Someone I love just told me she is expecting a baby. Once we got past my squealing, babbling excitement, she asked if I had any advice. I’ve been raising kids for eight years; I should have some advice.
The advice dawned on me a few hours later. Be ready for a bris.
My husband and I had thought we were carefully getting ready for our first child, scouring reviews for the safest car seat, in possession of spreadsheets of the gear we’d need, an application in for the next available larger apartment in our New York City housing complex. We wanted just one surprise, we said; we didn’t want to know whether we’d have a boy or a girl.
When my water broke three weeks early, a full week before the shower my friends had planned, we were astonished. My friends’ babies had been weeks late; I’d assumed we’d be just like them. We had a car seat in an unopened carton in the corner of our one-bedroom apartment and a box of diapers that I’d bought at the drugstore, feeling like a fraud, like I didn’t really need them yet. No stroller, no crib, a single hand-me-down onesie.
Our family gathered while I was in labor, scrambling with us to get what we thought we needed. I delivered our healthy son 36 hours later, and in that time, our family had worked hard to get the crib we ordered, a stroller, baby clothes, and a fridge stocked with meatloaf. Wrung out, I tried to nurse our son to little success, and a series of lactation consultants hovered around us, trying to diagnose our problem.
But still, we had to plan a bris. We weren’t yet members of a synagogue, didn’t know a mohel. Our tradition asks us come out in public, to plan a party, eight days after you’ve been torn open, eight days after your son sees his first light. Yes, I was on board, Abraham and Isaac and the mystery of what God asks of us. But suddenly we were planning a mini-wedding in the midst of tumult.
The lactation consultants figured out why our son couldn’t eat, couldn’t gain weight. A tongue-tie: his frenulum, the tissue that connects his tongue to the bottom of his mouth, too short. He’d need to be snipped so his tongue would let him latch. We made the first available appointment with the ENT who would perform his little surgery, shortly after the bris.
In the meantime, we went home with a rigorous feeding routine: every two hours round the clock, pump before every feeding, put cabbage leaves on your breasts to reduce engorgement, make a compress of black tea bags. I was constantly nursing or getting ready to nurse, trying to nourish my son.
When my husband wasn’t helping me try to get the baby in the right position to nurse, trying all the lactation consultants’ tricks, learning to use every breast pump accessory ever invented, he was calling synagogues, mohels, caterers.
Where to have it? Our tiny Upper East Side apartment was overrun with new baby stuff; there was barely room to walk. So no bris at the house. Synagogues wanted a small fortune for the privilege of hosting the bris. My husband went to his boss, who was the member of a faculty club in our neighborhood. Yes, he would sponsor us, and we could have it there. My husband found a kosher caterer and ordered far too much lox.
On the days leading up to the bris, we couldn’t manage to leave the house until it was nearly dark, which seems mystifying now. How did caring for one tiny baby consume the whole day? We walked our neighborhood at dusk, proud that we’d managed to get out. My son’s first trip to a store was to my neighborhood Sephora, to try to get some makeup before the bris to cover up the ghoulish dark circles under my eyes. The clerk seemed confused by us, my tiny son in his stroller and my needing to prepare for a party.
“In my tradition new mothers stay home for a month,” she said. I nodded politely.
We walked into the club at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, feeling unready. But the food was there; the guests were coming. One of my husband’s colleagues hovered around as the mohel got ready, wanting to get uncomfortably close to what was about to be cut. “Get him out of here,” I hissed to my husband. He steered him away.
I hung back as our mothers carried our son in on a pillow. My aunt put her hand on my back as the mohel started, a kindness I’ll always remember, and I lost the ability to stand. I had given up my baby to a stranger. It was going to hurt. I fell into a chair, overcome. In photos from the bris, you mostly see our friends and relatives grimacing, arms crossed, looking away.
After it was done, without incident, I whisked him out to nurse. We were getting better at the nursing by then. A few days later our son had his first trip on the New York City subway, to his frenelectomy. My husband and I carried the stroller clumsily down the stairs to the subway, unaware that our six-pound son would slide precipitously around in the bassinet. No one was injured. We made mistakes; we learned, tried to make different ones next time.
“Are there any risks to the procedure?” I asked the doctor.
“You put him on a table next to some lox and cut off his foreskin, didn’t you? It’s the same idea.”
Somehow this made us laugh, relax into our decisions as parents. Yes, snip. There are always decisions to be made. Sometimes it hurts. You’ll be the parents now. You accept the risk. Afterwards, you will comfort him and snuggle and hope you made the right decision, and that’s the whole job of raising children, for a while anyway.
So yes, be prepared for the bris. Put a mohel’s number in your phone; research caterers; have in mind a place to do the ceremony. Get ready for a love that will knock you down. Practice for the first time you say, “This is my son.” My son.
You know what? Never mind. No one is ever prepared, not really. You’re going through it, together, mistakes and all. And that’s the only way there is.