The 20-week ultrasound, the one where you get to see the most detailed image yet of your baby-to-be, is, for many, a time of exquisite exhilaration and wonder at the feat of physics that can capture the contours of your roughly 9-ounce bundle of joy. But as I lay on the table, watching brain quadrants and heart valves appear on the screen while the technician dutifully ticked off the categories that looked normal, I squeezed my husband’s hand, looked away and cried.
This taking of anatomical inventory — of investigating the health of every treasured tiny body part — created a sense of fear and dread that I didn’t see coming. It subsided once the tech left and in walked the doctor, a reassuring guy whose only concerning comment was something about someone being a bit chubby.
“I seem chubby?” I asked earnestly, wondering if I’d put on too much pregnancy weight.
“I’d never tell a pregnant woman that!” he said, laughing, adding that he could only imagine his Yelp reviews if he did. With that issue out of the way, I moved toward guilt that I’d already passed along my stomach issues to the poor thing — 20 weeks in utero and already bloated.
So the exam was terrifying. I felt like I was holding my breath for 45 minutes. Then again, I’d been feeling like that the entire pregnancy.
We’d already suffered through two miscarriages, and I still felt like each week we passed in this pregnancy let me exhale. But only a little. After all, there were so many more weeks to go, so many more tests to pass. The joy could wait.
But now, as I approach 26 weeks, and I finally begin to feel free from the nausea and ongoing colds (pregnancy really does dampen your immune system, it seems), I’d love to lose the trepidation.
I’d love to jettison any remaining fear around my growing belly and the movements inside it, to take the congratulatory remarks I get as givens, not as questions, and to prepare for “when” instead of “if.”
Jewish tradition, though, calls for avoiding overt optimism. Baby showers and nursery decoration may take the miracle of childbirth for granted and tempt fate, so the worry goes.
We Jews are a notoriously anxious lot, and history would suggest we have good reason to be. But superstitions around pregnancy and childbirth are hardly limited to our tribe.
I read about a Chinese custom that calls for placing a knife under the bed of a pregnant woman to protect her little one from evil spirits. And how pregnant women in Liberia only permit those closest to them to touch their bellies (which seems like a nice idea), lest they invite evil spirits into the womb. A Latin American belief in the power of an eclipse to deform an unborn child apparently prompts some pregnant Hispanic women to stay indoors during such events and put on red underwear affixed with a safety pin: The idea is that red and metal can defend against evil.
These ideas aren’t really so surprising (well, except for maybe the red underwear thing), since psychology and history tell us that superstitions help people cope with uncertainty. And while pregnancy is clearly such a time, it’s also clearly no longer the grave threat it was to the lives of babies and mothers when many of these superstitions likely developed.
And yet, despite the marvels of 3-D ultrasounds that can check for cleft palate, blood tests that can rule out this or that condition, and drugstore kits that can tell you when to conceive and when you are pregnant, the pull toward magical thinking persists.
Which makes me wonder about the potential value of these customs. For Jewish women who eschew celebratory acts until after the baby is born, what are we possibly gaining or giving up? More specifically, how might this tradition help or hurt our state of mind?
For all the subjects that people research, the question of whether and how rituals may benefit expectant moms seems to have escaped scrutiny. I don’t know to what extent a lack of celebration shields a woman from grief should her pregnancy not go well. I suspect a decorated nursery full of stuff would make things worse, but maybe only marginally.
What experts can tell us is that social support can help a woman through the emotional trials of becoming a mother. But it all depends — on the woman, the support, the ritual. What or who lifts up one woman may sap another.
So far, a major highlight of my pregnancy was when a friend delivered a trunkload of her maternity clothes to my house, fashionably introducing one item at a time and staying for a while to bond over the joys and challenges of pregnancy.
That felt like the right rite of passage for me. A big party wouldn’t — not because of the old evil eye, but because the concept feels, to me, self-indulgent. So I don’t want a gender reveal party, or a baby shower, or to post my weekly bump photos on Facebook.
But I also definitely don’t want superstition, aka fear, to frame the arrival of our new life. I don’t want to hold my breath for an entire nine months. Or, for that matter, the rest of my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve battled with worry, and it’s exhausting, robbing perfectly fine, even great, scenarios with the endless angst of what-ifs. And while pregnancy offers a new wealth of opportunities for what-iffing – and for employing superstition to help allay those fears – I’d like to, perhaps ironically, start now to break the cycle of worry before it ever starts with this child – with every new risk he or she takes, from walking and jumping to driving and dating.
What if I could approach all of these next steps from a new place, one not of fearing the worst, but of expecting the best?
And so, from here on, when I say I’m expecting, that is precisely what I intend to mean.
Rachel Pomerance Berl is a freelance writer and editor living in Bethesda, Md. She is expecting in May.