The year as spiritual practice
Reaching a different readership

The view from week 35

Pregnancy, 36 weeks. (I'm not quite there, but I'm close.)

I haven't written much at Velveteen Rabbi about being pregnant, aside from that initial announcement post this summer and a handful of offhand mentions this fall. Those of you who don't know me in person (which is most of you!) could be forgiven for imagining that perhaps the pregnancy hasn't loomed large in my consciousness. Maybe the reason I'm not writing about it is that it's just not a big deal?

That's an erroneous assumption, of course. If anything, pregnancy is such a big deal that I find it hard to write about, at least in prose. I've written half a dozen poems on the subject since I found out I was pregnant last Pesach, but they aren't ready for public consumption. Unlike the Torah poems I often share here, these poems don't feel ready for prime time. There's something intimate about them, about the whole experience. Which is funny, because it's also a very public experience; no one who sees me now can doubt that they know (at least some of) what's going on in my life.

I write here about Judaism, about God, about spiritual life -- a range of subjects which could easily encompass meditations on pregnancy and impending motherhood, if only I could find the way in. Part of the challenge is that the subject is at once so big and so small; it's an enormous life-change and a perennial miracle, and yet it's a perfectly ordinary thing that humanity has done since time immemorial. There's a balancing act here. This is incredibly important, and it's also incredibly mundane. Though I guess the same could be said of daily spiritual practice, too.

That tension -- between how great this is, and how small -- is always on my mind. Like the parable about the Hasidic rabbi who carried two slips of paper in his pockets, one reading "I am dust" and the other reading "for my sake was the world created."

Sometimes I wonder how we'll balance this new chapter of our lives with what came before. I've long held that raising a human being is some of the most valuable work there is...and yet our immersion in this new endeavor doesn't cancel out the dreams and hope and professional growth which have marked the last decade of our lives. The baby's incredible importance to us doesn't change the importance of rabbinic school and poetry and ministry (for me), the wide world and interconnection and cosmopolitanism (for Ethan). We're just going to have to find new balance. But isn't that always the way? Life never holds still.

Being pregnant has been endlessly fascinating. Already it's has shifted my spiritual practices. My weekday prayer practice has morphed: I'm less likely to get out of bed and daven a full shacharit these days, but much more likely to make brachot at random moments of the day. I say a blessing every morning when I give myself an injection of blood thinner, and when I feel my son moving inside me. I wonder what bracha I'll make over breastfeeding, and whether I'll be able to sustain gratitude when I'm changing his diaper at 2am.

I talk with him constantly when I'm alone in the car -- I tell him about my day, about how I'm feeling, about the world we're bringing him into. In that sense, being pregnant feels a bit like I'm praying all the time, because the other figure I talk to when I'm alone in the car is God. Lately I find that I shift back and forth between words intended for the baby and words intended for the Holy Blessed One without making much distinction between the two.

Being pregnant has shifted my relationship with the liturgy. I've known intellectually for years that we call God ha-rachaman, The Merciful, but I hadn't considered what it means that the root of that word for merciful is the root of rechem, womb. I get distracted while davening prayers I've known by heart for years: one mention of God's mercy and I'm liable to be caught in contemplation of what it means that God is the womb in which creation is nurtured. It takes conscious effort to set aside those meditations and move on with the service sometimes.

Being pregnant has shifted my relationship with time. As our due date approaches, I have periods when I find it increasingly difficult to live fully in the present. When I'm busy, then I'm in the moment...but when my activity level slows down it's easy to get caught up in anticipating the future. Contractions, labor, delivery. Our newborn. The arrival of this person we don't, can't, know. There's so much to imagine. Time and again I pull myself back to the present moment: this breath, this heartbeat, right now. The future will get here when it gets here. But that isn't always easy.

There's something strange about knowing that the life which has become so familiar to us is about to change. Our relationship will change. The way we juggle priorities and obligations will change. My full-time immersion in rabbinic school will change. My sleep schedule will change. My body will change. My ability to focus on texts and translations will change. My relationship with God will change.

But how? What will it feel like when we get there? We can't know. What blessings lie in store for us which we can't begin to imagine? How much will I miss these lazy days of being able to sleep in, or go to a restaurant whenever we feel like it -- the feeling of being responsible for and to ourselves and no one else? My sister tells me she can't remember at all what that feels like; she's forgotten. As I imagine we'll forget, too, in time. The old life falls away to make room for the new. We know it's coming, but not exactly when or how. Sometimes there's anxiety there. Other times it doesn't seem so scary. We oscillate.

Being pregnant has been a great reminder that even as my body has sometimes betrayed me, it is also capable of miracles I can hardly begin to comprehend. When I go in now for my weekly "non-stress" tests and hear the swish-swish-swish of our son's fast heartbeat it blows my mind. With no volition on my part, no understanding of the processes at work, my body is growing a human being from the ground up.

Being pregnant is a great experience of common ground with other women. I see pregnant women everywhere; we catch one another's eyes and smile knowingly. I see people with babies and children everywhere, and every time I think: is that what ours is going to be like? In a sense, this is the most basic thing we can do: we procreate, we gestate, we labor and birth, we rear. And in another sense, it's the most astonishing. To think that every one of us grew inside of someone, as my son is growing inside of me now! It's almost inconceivable.

Through a four worlds lens, I can see that while pregnancy is most obviously an embodied experience, it's also always happening on the other levels, too. It's an emotional experience (and not just because my body is steeped in hormones!) It's an intellectual experience, as I read books and seek out birth stories and learn as much as I can about what's arising. And it's a spiritual experience, a chance to connect with the infinite. It's been a wild ride, one I'm tremendously grateful to be on. And I know that the journey that's coming is going to be even wilder, more surprising and more strange.