May 12, 2013

I Became a Mother on Mother's Day

By Rabbi Laura Sheinkopf
I became a mother on a stormy Mother’s Day in the year 2000.  My labor may have been induced by an infection and accompanying fever.  And what a labor it was! The sun rose and set. Nurses came and went. By the time my son was born, I barely knew my name, let alone the day. But it was Mother’s Day, and everyone made quite a fuss about that. In my post-partum haze, I thought it was strange, if sweet, to focus on this seemingly superfluous detail. Nothing could have made me any happier or more relieved than I already was. In the hours just after my son was born, my thoughts centered on physical wellbeing, not the larger meaning of the moment.

Some events become “game changers” only when viewed from a distance. Others are clearly profound even as we experience them; we know that everything is about to change.  Those are the instances when we are more observant.  The world seems to slow down as you take notice.  Becoming a mother is this kind of life altering event and for mean things did slow down and I did notice and remember many details.  Becoming a parent reveals all sorts of universal truths.  I was blessed with some great details but it would have been momentous in any circumstance.  Parenting cracks open the human heart and reveals what really matters.  As a result this relationship and stories about it are part of every religion.  Somehow becoming a parent is universally defining and this is one reason why stories about mothers and birth find their way into the literature of every faith.  This profound relationship forces us to define what matters. 
For me, new life becoming a parent felt like a vote of confidence from the cosmos and I shamelessly mine every last detail of the experience because it helps me reiterate what matters.  I am a perpetual seeker of metaphor and meaning, so I shamelessly retell the really good stories, and the story of Max’s birth was saturated with metaphor.  I knew this new life would redefine me. I knew that a new life alters the universe in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. So I listened a littler harder for the song in this story. I assumed it was there, and it was.  My son weighed 6 pounds, 13 ounces and was 18 inches long.  There are 613 Commandments in the Torah, and the Hebrew letters that stand for the numbers 1 and 8 also spell the word “life.”
I thoroughly enjoyed sharing this information with my rabbinic colleagues. As it turned out, my son was a bit shorter the week after his birth. The poor guy was in the birth canal for a long time and his soft baby skull lengthened a bit during the delay. He was perfect to me, but I suppose he did have a bit of a cone head when they first measured him in the delivery room. A week later at the pediatrician’s office, he was, well, not exactly 18 inches. But he surely was six pounds and 13 ounces at birth, and there are 613 Commandments in the Torah, and the first of these is “Be fruitful and multiply.” This is a wonderful story!
I was even more moved, though, by the rain that fell the night my son was born, because water and rain symbolize redemption in Jewish texts. The desert climate of Jerusalem has a dry and a wet season. For people to eat and survive, rain must fall at the proper times. The rainy season in Israel usually starts in the fall, just after the Jewish high holidays. We spend the weeks prior confronting our failings, which is why the liturgy for the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement repeatedly plead with God to hear us and grant us forgiveness by “inscribing us in the book of life” for another year.  The rains should start to fall right after the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) which is why rain is a sign that we have been heard and forgiven.  Water ensures a good harvest and a good harvest ensures life and more life is another chance to get it right. 
Rain stands for redemption in Jewish Canonical writings.  It appears in Psalms over and over again as well as other writings and it does stem from our now faded connection to the land. As I lay in the hospital, uncertain, waiting to deliver my child, I was comforted to hear the rain outside. In all cases, birth is a vulnerable time for a Mother and its not uncommon to feel intense emotions that are not based on logic.  All I know is that it’s not uncommon to feel intense fear and then intense joy and in my altered state I had barely a rational thought in my head, so I was praying with the desperation of a pilgrim in search of water.
My son was delivered at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, not far from the seminary where I was studying to be a rabbi.  Hence, I knew full well that rain meant redemption and this made the pouring rain and the electrical storm that passed through the city that night comforting. 
We had been in that room for what seemed like an eternity (nearly two days).  When my doctor finally entered to announce that it was time to start pushing, he was decidedly annoyed by my slow progress. Later, I learned that my mother had been angry with him. At one point, I heard her whisper to my Dad that it was a “very poorly managed labor.” But I was focused on other things, like pain, and was not aware of the mounting tension. I snapped to attention, though, when my doctor sat down between my legs, placed one hand on my cervix and the other on my knee, looked at the nurse and remarked, “she’s not going to be able to do this without forceps.” I was terrified of forceps and wanted them to play no part in this delivery.
Unfortunately my doctor made this proclamation just as I caught site of a huge crucifix nestled in his chest hair.  This was particularly disorienting.  Religious symbols are pretty notable for a person who studies religion all day and for a person who is also delirious, this religious symbol was pretty disturbing.  Sensing my confusion my mother stepped in and pointing two fingers at her eyes and then at mine, she said with unquestionable authority, “You look at me!  You look at me. This baby is coming out right now. Do you understand? You look at me!”
I felt profoundly disoriented in the penultimate moments of that birth.  It was a physical challenge that demanded a kind of spiritual courage.  In retrospect it seems logical that my Mother would be the one who helped me become a mother.  I was pretty disoriented by then but through her I found my way. I find my way all the time now aided by what I have learned in loving and caring for my own children.
Those penultimate moments before my first child was born were harrowing because birth is a physical and an emotional challenge.  I remember the lightning that lit the sky, the rain that poured down over the city, and I felt more than relief, even more than gratitude.  I felt forgiven.

Rabbi Laura Sheinkopf is a Reform Rabbi with degrees in Comparative Religion and Jewish studies from Columbia University & Hebrew Union College.  She is a freelance writer, teacher, and a media strategist living in Houston, TX with her two children.  The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.

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