Abraham & The Shabbat Candles

This was a petty typical sight in our house for a while…

This was a petty typical sight in our house for a while…

This evening at dinner I was sitting at the table, eating dinner with Abraham. My thoughts turned to earlier that day, during his naptime, when I had finally started to write about my vicarious Holocaust trauma, a trauma I am only recognizing the force of now, but which began in adolescence (so many well meaning young adult novels, so many movies, so many vivid portrayals of horror) and has become more intrusive since 2016. (It seems that the global rise in nationalism will do that to a person – a recent Atlantic article reports how a survivor of the Bosnian genocide started having nightmares and insomnia again, explaining that Trump’s speeches sound just like Serbian speeches in the early ‘90s). Through God knows what dark pathways of thought, I suddenly vividly remembered the room at Yad Vashem full only of of photographs and candles, memorializing the 1 million Jewish children who were killed. Feeling the by-now familiar spiral of terrible images creep into my mind’s eye, I brought myself firmly back to the present, to my 17 month old boy happily playing with his water cup after finishing his meal of rice and lamb slow-cooked with apples and Brussels sprouts. (Thank you Yotam).

I wiped Abraham’s face and hands with a wet cloth, and put him on the floor to play while I cleared the table. Abraham turned immediately to our built-in cabinet in the dining room, stuck his chubby hand into the middle drawer and pulled out a dishtowel. Then he struggled to climb onto my dining room chair (an exciting and frightening new skill), succeeded, and carefully tried to put the towel on the table. At first I thought he wanted to wipe down the table, since he likes to help with all kinds of household tasks he sees us do. But then I saw him trying to get it to stay put, in one place, and I had a flash of understanding. Not quite daring to believe it yet, I spread out the towel on the table. Satisfied, he reached his arms to be picked up, then turned deliberately towards the higher shelves of the built-in. My guess was proving true, and I was stunned: When I opened the glass door, he reached straight for the silver Shabbat candles sticks, then reached to the table again (still in my arms) and placed each one carefully standing on the cloth. We returned to the built-in for his little silver Kiddush cup, which he stood up carefully next to the candlesticks.

It is not unusual for Abraham to want me to sing the candle lighting blessing (he signals this by clapping and then covering his face with his hands, and will ask for it whenever he sees a candle or picture of a candle), but this was the first time he clearly had the idea to set the Shabbat table, and took all the steps to make sure it happened.

Finished with his work, he sat on my lap while I sang the candle blessing quietly. “Baruch atah Adoshem, Elokeinu…” While I sang, Abraham covered his eyes too, and we peeked at each other smiling through our fingers. There were no candles in the candlesticks, this being a Thursday evening. But the light shone in the room as brightly as a million candles. I felt him telling me, in as many ways as his 17 month old self could: “Mama, I am here. Mama, the light never went out – see, it’s in me! Mama, God is with us no matter what has happened or happens.” Hugging his warm healthy body, I cried in sorrow for all the lost children of the world, and in gratitude for the thriving ones. I cried in wonder at my son’s Jewish soul and his intuition, and I cried in awe of the strength of the invisible strings that connect us all.

Through the Woods

A short journal interlude

Yesterday was Yotam’s and my third wedding anniversary. It has been about a week since I’ve felt continual relief from the depression. Knowing I will have time off again with Abraham, and will be going back to work part time makes a big difference.

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My love for Abraham has transformed me at the deepest level. I can tell in a way I never have before that I am worthy of love and belonging even if I never accomplish anything, because I can see that Abraham is worthy of love and belonging just by being born. So the same must be true of me – and of everyone. I feel the cuteness and the suffering of children in a whole new way now, though. That is the painful side of the new awareness.

He sits up like a pro now. Right now he’s just hanging out next to me, on a blanket mouthing on toys and throwing them down when he’s done with them, looking for what’s next, reaching for my computer. It’s clearly the best toy in the room.

Abraham slept eight hours at a stretch last night. It feels like we are out of some dark European woods of Grim Fairy Tales, and have found a cozy cabin with fire and soup. My heart practically breaks with love when I see him sleeping.

 

In Transition Again

In some ways it’s been an amazing month. I can’t believe how bright and vibrant this baby is. His smiles could power a city for a week if we hooked them up to a generator.

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But in other ways, things are not so great. For starters, if I ever have a baby again, I will have a longer leave. I am only starting to feel little tastes of normalcy now, and Abraham is almost five months. What a crazy society to expect us to go back to work so soon (and to think many women don’t get any paid leave!). All blessings to any woman who wants to go back to work, but I really think the rest of us should have some more time. For instance, five months later I still can’t breathe normally, what with not being able feel my lower abdomen. (They say it can take two years to recover fully from a C-section, and some women never get all sensation back because the surgeons have to cut through so many layers of muscle.)

 And then there’s the depression, which I am finally admitting is still here. I’ve been in and out of it since my last trimester. I have days where I am ok, even great. But then I work hard and I crash. The pace of working as a full time pulpit rabbi does not seem to be working for me now that I have a baby.

I’m trying to talk about it and write about it, since the strongest and worst sensations of depression comes from the internal isolation. Here is all I can say about it right now:

The acuteness of it comes and goes. When it is here, it is like I’m experiencing the world through a muffled blanket, or looking out through a dim glass. Everything is water and I am oil. I can’t quite touch or directly engage in life. Things that are usually easy for me – reading an article start to finish, composing a friendly email, completing a household task, getting out of bed after a good night’s sleep, talking on the phone, listening to other people talk about their lives, making future plans — are all very difficult. When I was writing emails today at work I felt like I was typing while wearing garden gloves that were too big on me. It was so clunky.

I would rather the depression than high anxiety any day. Of course they are two sides of the same experience, but the somatic sensations are completely different. With the anxiety I am much more physically uncomfortable: Shaky, unable to breathe well. My solar plexus feels quivery and nauseas and the only slight relief comes when I’m lying down. I wonder if depression is an emergency off-switch to my anxiety, a last ditch coping strategy to give my nervous system relief.

It is easiest to tell people I have postpartum depression, because there is a simple explanation: I had a baby, my hormones went weird, and I’m depressed. But the truth is much more complex and dynamic. I’m depressed because it brings relief from intense anxiety – an anxiety not about my child’s safety, by the way, which is what people keep assuming, but about life, about the amount of effort needed now, about the upending of myself, about our acute frailty and existential vulnerability. I’m depressed because I’m numbing out from how strongly I feel the pain of children and parents in need, an empathy that has ratcheted up intensely since falling in love with Abraham. And yes, I’m depressed because I’ve been sleep deprived for months, after a perinatal depression and a ridiculously hard birth.

I feel most whole when I am with Abraham and he is happy – nursing, playing, sitting, cuddling, chewing on board books.  Other than that, I kind of want to curl up in a ball and take a break from existing for a while. I keep thinking about the line from the song I wrote for Yotam: It’s hard to be a human but it’s so worth the fight. I know part B of the verse is there waiting for me to find it again, but for now I’m hanging out in part A. I’ve decided to ask for a month off of work, to spend time with Abraham, and then to return part time. What a huge surprise for a person who has always assumed she’d work full time throughout my adulthood…

With the decision to go part time, a window of clarity has opened up for me. I’ve been thinking how easy it is consider creativity in leadership as an outside job, to pull examples of creative problem solving, creative projects and creative expression. But creativity is also an inside job. It is the work of letting ourselves be recreated – by our choices, by the people close to us, by circumstances beyond our control – and reflecting on that transformation the way we would any leadership challenge. After all, when you think about it, motherhood is the most primal leadership role and as I read recently, a mother is no more a woman with a baby than a butterfly is a caterpillar with wings

The Wonder That Keeps The Stars Apart

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I am now so madly in love with Abraham that my heart hurts with the bright intensity of it.  I would die for him without second thought, do anything to keep him safe and protect him from unnecessary suffering. He is four months tomorrow. When someone asked me how motherhood is on Friday evening, I said “Amazing.” It was the first time I hadn’t answered that question by saying “Hard. Beautiful, hard, beautiful,” where quite honestly the beautiful was a bit of a stretch.

Abraham has an astounding amount of charisma for his age. He just holds your eyes with presence and joy. There is life bursting from every pore of him. When he is in distress and cries, his whole body gets engaged, clenching and trembling. When he is scared or startled, which doesn’t happen often, his eyes get wide and his lower lip trembles and my heart breaks open.

He seems to have a very resilient character, able to regulate back to emotional equilibrium very quickly. For instance: This morning he was on his back on the bed, and I pulled him towards me by pulling his lower legs. He registered alarm. Then he saw I was calm, and he calmed down immediately. I am grateful beyond words he has this innate skill, and not my habit of reacting with alarm to new things and experiences. We can take him in the shower and he tolerates it – even the water spraying his face and droplets getting in his eyes. To use Anne Lamott’s line, I like this in a baby.

He found his toes two nights ago. It was abrupt and life changing for him. One hour he didn’t reach his toes and the next he did, and now his go-to activity is lying on his back, holding his toes and making this adorable scratchy grunting noise like he’s doing his ab work out. Yotam says Abraham is frustrated the toes don’t reach his mouth yet, and I think that’s really plausible since his job in life is to get everything into his mouth.

His thighs are soft and full and fat with my milk.

I am in awe of him, and I sense God in him tangibly, like right there, just beneath his skin, is the force that started the universe. E.e. Cummings talks of love as the wonder that holds the stars apart…In physics there is strong magnetic force, weak magnetic force, gravity… and I want to add to the list whatever this is that I feel for Abraham.

In The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, the villains open up doorways into other worlds using the energy released when children are forcibly separated from their daemons, which are external animal souls. The energy that lives in the bond I have with Abraham feels like it could break open a new world if it was severed. I am having the funny grandiose thoughts that no mother has ever loved her son this way – but of course I know that all, or most, mothers have, and that makes the suffering of children essentially unbearable to me now. It is devastating to hold off nursing him when he wants to eat in the middle of the night and we are teaching his body not to. The thought of a child crying in hunger and a parent not having enough to feed them… My God. It makes me question the entire premise of creation. What was God thinking? How is anything worth that pain?

My empathy sensors used to pick up the suffering of animals and the earth and not so much broader humanity, but now I’m also feeling into humanity, especially children, and I can barely stand it. This makes sense, since becoming a parent necessitates a blurring of our ego’s boundaries in order to skillfully attune to the needs of our preverbal potato of a tiny human. The question of what is Me and Not Me changes - not just for those of us who literally grew a new human inside our bodies, but for anyone who has let their heart be broken open by love.

In my case, with my ego fuzzy around the edges in order to attune to Abraham, information about the needs of others is also coming in. Refugees, those in deep poverty, babies without stable adults to love them, hungry kids here and around the world. I remember a session I did once with an EMDR therapist, in which I told her how much I hurt when I felt the suffering of the world. “We are all One,” I said. “I’ve been taught that my whole life, and I feel it and can’t stop how much it hurts.” She looked at me and said, “Shoshana, I know that on one level we are all one. But if God had wanted us to all actually be one, in our daily lives, we wouldn’t be in separate bodies.”

Good point.

But it still hurts, having a heart blown open so wide.

The beauty of the connection between me and my baby, between all of us and those we love most, is that it connects us to the great, deep, awesome and abiding Love with a capital L. Without trying, all the hurt in my heart flows in and out of also being rapturous joy. For instance, tonight when Abraham fussed a bit I went in, put my hand on his chest and shushed gently. He put his palm over mine, and I wanted to stand there for the next hour with my fingers pressed between his warm chest and tiny star of a hand.

Abraham's First Laugh

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Last night as I laid Abraham on his back in our bedroom for his nighttime massage, I looked down at his soft round baby belly and thought about how distant I have felt from God lately. My ritual practice has essentially gone on hiatus. (Yotam and I not only didn’t kasher our kitchen for Passover, but when we heated up the waffle iron the day after the holiday we found a whole waffle already in it from who knows when!) My prayer practice could be boiled down to “Please God help me make it through the day” (which may actually be the purest prayer, but still…) Most striking and hardest to describe, since the perinatal depression of my last trimester, I can’t feel God around me the way I used to.  

Then I remembered, in a moment of grace, a comment made about eight years ago by a new mom colleague in a conversation about hiyyuv (religious obligation). She was holding her baby, and said: “Miss a mincha? Sure. Miss a feeding? NO!” Her voice was fierce and tender at once. She was making a point about what was truly obligatory in her life at that moment – feeding her child – and putting it into conversation with the Jewish relationship to God. It occurred to me that maybe I can’t feel the transcendent God I used to feel because that isn’t what’s important now. I mean, when I look at Abraham it is like looking into the light, like right beneath his skin shimmers the force that started the universe. He was lying on the bed, and I got off the bed and kneeled, and bowed my head to touch is belly, just letting myself soften and be in service to the God in him. For a moment, this was enough.

A few days ago, while feeling exhausted and anxious, I realized that my body must be a good place to live, a place I might inhabit with some grace and joy, because a whole person had grown there and lived there, and was now a healthy and happy human being.

This afternoon I picked Abraham up and went to the bedroom and held him and cried. A deep belly cry. I cried for how tired I am, how beautiful a baby he is and how I wish I felt more joy. I cried for how much I love him and how much I am hurting from the whiplash of this life transition, and how much I want to feel more gratitude than overwhelm. I lay on my back with my head on a pillow, and held Abraham standing up on my low belly.

He looked at my face while I cried big splashing tears. He rode up and down on my diaphragm – and then, then: he laughed. He laughed! A real belly laugh, for the first time. I cried more from how moved I was he was laughing, and he laughed more, and then I started crying and laughing at the same time. I said the Shehechiyanu blessing, thanking God for enabling us to reach this moment. I said, “A fairy was just born,” because Peter Pan says that when babies laugh for the first time a fairy is born. Abraham’s eyes were wide and his mouth was a huge, open, lopsided circle.

I have been trying to hold it together, at least a little bit, for so long. This was the first time in a while I have let go and felt all my heart break open. It reminded me of the time I finally cried in couples therapy with my long time boyfriend, and the therapist said, “It’s nice to finally meet you.” My son knew in his wise old baby heart that I was being real and genuine, and he loved it. Plus, if you’ve never seen another person cry before, how fascinating it must be!

There is something wise about protecting our children from our rawest selves. They need us to have regulated nervous systems, to be steady and calm as much as possible. This is necessary because they need a wall to bang against that doesn’t crumble, a tether to yank away from that doesn’t loosen, a fence to flail inside that doesn’t break. They need to learn over and over that they will not break us, that they are allowed to have their feelings, that their feelings are safe and will pass.

Yet I wonder if there isn’t also, in age appropriate ways, something wise about letting ourselves be real with our children. Abraham was so tiny he didn’t know I was upset, and I don’t picture wanting to sob in front of a child much older than he is. But that doesn’t mean not sharing my own vulnerability (Check out Brené Brown’s Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto for some good language around this). I may not cry in front of Abraham like that again, but I do imagine saying to him someday, “Yes, I’m having a hard day. I’m tired and feeling sad. Sometimes people feel tired and sad, and it’s ok. Do you want to cuddle? Maybe we can read a book together.”

Last night, in the afterglow of that first sacred fairy-creating laugh, we stayed there together for a while snuggling, two people seeing each other with wholehearted eyes.

Early Motherhood is Very Unusual

My son is two months old and beautiful, and the whole thing is ridiculously hard. I have so much support and means, and it is still ridiculously hard. Yes, I know it’s hard for everyone – though I’m starting to get the sense it isn’t this hard for everyone. I keep scoring as depressed on the post-partum visit questionnaires. The words that keep running through my head are “Nothing is worth this level of discomfort and exhaustion.” Also: “I miss my life. I miss myself.”

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A shadowy part of me wishes I had never met Abraham, so I wouldn’t miss him if he disappeared. And I share that difficult truth intentionally, for the sake of the many new parents who feel it and respond with horror and shame to their thoughts. I too feel terribly guilty for thinking it, but my therapist pointed out that it actually is a perfectly normal response to being a new mom. I’ll repeat that. My therapist said that wishing you had never met your new baby is an ok, normal reaction among the many of becoming a parent.

Here’s why: Early motherhood is a legitimately bizarre state, a completely unusual human experience compared to the rest of our lives. For instance, my body has spent 35 years prioritizing its own health and wellbeing and survival, and then about eleven months ago it abruptly stopped, and shifted its attention to someone it had never before met. These days I will catapult over my own basic needs to meet Abraham’s, but that started on a biochemical level during pregnancy. My body was anemic because the baby was getting so much of my iron. If I had been low on calcium, my body would have leached calcium from my own bones to give to the baby. I guess it makes sense that parts of me are feeling a little left out.

My therapist guided me to tell those parts of myself: “Yes, I am indeed prioritizing Abraham’s needs over mine, and I know that is hard for you. I know you would like me to be relaxing in a spa and sleeping 10 hours every night. But this chapter of life is not that. However! I have good news for you: Abraham is growing strong, and gradually we will be able to prioritize ourselves again in many moments.”

I have been beating myself up for not loving Abraham – what? Enough? In the right way? I realized today that what I feel towards him is love for sure – it’s just a qualitatively different love from anything I have felt before. It is strange, and terrible, and awe-inspiring. Some days it feels like he grabbed my heart in his tiny fist on his way out of me and pulled me inside out, so that raw flesh is on the outside of my body. Put another way, I am rapturously in love with him and it hurts like hell. Honestly, I had expected a higher ratio of pleasure to pain.

My mother asked me in the first few weeks of his life “Would you throw yourself in front of a bus for him?” The way I see it, I pretty much have. I have thrown myself in front of the bus of sleeplessness and missed meals, aching arms, high anxiety, and complete overturn of my life and identity as I knew it. I am doing all that for this baby I just met who carries my heart in his tiny fragile body. Evolution knew what was up when babies became this cute and bonding this strong - if it were all about my ego and needs I would probably have thrown the baby in front of a bus!

I am very grateful to say that the pleasurable moments are getting more frequent and memorable. Last night was so precious. He was swaddled and in the crook of my arm in bed, sucking on his binky. I read I Love You As Big As The World and Goodnight Moon to him. He fell asleep there and slept soundly for a few hours. I felt so much contentment with him nestled next to me. It was astounding.

His face now lights up when he sees me in the morning. He also lights up when I sing.

Goings & Comings

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I’m dating this post as January 2018, since that is when it is about in the narrative of the blog… but I wrote it about a year later.

Lying in the blue rocker-recliner in our Boston apartment, I can see through the window to the parking lot of the neighborhood church. Mottled snow dots the ground, not quite new from the storm a few nights ago. On the window sill to my left is a Polaroid of my mother in 1982, age twenty-nine. She is wearing a yellow night gown, with one breast spilling into my infant mouth. She leans back against the bed, her face peaceful but weary. I look up at her with enormous eyes.

It’s barely 2018, and I am thirty-five years old, with my first baby suckling. I am still at the toe-curling stage of breast-feeding, the stage no one but your older girlfriends tell you about. The baby latches, the pain is sharp and piercing. Count to ten, breathe, and it will be gone by the time you are done counting. I support him with one arm, which rests on a friend’s borrowed nursing pillow. The pillow’s main purpose is to cushion my C-section scar, which hurts when I sit up, cough, or move too quickly.

 He falls asleep, and I slip a pinky into his tiny red mouth to unlatch. I jiggle him gently, helping him to wake up ever so slightly to learn to fall back asleep without a nipple in his mouth. I hand him to my mother.

I recline the rocker further, and hold a small glass vial of lavender oil to my nose. My anxiety is like an octopus trapped in a dark closet – all arms and desperation, clingy with suction cups on slippery walls. My chest feels hollow, like there is nothing in there but air and maybe a nest of wasps. Inside my belly, where the scar is, I feel a black void.

The night I was in labor, my mother’s eldest brother Rob fell unconscious from an infection. He had a rare blood disorder that eventually turned into cancer. Knowing this years ago, all three of his siblings had been tested to see how well they matched his bone marrow. My mother was an exact match, ten out of ten, what you dream of and pray for when you have a disease like my uncle’s. My mother did everything in her physical and psychic power to produce fabulous stem cells for her brother and my uncle’s body had accepted her stem cells. But he got an infection after the transplant. The night I went into labor was his last night of consciousness. Five days after my baby was born, in the week between my baby’s birth and bris, my uncle died.

Smelling my lavender, that day after my uncle died, I thought about the liturgical reading of the Torah scroll in a Jewish congregation, how each person called up for an honor stays up there one more turn, overlapping with the next congregant before sitting down. It is a dance with tricky choreography, all these people coming and going from sacred space, looking to each other for cues and direction.

It’s not a dissimilar thing in families, the business of being born and dying, often in close succession. On my father’s side, my little cousin was born three weeks after my grandmother died. On my mother’s side my uncle died, and then my son was welcomed to the community and given a name.

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My uncle Robert Rosen was a kind, generous man who was loved deeply by many, including three children and a wife, and four grandkids. He was only 74, almost twenty years younger than his father had been when he died, and had started a foundation to study the exact rare blood disease that killed him in order to help others. It had looked so hopeful there for a while, with my mother’s fortified cells. And my mother, who adored her brother, had – literally - poured herself into his healing, prayed and visualized for months, asked dozens of friends and family to join her in visualizing her cells growing strong, and her brother’s body accepting them. Then the transplant worked, she had done the miraculous, and still she lost her brother.

As a brand new mother, shepherding new life into the world, the tragic situation did not, shall we say, help the matter of my high anxiety.

There was no question of my going to Chicago for my uncle’s funeral. But of course my mother went, and my father, and my sisters – all of whom live close to me, and all of whom were on the short list of frontline support I’d been expecting in this first week postpartum. I didn’t want to feel angry and sad that they left me, but I did.

Then, the day after we came home from the hospital, the day before Rob died, my husband came into the living room and said he was coming down with the flu. The octopus in the dark closet clamored loudly, all suction and fear. I asked him to go stay at my parents’ house, to protect the baby and me. My best girlfriend came over and stewed a giant pot of rice and molasses in my kitchen, an Ayurvedic postpartum food that turned out to be all I could stomach for a week. The next day she flew to visit her family in California.

My mother-in-law, who had come to town from Israel, moved in for the week. She served me bowls of rice and molasses, refilled my pink hospital water jug, burped and held the baby, washed the dishes. Defying all folk tales, I adored her and felt she had saved my life.

But before that all happened, there I was lying in the rocker-recliner while the baby slept in my mother’s arms. I listened to the gentle ambient music my husband plays while he gives a massage. I breathed and smelled lavender like a person holding an oxygen mask. My mother held my baby. After forty-five minutes, I felt the octopus let go and sink to a peaceful rest on the floor of the dark closet. There was a soft landing pad in my solar plexus, a tiny spot of solid ground, just big enough for one foot, like when you come to a stream in the forest and find one shaky rock to step on as you cross.