A Tale of Two Brises
Gus’ first days home after the NICU were lovely. We were so happy to have him all to ourselves. He had such a strong personality already! When he was hungry he cried louder than Simon ever did, and when he was content he was silent — with a smile in his eyes. It was hard to keep his new big brother from smothering him with love-tinged-with aggression, and finally Simon asked “Can’t you just put that baby away now, Mama?”
I sympathized, but amazingly — most of the time — I didn’t feel that way myself. I was so happy just to have Gus home after being so scared for his health. My only fear was that things couldn’t be as good as they seemed. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
We had Gus’ bris about a week after he came home. It wasn’t on the traditional eighth day, but medical exceptions are always made. We decided to have it at our house in Berkeley, and not to invite the whole mishpocheh (extended family). His doctor assured us that despite his stay in the NICU, he would be fine going through the circumcision.
I wasn’t sure I would be, though. That feeling of waiting for something bad to happen was hard to shake off during the ceremony. I couldn’t stop comparing it to Simon’s bris, and all the memories of Simon’s babyhood I couldn’t help but view through the lens of my former depression.
The first few days after Simon’s birth came with a rush of adrenaline. The labor was so prolonged and so exhausting, that I was thrilled to have come out of it with a beautiful baby. I happily learned to balance my own plate of breakfast on my breastfeeding pillow while Simon nursed.
I hadn’t thought about the bris for weeks. We had arranged it when I was about six months along, a time when the ceremony was as impossible to imagine as the notion that a real live baby was in my bulging stomach. But Simon had arrived and the moments between the birth and the bris seemed like, well, just that: short moments. We couldn’t possibly be leaving for the bris already, but we were.
On the way to the ceremony, sitting gingerly in the car (my episiotomy stitches stung with my every move) the situation began to sink in. I was volunteering to hand my son over to a stranger. To cut off part of his penis.
“I changed my mind about not being there for the procedure. I’m going to hold him the whole time,” I said.
Jack was earnest. “Becca, we’ve talked about this. I know that keeping the mother away for the circumcision part of the bris is a totally sexist custom. But maybe, beyond that, there’s a deeper reason. You’ve just been through a lot. You don’t have to watch this. He’s going to be fine. That anesthetic cream is strong stuff.”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to leave him alone.”
“He won’t be alone. He’ll be with his dad.”
His dad? My. God. We were parents.
Could I go through with this — fulfill this covenant, and by extension everything else I’d be relied upon to do as a parent? I just didn’t know.
I could feel the adrenaline begin to dissipate. My stomach and chest felt pushed in like I was submerged under deep-water pressure from all sides. I longed for the comfort of our bed where I had spent the last few days, curled up nursing Simon.
We had decided to have the ceremony catered at a hotel, to spare us hosting our fifty-plus family and friends in our one-bedroom apartment on Russian Hill. I felt shaky, so Jack carried Simon from the car to our hotel room. I sat down in a chair and held Simon as Dr. Gottlieb, the Mohel, came in to see us.
“You’ll nurse him now, and then as soon as the ceremony is over we’ll bring him right back up here to nurse again and be comforted.” Dr. Gottleib began.
I felt awkward nursing in front of Dr. Gottleib. He was an OB, but I hadn’t nursed in front of anyone but Jack yet. I wondered if he would think I was doing it wrong. My hands felt all fumbly. And I had started Simon on a schedule. Would it matter that he wasn’t due to eat for another hour? He didn’t seem hungry. I didn’t like this man telling me what to do, but I unsnapped my nursing bra and brought Simon to my breast.
When Simon finished nursing, he nodded off to sleep and we brought him downstairs for the ceremony. I still wasn’t sure if I would stay. As I walked in to the room with Simon in my arms, all the guests looked up. It felt like the continuous organ of my skin was comprised entirely of its most sensitive parts. A look felt like a touch — everything made an impression — everything was too close.
I gave Simon to Jack, and forced myself to stand in one spot, just for the beginning. Dr. Gottleib began the first few ritual prayers and then laid out his circumcision kit: a sterile sheet and something that looked like a little clamp — I looked away before I could get a clear impression. I looked at Jack. At that moment my muscles tingled — I was ready to run. The question was, would I take Simon with me? Somewhere in the back of my head I knew he would be fine, and that I did want him to go through with the Bris. But I couldn’t be there. I kissed Simon and left the room.
I needed to get outside, to the street, where I would hear noises other than my child’s cry. I sped up as I hit the lobby, my head down. I tried to walk around a smiling man who was blocking my way, but suddenly he extended his hand.
“Oh, you must be Becca! I’m Greg, your cousin Brenda’s husband. Ya leaving so soon? Oh, the baby must be wailin’ now!” He smiled and chucked, yes chucked, me on the shoulder.
I should have known how inappropriate this was, but I was overwhelmed with embarrassment. I mumbled something like “Yeah, gotta go” and ran outside to gulp the air. I inhaled deeply — a combination of exhaust and cigarette smoke with a faint background of sewage. The grittiness was comforting, but I felt guilty at even that small comfort. How long would it take? I went back inside and spotted my mother looking for me in the lobby.
“He didn’t even cry! I know that sounds strange. It was a little shocking. It took him a full minute to even make a sound. I don’t think he felt much pain but now he’s crying. I think he’s ready to go back in the room and nurse some more.” She put her arm around me and led me to my baby. I pulled him close, and he started to move his head around, rooting. His little hat fell off. I picked up the pace to the elevator.
Back in the hotel room, we nursed and rested. But I knew all those people had come to see me and the baby, so I took him back downstairs to the reception. I put my little donut shaped pillow in a chair and slowly sat down with Simon.
After a few relatives walked by to greet me, I realized I was invisible. Their eyes were on the baby. My butt hurt and I wanted to stand up. My stitches stung and I needed to pee. I looked up and saw what seemed like an endless line of smiling people and I just couldn’t put on my happy face anymore.
“I should get up soon.” I think I spoke aloud but whatever third or fourth cousin who was talking didn’t seem to hear me. I started to cry. No one noticed. I was relieved and sad at the same time. A sea of people were around me, people who loved me, and no one saw I was crying.
The anticipation was the hardest part. The shoe was always poised, waiting, but it never did drop.
I got that same sensitive feeling like my skin was overreacting to every touch, even every glance. So I stayed in my bedroom for the circumcision part, more confident that my baby was in good hands. I could allow him his covenant, his first moment as a member of a group. I cried with that open, vulnerable feeling I was beginning to learn was part of new motherhood, but which didn’t always signal an oncoming depression.
My mother-in-law took pictures right before and after the ceremony, both times when I really didn’t want to be on the spot. I pictured myself looking at the photos later, the focus on the baby, me in the background, haggard and raw. But instead of tearing up and remaining silent, this time I just asked her to stop taking pictures. I knew she meant well and wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I also knew it was okay for me to ask her to stop and not worry about explaining why, or what she might think. She loved me.
More importantly, I loved and took care of myself. I was the mother, I was me… and I didn’t need an excuse.