My Nonny used to say in her lilting Jewish accent, “Michele-y, you’ll find a nice Jewish husband. You’ll have many beautiful kinderlach (children). You’ll be happy.” It was some kind of Jewish pronouncement from her all-knowing mouth on behalf of God, I guess. With her two front teeth permanently schmeared in bright red lipstick, I internalized her words as emet (truth). The path to becoming the Jewish woman I always wanted to be meant marriage and having a big family. Fill in the blanks with Passover seders, bar mitzvahs, and a regular helping of her homemade mandelbrodt. “L’Chaim,“ she would say.
When I received the fateful phonecall that marked the rest of my life, my Nonny’s voice haunted me. I was twelve weeks pregnant with my second child, bouncing around a local play space with my then two-year-old daughter, when I learned that the fetus growing inside of me had a rare and severe Jewish genetic disorder. The words on the other end of the phone kept going, but I did not hear anything beyond “positive test results”.
It is a strange moment when nothing actually changes, but everything is different. The little bundle of cells inside of me was still who he was. I still had the fantasy of my parents bringing my daughter to the hospital to meet her new baby brother, proudly parading around in her “I’m a Big Sister” t-shirt and stuffing herself full of celebratory candy. I still had my running list of “M” names- Max, Mordechai, Moses- to name our baby after my husband’s deceased father. I still mused about how we would possibly juggle two kids, a dog, work, marriage–and life.
Yet, hanging onto the Frozen costume that my daughter hurriedly discarded into my arms, my idyllic fantasies were flooded with feelings of dread, hopelessness and panic. There were choices that needed to be made. There were consultations with specialists, tearful phone calls with genetic counselors and pages of research to interpret. I was forced to consider questions of gigantic magnitude with implications that could barely be uttered. And hinging on these choices were all of the things that mattered most in life like family, God, and my “happy”.
On December 25th, when the holiday cheer was at its merriest, I went to the hospital to terminate my pregnancy. I do not actually remember much of the event that shaped everything in my life that followed. There were pleasantries exchanged with the only doctor and nurse available on Christmas to do the procedure. It turns out that they were also husband and wife. They spoke of their shared duties in preparing the Christmas meal that afternoon. She would make the brisket; he would make the stuffing. She would bake the apple pie; he would slice the ham. I imagined the swarm of guests partaking in what promised to be a lovely and lavish affair with all of the holiday trimmings. It was better to ponder the theory that I had crafted since I was a little girl as to how much more fun Christians have during this time of year than Jews. I was awake the entire procedure fantasizing about Santa Claus when I heard the needles, the sucking and the silence of the ultrasound. I heard no heartbeat. I did not know silence could be so loud. Squinting my tears away, I muttered a prayer hoping that God was with me, and with him, even on Christmas.
“Be fruitful and multiply” is a basic tenant from the Torah that dictates in no uncertain terms my task as a Jewish woman. I must have done something immensely wrong to deserve a fate that my doctor insisted was only a statistically slim possibility. Should I have prayed harder on Yom Kippur to wipe myself clean of my sins? In addition, and this I could only barely admit, I wondered if I failed the little soul whose name would have started with the letter “M”. It was this guilt that kept me up at night, that could scarcely be whispered in the darkest crevices of my mind or in the tear-filled safety of my husband’s arms.
“Thou shalt not kill,” the Torah teaches. I was sure that in the ancient times of Avraham and Moshe, God would have declared me as a sinner punishable by stoning or exile. Even now, the mere mention of miscarriage makes people very squeamish. Throw in a termination for medical reasons (TFMR), and you get righteous judgments, averted looks and political posturing. Sometimes, I am even one of these people. After all, was I allowed to mourn a loss that I had a choice in losing? There are so many women who have undergone multiple rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and have drained their savings to be in my position. Was I allowed to feel anguish about a much wanted baby that I chose to give up? The taboo, avoidance and silence surrounding these issues made me question if I still counted as one of the women of valor praised in the Eishet Chayil prayer we sing over Shabbat dinner every Friday night.
Shame is a sticky one. It gloms onto you with its strong grip and makes you do all kinds of odd things. Like make up excuses as to why you look twelve weeks pregnant, but are not. Like avoid social functions that once brought you joy such as your little nephew’s birthday party or Kiddush at synagogue. Shame shoves your heartbreak into a corner where it can lie untouched and alone. So many of us going through infertility and pregnancy loss silently wear shame like an invisible Scarlett Letter branded onto our heavy hearts.
Mishpacha: the Hebrew name for “family” that begins with the letter “M”. While defined by our Nonnies and Bubbies in a seemingly straightforward manner, a new definition of mishpacha is emerging. For me to come to terms with my pregnancy loss…I just need to say it out loud…my pregnancy termination, I needed to cast off my Scarlet Letter as women burned their bras before me and re-define what being a Jewish woman of valor meant to me. I broke the shroud of silence and began sharing about our grief with friends, family and my Jewish community. It was painful and at times awkward, but it also felt good to cut through judgments, averted looks and politics and connect around what truly mattered. My family suffered a traumatic loss and lost something deeply precious. We did what we thought was best for our family and for the treasure whom I carried. Though I may never feel completely at peace with our decision, I am hopeful that I can honor the soul whom I never met by stepping out of the shadows of shame and sharing our story of heartbreak. Maybe others will do the same.
In broad terms, the new misphacha means that at Kiddush, in the halls of our synagogues and over Shabbat meals, we openly support each other through family-building challenges with the chessed (loving kindness) that our Jewish communities are built upon. Whether that means bringing a meal to a couple who suffered a miscarriage; or asking your friend how she is feeling while she is undergoing infertility treatments; or helping your community member prepare for her adopted baby to come home.Through our choices and our challenges, I think that we can do better.
A research study came out which discovered that cells from a developing fetus actually cross the placenta barrier and become permanently part of the mother’s body, even if the baby is never born. I often think about the cells of my much wanted baby “M” floating around inside of me.I feel a connection to him, as his mother, through his baby helixes that are forever within me. It is not what my Nonny proclaimed, but I have re-branded our family with our own complicated, painful, joyful, and connected version of mishpacha. And it is my emet.
Published in Jewish United Federation News, December 2016