Ear­li­er this week, Elisa Albert shared what she’s been read­ing (and watch­ing) late­ly. Her new book, After Birth, is now avail­able. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Judaism has very clear, wide­ly prac­ticed pro­scrip­tions for how to sup­port the bereaved, but strange­ly we don’t talk much about how we sup­port women who are about to or have recent­ly giv­en birth. Which seems remiss, giv­en that birth and death are so clear­ly on the same con­tin­u­um, sacred por­tals at oppo­site ends of life. If how we process and hon­or death mat­ters, then how we deal with birth must mat­ter in direct pro­por­tion. Prob­a­bly the Rab­bis weren’t so con­cerned with how women get through the child­bear­ing year because hey, the women had it under con­trol. But giv­en the dire state of child­birth and ear­ly moth­er­hood in the here and now, per­haps it’s time we brought these issues into the light, so as to bet­ter address them. Here are a few sim­ple ways to be decent to peo­ple who are work­ing very hard to bring forth and nur­ture new life.

1. Don’t spread neg­a­tive thoughts and feel­ings about birth.

It’s a night­mare just get the drugs do what­ev­er they say don’t even try you’re so tiny that baby looks huge are you hav­ing twins I almost died it’s the worst pain ever you can’t even imag­ine I would have died if not for ETC. If we or our sis­ter or moth­er or friend had a ter­ri­ble expe­ri­ence giv­ing birth, that’s a real shame, and we should have plen­ty of space to process that expe­ri­ence. But please under­stand that ter­ri­ble birth expe­ri­ences are not inevitable. Birth is nor­mal and healthy and when prop­er­ly sup­port­ed tends to go beau­ti­ful­ly, so scar­ing or threat­en­ing preg­nant women into sub­mis­sion to all-too-typ­i­cal ter­rors and inter­ven­tions is noth­ing but a cru­el and care­less way of avoid­ing our own regret, con­fu­sion, igno­rance, pain and/​or guilt. KNOCK IT OFF. She’s about to do some­thing hero­ic and amaz­ing and must sum­mon every iota of her courage and sta­mi­na and focus. Unless there is some­thing abnor­mal about her preg­nan­cy, there is no rea­son she won’t be absolute­ly fine with good care. Would we hold up a You Can’t Do This And You’re Crazy for Try­ing” sign at a marathon? We would not. So let’s be absolute­ly sure we keep our per­vert­ed birth mytholo­gies to our­selves (and maybe even strive to edu­cate our­selves about where those mytholo­gies come from).

2. Bring Food

When in doubt, bring food. This might be obvi­ous when we’re very, very close to the peo­ple in ques­tion, but is some­times less so when we’re more gen­er­al friends or acquain­tances. Too often we fall into the easy trap of think­ing oh, I should leave them alone, I’m sure they don’t want to hear from lit­tle old me.” Wrong. Try orga­niz­ing or par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Meal Train (check out the handy-dandy web­site, which allows you to coor­di­nate with any num­ber of friends, rel­a­tives, neigh­bors, co-work­ers). Buoy a new moth­er with all the lasagna she could ever con­sume. While we’re at her place, why not do the dish­es and tidy up and make some tea? Offer to hold the baby while she goes to the bath­room, takes a show­er, takes a nap. Take a good look around. What needs doing? Do it. Fun fact: in many parts of the world, women tra­di­tion­al­ly do not get out of bed for the first thir­ty days post­par­tum. They nes­tle in with their babies and are attend­ed to, fed, and kept com­pa­ny by grand­moth­ers, sis­ters, friends and rel­a­tives. Inter­est­ing­ly, there is very low inci­dence of post­par­tum depres­sion where this cus­tom is wide­ly prac­ticed. Per­haps we should rename it aban­doned at her most vul­ner­a­ble ” depression. 

3. Don’t Write Her Off

It’s easy, espe­cial­ly if we’re not in the exact same phase of life, to let friend­ships fall through the cracks at times like these. Maybe we have old­er kids and have mer­ci­ful­ly for­got­ten much of what it’s like to have a new baby. Maybe we don’t have kids and the whole idea of new babies makes us a lit­tle uncom­fort­able, or a lot. Maybe we’re defen­sive because she doesn’t want to go to brunch and hear about our recent J‑Dates just now. (Is J‑Date still a thing?) Maybe we’re hop­ing to have a baby of our own and the thought of hers fills us with ugly thoughts. Maybe we philo­soph­i­cal­ly dis­agree about the par­tic­u­lars of preg­nan­cy or birth. News­flash: none of that mat­ters. If we tru­ly love her and are decent friends, our ego is beside the point. Let’s go back to #2, while firm­ly remind­ing our­selves that this is not about us. Like” every sin­gle social media post about the baby. Let her know she’s in our thoughts. When she feels up to it, accom­pa­ny her on walks and short out­ings of her design. Love the baby. Coo at the baby. Exclaim over the baby. The beloved friend we used to know will return, if slow­ly, over some months or years. Give her time, and cel­e­brate the new world order with her. Real friends don’t expect each oth­er to stay exact­ly the same forever. 

4. Be Okay About Her Body

If breast­feed­ing makes us uncom­fort­able, in the­o­ry or in prac­tice, we should seek ther­a­py. More imme­di­ate­ly, we are called upon to pre­tend that it does not. Mak­ing a vul­ner­a­ble woman who is strug­gling to mas­ter the art of feed­ing her child in a bio­log­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate man­ner feel weird or unwel­come or gross or like a polit­i­cal or sex­u­al spec­ta­cle is the oppo­site of a mitz­vah. Is there a way we can help her get more com­fort­able? It’s a safe bet to bring her a glass of water. Be kind. Read her sig­nals. Intu­it what she needs. She is nurs­ing a baby: this is impor­tant work. We shouldn’t make our hang-ups or pro­jec­tions or igno­rance about breasts her prob­lem. We should not make our­selves her prob­lem. She has enough to deal with. If we sug­gest she go nurse her baby in the bath­room we are offi­cial­ly not decent human beings, the end. 

5. Lis­ten

This is usu­al­ly con­cur­rent with #2 (all roads lead back to BRING FOOD). But here is where we are called upon to be even more open, more gen­tle, and even more ground­ed than per­haps we are used to being in every­day life. And here is where our cus­toms around death are per­haps most apt. What do we do at a shi­va? We give the bereaved space to talk, laugh, cry, joke, rem­i­nisce, or be silent. We hold them in a safe space, a tran­si­tion­al space, in which we ask noth­ing of them. We cre­ate and hold that space, and we do not budge for a set peri­od of time. We cov­er the mir­rors, because it does not mat­ter what we look like right now. We don’t tell them how to grieve. We don’t try to set the tone or impose our thoughts or feel­ings. We sim­ply make space for what­ev­er feel­ings, what­ev­er process, what­ev­er idio­syn­crat­ic mess of emo­tion char­ac­ter­izes this par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion. A new baby is a great sim­cha, to be sure. A new baby is also a great upheaval. Every­thing is raw and dif­fer­ent and new, and it’s hard­ly an exag­ger­a­tion to sug­gest that these first few days and weeks after birth will like­ly inform a lot of what’s to come. Let’s be sure to hon­or this time with the great­est rev­er­ence and utmost sen­si­tiv­i­ty. A rev­o­lu­tion of hap­py, healthy, well loved and well cared for moth­ers can change the world. 

Elisa Albert is the author of the nov­els After Birth and The Book of Dahlia, the short sto­ry col­lec­tion How This Night is Dif­fer­ent, and edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Freud’s Blind Spot. She is a 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fel­low and will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Relat­ed Content:

Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth (Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 2015), The Book of Dahlia (2008), How This Night is Dif­fer­ent (2006), and the edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Freud’s Blind Spot (2010). Her fic­tion and non­fic­tion have appeared in Tin House, Post Road, Gulf Coast, Com­men­tary, Salon,Tablet, Los Ange­les Review of Books, The Believ­er, The Rum­pus, Time Mag­a­zine, on NPR, and in many anthologies.

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