Brit Milah: A Parent's Q-and-A
October 18, 2010
Last winter I learned that being the rabbi at a babynaming and being the mom at a babynaming are two very different experiences. Drew's brit milah was challenging for me in part because I thought I knew what to expect, but it turns out I didn't. Since then I've spoken with other new moms who likewise had questions they wish they'd known to ask. Hence this post. If you've been in these shoes and there are other questions you wish you'd asked (or questions you did ask, with answers which were helpful to you), please feel free to ad them in the comments to this post.
Brit Milah: A Parent's Q-and-A
1. How am I going to feel on the day of my son's brit milah?
Okay, I can't actually answer that -- no one can -- but please know that a wide range of emotional response is normal. Elation, fear, anxiety, joy, sadness, something else entirely -- whatever it is, notice it and experience it and let it be what it is. Don't try to hold yourself to whatever you think you're "supposed" to be feeling. Whatever you're feeling is what you're supposed to be feeling.
Don't be surprised if your emotions are running really high. Bear in mind that you have an eight-day-old child; whether or not you're the parent who just labored to bring this baby into the world, you've probably been sleeping in increments of an hour at a time all week long. If you just gave birth, you're also dealing with postpartum hormones, which can be powerful. Be gentle with yourself.
2. How am I supposed to deal with throwing a party when I have a newborn?
Make someone else deal with the arrangements. Seriously: your job is to take care of the baby and to take care of yourself. Let other people deal with everything else: food, napkins, flowers, whatever other logistics are involved. The odds are good that you're exhausted, and you may also be overwhelmed. Make sure you're eating plenty and drinking plenty (especially if you're nursing.) And try to take it as easy as you can. It's not your job to be a host/hostess at this moment in time.
3. Is my son going to cry? How am I going to deal with that?
Talk with your mohel so you know how the ceremony is going to go; having a mental roadmap for the ceremony may help alleviate some of your anxiety. Our biggest concern going in was the baby's level of discomfort, so we were relieved when our mohel recommended the use of a topical anaesthetic beforehand. If you've ever attended a bris, you probably remember that the baby cried out once briefly and was then quiet. That was our experience too, but I didn't realize that there was going to be another hard part for me -- after the ceremony was over, when we did the first diaper change -- so be prepared for that possibility too.
4. What do I need to have on-hand?
Talk to your mohel about this too. The three things we needed were 3" x 3" gauze pads, bacitracin (or neosporin), and infant Tylenol. (We had the Tylenol, but not the other two things, and we didn't realize that our mohel wasn't going to bring them; we had to send one of our guests out in a snowstorm to buy them for us. Don't make that mistake!)
A pediatrician in my family, who does circumcisions frequently, gave us the following aftercare advice: every time you change his diaper for the first few days, you'll want to fold a gauze pad into a long rectangle, smear it with antibiotic ointment, and tuck it gently around his penis to protect it so that it doesn't make contact with the diaper. If you want to know more about aftercare, the latter pages of this pdf document (authored by mohel David Bolnick) are quite comprehensive, and they include photographs so you can prepare yourself for the visuals.
The Tylenol may or may not be necessary, but it's better to have it and not need it than the other way around. We wound up giving our son Tylenol that first night, and I think it helped. If nothing else, it allowed us to feel like we were doing something to help him, and that helped us.
5. I'm anxious about that moment of circumcision. What can I do to make that easier for myself and/or others?
For me, the biggest help was standing in my husband's arms, being able to physically lean on him and feeling his hands on my shoulders at the moment of the circumcision itself.
Since my own son's bris, I've learned about a custom of inviting everyone present to close their eyes during the circumcision and silently offer their personal prayers for the child. Some people also choose to sing during the circumcision -- a frequent choice is "Eliahu Hanavi," since Elijah is considered to be present at every circumcision. I found the atmosphere in the room to be pretty tense at that moment, and I think that if we'd closed our eyes in song and prayer, that would have made things easier for us.
6. Sometimes I have complicated feelings about doing this, but I don't feel that I can say that to (our mohel) (the rabbi) (other family members)...
You're not alone in having complicated feelings about this mitzvah. You may be able to talk about this with your rabbi, and I hope that your rabbi will listen to you with an open heart. If you don't feel safe expressing your feelings to your rabbi, I hope there's someone else in your life with whom you can talk about these issues. The main thing I want to say is that this mitzvah is a big deal, and it can be challenging in physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual ways. I hope you can find someone who will listen without judgement and who will help you work through whatever you're feeling.
7. This is looming so large that it's kind of freaking me out! Help?
Okay, I just said it was a big deal -- and it is -- but it's also just one day in your son's life / in your life as a parent. This is an early step on your child's Jewish journey (and on your journey into Jewish parenting), but there will be many more steps, most of them less fraught and requiring less preparation. Ultimately -- kind of like childbirth -- this is not an end but rather a beginning. The best advice I can offer is, try to prepare yourself; experience the moment while it's happening; and then move on to the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Mazal tov to you on the coming birth of your son. I hope he brings you endless joy.