony on Saturday nights, and periodically explain that superstition to the baby — just in case he ever happens to be near giving birth at the end of Sukkot.
I ended up being kind of a chicken about not preparing at all for the baby — in addition to worrying that we wouldn't end up with a healthy kid, I was also worried that I'd be too sick, tired, or otherwise out of it to appropriately provision our household once the baby was born. We took a rental car filled with baby stuff home from my sister-in-law's when I was seven and a half months pregnant, and even then I didn't want to jinx it. ("We may or may not be collecting donations for a local non-profit that helps families who need stuff for new babies. Or we might keep it if we have use for it.")
Much to my great surprise, I had a totally fabulous and healthy baby almost a week after my due date. At my baby's bris, I turned to a friend who had been the recipient of many 3 a.m. emails in which I complained about how the fetus had settled in a way that was preventing me from using my arms/was causing my back to feel like it was being stabbed/had given me ulcerative colitis/was generally causing me great pain and suffering. "If I had allowed myself to think that I might get a healthy baby at the end of all of this — even if I had let myself entertain it as a serious possibility — I might have had a much easier pregnancy," I said. "Instead I just sort of thought I was physically suffering and would end up experiencing intense emotional pain and loss. Maybe thinking I might have been making a future child would have allowed me to buck up a bit."
A few weeks after the baby was born, the presidential election rolled around. I went to bed before the results were called. "Things will work out," I said to my husband. I didn't even bother worrying. As I put my head on the pillow, I heard the massive cheer from the apartment next door as the election was called, and the baby slept right through it. I worried for a second that it might be because he couldn't hear, dismissed that idea, and went to sleep.