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As a New Jewish Mom, I’m Letting Go of Guilt and Setting Boundaries

I am a board-certified pediatrician. I work clinically as a newborn hospitalist and coach for pregnant and postpartum women.

But if you think my background prepared me for having a baby of my own, you would be very, very wrong.

Growing up Jewish in suburban New Jersey, I was the synagogue-preschool attending, bat mitzvah-having, Temple youth group retreat-going type of Jew. This means that I am well-versed in the Reform tradition. I know all of Debbie Friedman’s songs, I have been mistaken for a bar mitzvah dancer more than once — I know all the moves! — and I am acutely familiar with the time-honored concept of Jewish guilt.

Ah, yes, Jewish guilt. I know you know what I’m talking about. It’s that pang in your stomach when you’ve disappointed your mother, or you haven’t asked for a second bowl of your grandmother’s chicken soup. It’s the tightness in your chest when you’ve been caught talking during Shabbat services or passing notes at Hebrew school. But the whole megillah — the full spectrum — of Jewish guilt? That, I learned, arrives with the birth of your first baby.

Generally speaking, the expectations of a Jewish grandparent are to be involved with their grandchildren — like really, really involved. Create your baby registry without involving your mother? Better think again. Baby’s first taste of solid food? Make sure everyone is aware and invited, or at least that it’s captured on video for all to see.

When I had my baby, all four of my daughter’s grandparents came to the hospital to meet her. They came immediately and with gusto, mere hours after I had delivered. To say I was in an altered state after my 26-hour labor would be an understatement. My body — having literally been ripped open by the birth of a new being — was exhausted and in pain. I felt I was bleeding from every orifice and I wanted nothing but to be naked and sleep all the time.

But, alas, my Jewish guilt came creeping in. I knew how much the grandparents wanted — no, expected — to meet their granddaughter at the hospital. And so, I worried. What would a good daughter do? What about a good daughter-in-law? After all, having a baby wasn’t about me, it was about the grandparents! Everyone knows that!

As it was, during my labor, my husband had to prevent my parents from coming up from their post in the hospital lobby to the labor and delivery floor, “just for a quick hug.” My forever protector, he overcame his Jewish guilt and served as the guard of my delivery room door.

In my current work as a hospital-based pediatrician and coach for new mothers, I am a huge advocate for creating a postpartum plan and for drawing (and enforcing) intentional boundaries. I encourage and help my patients and clients draw lines that feel right for them. After all, they are the parents and they get to make the rules.

This past pandemic year this concept of boundaries has been particularly important. Parents ask me if it’s safe for their parents to meet the baby. I explain the limited data we have on Covid-19 in infants, and I review the latest guidelines with them. Ultimately, I tell them they get to do — and need to do — what they are comfortable with. What is their own, personal risk tolerance? What do they feel is right for their family?

More than once, patients have told me they actually don’t want any visitors quite yet– pandemic or otherwise. They ask if they can blame their no-visitor policy on me, the pediatrician. I smile and nod, knowing all too well how they feel. I always reply that yes, of course they can blame me all they want.

So why was this advice so difficult to apply to my own postpartum situation? The truth is, until I experienced it myself, I didn’t know what it felt like to be postpartum (even if someone tried really hard to tell me). The innocence and bliss of my first pregnancy was like a cloak shielding me from what lay ahead. After a day-plus of labor, two failed epidurals, and one vaginal tear, my body felt like it had been hit by a truck. Add to that months of breastfeeding challenges, a baby who wasn’t gaining weight and wouldn’t sleep, plus my own emotional lability, it was an exceptionally challenging few months.

What I didn’t know at the time was this: being postpartum is an endless permission slip to change your mind about anything at any moment. Yes, before giving birth I agreed to have all grandparents meet my baby at the hospital, and I truly believed I wanted that. But after giving birth I no longer felt that way — and I didn’t say so. Why couldn’t I draw boundaries, enforce them, and trust myself to know what was best for me and my family?

As the daughter of a psychoanalyst, I know the answer to this is nuanced and complex. But for the sake of this piece (and your time), I want to focus on one thing. Yup, you guessed it: guilt.

I felt guilty about not wanting others to share immediately in my experience as a first-time mom. I knew how much joy this new baby would bring to the family, and I didn’t want to be seen as the person taking that away. I wanted to make up for the actions of others in the family who had not been as receptive to the involvement of grandparents. I didn’t want to disappoint people, or say “no,” because culture has taught me again and again that this is an unacceptable word (especially for women, and especially for mothers).

My daughter is 2 years old now and, fortunately, I have gotten much better at drawing boundaries. (As my mother would tell you, I’ve gotten too good.) Grandparents want to join in on family vacation? Sorry, this one is just for us. Grandma wants to participate in bathtime and books before bed tonight? Sorry, it’s not a great night for that.

As I have grown up and evolved, so has my Judaism — and so has my relation to Jewish guilt. I now know the difference between the Jewish guilt that makes me want to donate my money or volunteer my time — in other words, acknowledging my social responsibility — and the kind that stems from that trademarked, heart-wrenching glare that only Jewish mothers can give. Amongst the massive and numerous transitions that occur when you have a baby, particularly your first, is the change in your relationship with your own parents. You are still a daughter, yes, but you are also a mother. And amongst other things, that means learning to distinguish between the “healthy” guilt — the kind that propels you to act in benevolence — and the “unhealthy” guilt, which stems from the desire to please, to be “good,” and to not disappoint. As a parent, you have to protect your family — and yes, even draw boundaries, as uncomfortable as that may initially be.

Having a baby, as well as the months that follow, are sacred. It marks a transition that is amazing, wonderful, isolating, jolting, and extremely challenging. Taking the time and space to think about what you want that experience to feel like — and who you want to be surrounded by — is not selfish. It is the best gift you can give yourself, your baby, and your family.

Header image by Antonietta Marrocchella/Getty Images

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