Motherhood and Isolation

My friend’s elderly mother died today, and her death wasn’t Corona-related. It felt like a sad reminder (which I need because there are moments I forget that anything else is happening in the world besides the virus) that “everyday life” is continuing during the Pandemic.

This week’s Torah portion, Tazriah, is a reminder that births are happening while our focus may be on sickness. While the Parsha is filled with information about illness and quarantining, perfectly timed to help us reflect on what is going on in our lives right now, I honestly couldn’t get past the first few sentences. The opening lines that talk about childbirth, the most common, yet miraculous, occurrence during “normal” times, made me think back to when my babies were born 27, 25 and 23 years ago.

I remember after the birth of each one of my children I was overwhelmed, anxious, and exhausted. I needed support and a good night’s sleep. I didn’t need to be labeled “unclean.” I didn’t feel like I was in need of purification.

But there it is; in the opening sentences of Parshat Tazriah (Leviticus 12:1-5), G-d directing Moses to  speak to the Israelites and explain “when a women at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days…she shall remain in a state of blood purification for 33 days. She shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is complete. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks…and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for 66 days.”

The beauty of the Torah and the Jewish peoples’ relationship to Torah, is that everything is up for interpretation. This freedom mirrors the opportunity mindfulness offers through awareness to drop painful narratives and instead to see blessings inside of situations that may at first feel like a curse.

So I wonder, can we somehow come to see the potential curse of the words ”unclean” and “in need of purification” in Tazriah as a kind of hidden blessing to new mothers who need time to bond and care for their newborn? Is it possible that in some way these labels gave women a chance to be left alone, and also removed their responsibility to participate in community ritual life for a while too?

And finally….could G-d’s distinguishing between the amount of time mothers are in a liminal state after giving birth to a son or a daughter be seen as profound wisdom around the added complexity of the mother/daughter relationship, even from the very first 66 days of life?

This Torah portion ultimately got me thinking about having a baby right now, during the Pandemic, when newborns and their parents are required to self-isolate and social distance? Mothers and fathers need all the support we as a community can provide from afar during this uncertain time.

“As babies transition from life inside the womb to life outside the womb, and as women and men transition to becoming parents, they need a lot of support to hold them up, to nurture them, to care for them, so that they can do the important work of parenting,” says Judy Teibloom Mishkan, R.N., IBCLC, a Lactation Specialist with three decades of experience working with new families during this pivotal time.

Mishkan continues, “In what we call the 4th trimester of pregnancy, babies’ physical needs are tremendous. For most of human history we have lived in kin groups so we had many arms to hold babies, many hands to cook for and feed the new mothers, and so much shared wisdom that helped mothers heal and move into their new role. From time immemorial new mothers have learned from other women how to give birth, how to breastfeed, how to care for their newborns.  It has always been learned behavior. I worry about the isolation in the time of COVID, and that mothers and fathers will be overwhelmed without their family support, their friends, their village. On top of that, there is the sadness that grandparents feel who cannot meet their new new grandchildren in person nor care for their own children, the new parents.  It’s really unfathomable how the virus is disrupting the organic ways in which families care for one another day to day, but especially in the crucial time after giving birth.”

For new parents, giving birth, during ordinary times, and especially now during these extraordinary times, is a miracle. We can only pray that all the babies born during this time of the Pandemic can grow up healthy and strong, with no distance between them and all those who love them.

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