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Sabbath’s Daughter

A Saturday birth ensured it would be no day of rest

Lynn Harris
February 08, 2007

Last fall, we renovated our kitchen. Last fall, even though we’d ordered our cabinets in July. One delay had led to another, and as late October rolled around, the cherry, marble, tile, and stainless end was—unlike our baby’s due date—still nowhere in sight. Rome itself, it seemed, had fallen in our living room (the contractor’s work space). What was to be the nursery was a warren of stacked boxes filled with every plate we owned, and coated with a glittery film of toxic dust. Our refrigerator was in our dining room. Our kitchen had cabinets, but no counter. No lights. No sink. No problem.

When my blood pressure came up high on my then-weekly prenatal checkup, the doctor said, “It could be preeclampsia.”

“No,” I said, “It’s definitely Home Depot.”

As it turned out, it was both. Preeclampsia, long story short, is a form of pregnancy-related hypertension that can be life-threatening for mother and baby; the only “cure” is to induce delivery. They kept an eye on me in the hospital all day, threatening to send me home with a baby if I didn’t get my blood pressure down. I called David to tell him that in the race between the two impending changes that had come to define our lives, the baby was pulling ahead.

For several more days it was neck and neck. I was sent home for bed rest; the lighting was installed. Soon, all that was left was the counter. Then one Wednesday, the baby surged forward. I was admitted to the hospital; pre-induction began. My parents, in Boston, were told to start driving. We thought we had a winner.

But the pre-induction procedure, simply speaking, didn’t take. The baby wasn’t ready. I went home. The counter, we learned, was on the way. Looked like the kitchen would take the gold.

Then, at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, I woke to the sound of heavy rain and felt a pop and a gush. Suddenly stupid, we Googled “water broke” and decided we should probably call the doctor. We left a note for the contractor. “Lynn went into labor, so we won’t be able to meet you and the counter guy. David’s father will be here instead.”

Our daughter Bess Rimona arrived at 6:45 p.m., just as the polish had set on the counter—and just as the sun had set on the city. Between the baby and the kitchen, we called it a tie. And between Shabbat and the rest of the week, Bess came on the cusp, just in time for Havdalah.

After so many false starts, how fitting. Havdalah, marking the end of Shabbat, is about separation and distinction: from Shabbat to the rest of the week, from holy to ordinary. In many ways, of course, our shift was different. We’d gone from holy to extraordinary, from pregnant to parents, from two to three. (And, concurrently, from Formica to fabulous.) Rather than mourn the departure of the neshama yetayra—the “extra soul” that visits on Shabbat—I gathered a tiny new neshama into my arms, slick and wriggling and whole.

At Bess’s naming ceremony, I spoke the words of birkhat hagomel, a blessing said upon emerging safely from a dangerous experience, including childbirth. (Or, under certain circumstances, a brush with Home Depot.) Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of the Universe, who bestows kindness on those who are committed, and who has granted to me all kindness. For me, this prayer had extra resonance. In my mind, it was not just for surviving labor. (Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Creator of the Epidural.) After all that preeclampsia fuss—and did I mention I had gestational diabetes?—Bess’s actual birth was blessedly uncomplicated (but for an unpleasant postpartum tangle with a recalcitrant placenta, which I’ll detail in my Rabbi’s Wife’s Placenta column, which is to say, not soon). For me, the danger had begun more than a year earlier: the specter of infertility, the risk of miscarriage realized, the chance that lightning would strike twice and we’d lose yet another. But now, welcoming my daughter into the covenant, I was safe.

Mostly. While I knew the grief of my miscarriage would never vanish, I had assumed that my daughter’s birth would be the next best thing to a cure. In some ways, though, it’s been the opposite. Now that I know what we have, I know even more what we lost. Sometimes I look into Bess’s eyes and think about the ones that never opened. Sometimes I look at Bess’s face and think about the one we never saw. Last year, I wrote a special Havdalah service to mourn our loss. On some Saturdays, even as our Bess gazes at the special three-wicked candle, I think about that, too. As we are also reminded when we recite the evening prayer—of this we can be sure, and for this we can be grateful—the sun will rise, and the sun will set. But when it comes to children—or whatever we believe will make us happy, there are no such guarantees.

Then there are the daily dangers of life: our splintery floors (that’s the next project), our stairs, our stove, our world. When Bess was a week old, we rushed her to the pediatrician because her mouth had turned a bit blue. Assuring us this was normal, the doctor asked, “Didn’t you call us on Monday because her face had turned red?” If Bess ever turns white, we’ll just have to deal with it on our own.

So the Havdalah of Bess’s birth was not simply a transition from sorrow to joy, from hope to happiness. It was, once I’d thought about it, more like the holy-to-everyday transition that we observe every week. Odd as it sounds, laboring all day Saturday struck me as really pretty Shabbat-appropriate. No phones, no email, no worldly worries; just a sheer and utter focus on one moment, then the next, then the next. For me, that made it holy. And so, in that sense, Bess’s noisy, messy, thrashing arrival represented a shift back to the ordinary—a new, fuller ordinary. Rabbinic midrash has it that Miriam‘s well—the well that, in tribute to her chops as a prophet, nourished the people of Israel as they traveled through the desert—appears at the end of Shabbat for us to drink from. And when we bathe Bess in our 9″ deep 18-gauge stainless Blanco Magnum kitchen sink and high-arc faucet with pull-out spray, I am sure, I am scared, I am sustained.

Lynn Harris, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes regularly for Salon, The New York Times, Glamour, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the website

Lynn Harris, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes regularly for Salon, The New York Times, Glamour, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the website