When I look back on our videos and pictures from a couple of days before our daughter’s birth, our giddy, naive excitement is still excruciating. After a relatively easy pregnancy, my wife’s birth experience was horrible. Somewhere in 72 hours of labor, my daughter swallowed her meconium and came out unable to breathe properly. After braving an unplanned c-section, my wife developed post-partum pre-eclampsia. The hospital staff, diminished in number and truly burned out after months of Covid-19, nearly missed this life-threatening condition.
The more I have talked to other mothers, the more I’ve realized that while my daughter’s birth could have been better, it also could have been a lot worse. We all survived with minimal long-term physical damage. However, like for most survivors of traumatic birth, there is a lot of anger, a need to mourn and an urgency to move forward. We were robbed of a joyous birth, of our presumption of safety, of the intimate rituals: the first skin-to-skin, the footprint, the photo. But there is also this beautiful child in front of us — who’s shown up and doesn’t know why we are all so distressed. Who is bursting with life. Whom we love with all our hearts.
Knowing that our child would be born female, my wife and I had begun to craft her baby-naming ritual in the last few months of pregnancy. Because of Covid-19, we knew that the two of us would be the only family present at the birth; we might even be coming home to an empty house afterwards because of the slow vaccination rollout. A Zoom baby-naming when we came home from the hospital would be a chance to welcome our daughter into her faith and family, regardless of location or pandemic restrictions. We were also excited that Rabbi Carl Perkins, from my childhood temple, would be able to officiate in North Carolina from his office in Massachusetts.
As overly-educated Jewish lesbians, this was not our first rodeo with reinventing Jewish ritual. I’m an alum of Jewish Day School and Brandeis with a B.A. in Bible and the Ancient Near East, and my wife is a Conservative rabbi. Our last project had been the Jewish wedding ceremony and ketubah. We spent the majority of our premarital counseling with Rabbi Perkins, engaged in contemporary halakhic debate, trying to create a ceremony that was both egalitarian and made sense legally (in terms of Jewish law).
Both the challenge and gift of Jewish baby-naming ceremonies (for girls) is that they are blank canvases. The traditional bris (for baby boys) has centuries-old requirements around what must be said and done. Baby-naming ceremonies are much more modern creations with few set guidelines. We knew we wanted the basic blessings — a kiddush, a shehechiyanu — to mark the occasion. We also added a moment of wrapping our entire family in our wedding tallit and placing the tzitzit on our daughter’s heart. We wanted to connect the baby-naming to the moment we first began our family: my wife and me wrapped in a white tallit underneath the chuppah.
However, as the days crawled by at the hospital and our anticipated three-day stay stretched into a second week, we realized we had to have a different conversation with Rabbi Perkins. Not only would we have to postpone the ceremony a week, but we were shaken. We had been one too many inches close to death. On the one hand, it felt impossible — dishonest, even — to jump straight into celebration. On the other hand, we felt that every celebratory moment of our daughter’s birth so far had been passed over for the next urgent medical crisis.
I’m not usually one to reach out to a rabbi in a moment of emotional duress. Back to that overly-educated thing (read: cocky) — I usually feel like I know what Judaism can offer me at any given time and how to navigate the appropriate Jewish practice. However, it was during this first phone call with Rabbi Perkins after the birth that I found my mantra, my path towards healing.
After a crisis, especially during a time of upheaval and change, there is a temptation to move past it. Nobody died. Shouldn’t we just focus on learning how to be parents? But what Rabbi Perkins said stuck with me: we weren’t going to move past it. We were going to figure out together how to move through it.
But what did moving through it mean for us? Another note from all my time spent with Jewish ritual: Judaism understands that milestones and celebrations themselves are traumatic and scary. Between one stage of life (fetus) and the next (newborn), there is a liminal area where anything could happen — where everything as we once experienced it falls apart. In these times, Jewish ritual is a framework to reach out to God, community, tradition or whatever is meaningful to you to help carry the load — to help you move through the doorway, from one part of life to the next. You are not alone.
With this in mind, my wife and I knew what we needed to do. And I’m sharing this here because I know there will be more traumatic births, more ambiguous loss in the world around me. I want to help you move through it.
We decided we need to begin our celebration by sharing succinctly what happened. We needed those 300 people who showed up on Zoom to hold us for a moment.
After a welcome song, we shared: This clearly was not the birth story we hoped for, and wasn’t even what we had feared when anticipating what could go wrong. It was terrifying to see a child come out of the womb not breathing. While Chaya did not see that due to the c-section, she was separated from the baby for the first day of her life while trying to save her own life….
Afterwards, we said some blessings for survival (gomel) and healing (misheberach). And then we moved through it. Had some wine and chocolate cake. Wrapped ourselves in the wedding tallit. Yes, my wife still faced months of recovery. Yes, the whole scare replayed each night when I closed my eyes, for weeks. But we had begun our first steps, in that moment, through the sorrow and fear of the birth and into the joy of the baby in our arms.