Another mother poem: Besieged
Velveteen Rabbi on the Woodrat Podcast

The nursing mother tallit

My new "nursing mother tallit."

The first two months of motherhood have been pretty overwhelming. Learning how to care for a newborn, learning how to nurse (which is harder than it appears, and we had some difficulties there for a while), learning how to put an infant's needs at the center of my life: all of these have been adjustments. But by far the biggest challenge, and the most lasting one, has been the sleep deprivation. As careful readers of my mother poems may have gathered, over these weeks Drew has been waking often in the night to nurse, and until this week it always took a long while to rock him back to sleep afterward, by which point it would be almost time for him to wake again and demand again to be fed.

Living without sustained sleep has had a major impact on my spiritual life. As a result of the sleep deprivation (and some depression, related but also relevant on its own), I spent much of my first two months of motherhood largely unable to pray, except when I would lie down after putting Drew back in his crib and would silently beg God for at least an hour to recharge. Needless to say, this is not the maternal prayer life I had imagined.

Very recently I've begun to emerge from those depths, in part because he is finally beginning to give us longer blocks of sleep. Some mornings after the dawn feeding, as I rock Drew I silently pray parts of the morning service. I know the matbe'ah tefilah (structure of the service) by heart, so I can walk myself through its various steps, silently davening a pearl from each prayer even if I can't call the whole liturgical text to mind. I used to have the luxury of taking as much time as I wanted for morning prayer: with or without one of my many siddurim, I could sit solitary by the window or (in season) daven on the deck for luscious long periods of time. Not anymore. I can't count on having a sustained period of time to daven when I won't need to swoop in and pick up the fussy baby from his crib or bouncy seat, or nurse him again, or burp him, or dance him around the room.

On a spiritual level, this means I need to integrate davenen into ordinary life -- to approach regular tasks like baby-soothing and diaper-changing with prayerful consciousness. If I'm in the middle of praying and the baby demands my attention, I need to be able to shift focus to the baby and to understand the ensuing physical acts as part of my prayer. Prayer and ordinary life need to interpenetrate.

On a practical level, this means that anything I wear during davenen has to be able to withstand the possibility of effluvia. I've been missing the experience of davening enfolded in a tallit. But I don't wear anything anymore that isn't machine-washable: anything on my body is likely to wind up spotted with spit-up, and I'm not willing to risk my precious silk or fine wool tallitot in these ways. What to do?

My solution: create a machine-washable tallit, designed for the exigencies of nursing motherhood. It's simplicity incarnate: a length of machine-washable fabric, with detachable tzitzit. For the fabric I chose a beautiful scarf which was already in my closet, and I sought input from my ALEPH chevre on the best way to handle the tzitzit. Reb Zalman, and many of my friends, suggested tying tzitzit which aren't affixed to the corners of the cloth, and then attaching each one with a slipknot which can be undone for washing. But I've learned that these days, I'm looking for economy of action in every way: if something takes two steps instead of one, I may not manage to do it. So I opted instead for tzitzit on clips, which can be unclipped for washing and then easily reclipped once the tallit is clean and dry again. I thought I'd share the idea, in case there are other liberal Jewish nursing mothers out there who have been looking for ways to integrate tallit-wearing davenen into their nursing lives!

Rabbinic pastor Pinchas Zohav and his wife make clip-on tzitzit. He notes that they could be made using clip-on earrings instead of formal tallit clips, or instead of the plastic clips you can see in the photo above -- my nursing tallit features clip-on tzitzit made for me by Rabbi Jan Salzman. Reb Pinchas suggests adapting earrings which belonged to one's foremothers, to add a feminine ancestry connection to this holy garment. (He adds that he and his wife would be happy to make the clip-on tzitzit for you in this way, using earrings you provide for the purpose. If you're interested in purchasing a set, you can reach him at p.zohav at verizon dot net. Of course, you can also decide to tie your own tzitzit -- here are some YouTube instructions...)

Even on mornings when I'm not able to muster the focus to properly daven, I'm hoping that wrapping myself in this tallit as I care for my son will help me to feel connected with the tradition and with God again. And I can't wait to take my new tallit to shul! Someday I'll wear my mottled silk and woven rainbow wool tallitot again, but for now, this is exactly the tallit I need.

On a related note: those interested in questions of nursing and prayer might find food for thought in this Conservative teshuvah on breastfeeding in synagogue, by R' Bradley Artson Shavit. I am not a Conservative Jew, but I found his response intriguing.