On Rosh Hashanah, 2017, my husband and I sat alone by the water at Rock Creek Park near our home in Silver Spring, Maryland, tossing scraps of bread in a private tashlich, trying to cast off not just the sins of the past year, but the pain as well. I was recovering from a D&C two days earlier, a procedure to remove our non-surviving first baby. I still had the queasiness of early pregnancy. A “missed miscarriage,” they call it. The fetus is no longer viable, but my body hadn’t recognized it yet. Neither had my mind.
Almost a year later, Rosh Hashanah, 2018, I was recovering once again — this time in the hospital, after the birth of our daughter, Matilda Beatrix. It was a hard, long delivery, a C-section after two days (51 hours, to be exact) of induced labor. She was born looking up, strong, healthy … and silent. Panicked, we asked the doctors what was happening. “She’s fine,” they said. “She’s pink and her eyes are open. She’s just looking around.”
Matilda is 2 now. She loves ballet and constantly wants to twirl around the living room with a tutu over her diaper. She likes to dip her vegetables in cracked black pepper, which she wants ground on to the tray of her high chair. She recites passages from her books, with hilarious inflection, and is amassing a decent French vocabulary, thanks to my Francophile husband and YouTube clips of Peppa Pig. She asks for help climbing on to our bed, and when we tell her, “You can do it,” she says, “Strong girl,” and grasps the sheets to pull herself up.
While the High Holy Days never held too much personal significance for me growing up — beyond the enjoyment of family togetherness — the passage from pain to joy, bookended by Rosh Hashanah on both ends, has made the Jewish New Year a very reflective time for me: What have I learned? What have I given? What have I taught my daughter? What mistakes have I made? What do I hope for the year ahead?
Of course, the Jewish holidays will be dramatically different this year due to Covid-19. We’ll celebrate just the three of us, rather than with family. We’ll attend services virtually, and then we’ll go back to the same water where we sat after our loss — my husband and I will wear masks — and once again conduct our private tashlich. My daughter can cast away her sins of relentlessly pulling books off the shelves and her newfound toddler-appropriate propensity for whining “into the depths of the sea,” as the liturgy goes. (OK — it’s a creek, but same difference. I think.) Most likely, she’ll just want to eat the bread. Hopefully, this will be the last time we’ll have to commemorate the New Year with masks and social distancing and isolation. Hopefully, to borrow from another holiday, next year with a vaccine. Baruch HaShem.
At the same time, I know I’ll think about that first baby — the one we called Blueberry, because the pregnancy app said the fetus was the size of a blueberry. There’s a permanent tiny strangeness in life after miscarriage. When people ask if Matilda is my first child, I say yes, but there’s a little asterisk next to the answer in my head.
Reason dictates that if my first pregnancy had gone to term, I wouldn’t have the child I have now. But sometimes I wonder… maybe it’s the same baby, in a different body, at a different time. Maybe she just wasn’t quite ready yet. Most of the time, this thought feels ludicrous, embarrassing to put into words. And yet, other times, I find it comforting: She is mine, she was meant to be mine, and that’s true whether she came to me in April or September or during any other month.
But the fact remains that my Matilda was born on Erev Rosh Hashanah, 28 Elul 5778, or September 8, 2018. “New year, new adventure, new life, new love,” I wrote on the Facebook post introducing her — the first time many people in our lives learned that we had been expecting. The start of each new year is marked by the beginning of her life, and also by the end of that seed of life that was just beginning. I think about a line in my husband’s favorite poem, “Le Pont Mirabeau,” by Guillaume Apollinaire: “La joie venait toujours après la peine.” Joy always comes after pain.
And though our grief about losing the first pregnancy never entirely disappears, our focus now is on the family we’ve created. The pain of the loss and the joy of Matilda’s birth both occurring so close to Rosh Hashanah have made it a more sacred time of reflection, especially in the midst of the madness that is pandemic life.
One recurring theme I keep coming across during life in the time of coronavirus — from people of varying faiths — is the idea of grace. Grace toward others, yes, but just as important, if not more so, is grace toward yourself.
That’s not an easy task for me. I struggle with self-compassion under normal circumstances, let alone during these “cuckoo-bananas-crazypants time,” to quote Kristen Bell in her “Momsplaining” web series. My family is safe and healthy, we have a relatively comfortable home, my daughter is still young enough that she is not really feeling the effects of Covid life — I’ve been a full-time work-at-home mother since she was born, so she isn’t missing school or friends. There is much to be grateful for, and I am.
But my feelings of frustration and anxiety often overwhelm the gratitude. I know if I can give myself grace, I will be better for my daughter. I’ll have more patience when she’s demanding, as toddlers are. I’ll spend more energy focusing on the fun we can have together at the local park rather than on the annoyance of the preparation to get there. The High Holy Days are a time for reflection and forgiveness. How many of us — and especially us mothers — need to be better at forgiving ourselves, or realizing there is nothing to forgive? How many of us need to be better at giving ourselves grace? We can always do better, but we are not failing. Maybe one day I’ll even believe that.
None of this has much to do with my miscarriage. Honestly, most of my daily life doesn’t have much to do with my miscarriage. Enough time has passed, enough good has happened, that I don’t dwell on the loss. Mostly it’s latent, like when the leg you broke a decade ago aches on a rainy day. But I sit with it more this time of year.
The days that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are collectively known as the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. My daughter fills me with awe, as does the privilege of watching my husband be a father. I feel awe when I think about where we were three years ago — by that creek, literally bleeding a loss — and where we are now, what we’ve gained. The High Holy Days are a time of contradictions — the joy of creation, accountability and repentance, forgiveness, feast and fasting, the beginning of a new year and the passage of the last one. For my little family, the fact that Rosh Hashanah has marked both the most painful and most joyous time in our lives makes the first Shehecheyanu of each year more meaningful.
L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem. May you be written and sealed for a good year.
Header Image by Malte Mueller/ Getty Images