Navigate to Community section

Uncertain Terms

The High Holidays make you focus on life’s vicissitudes

Lynn Harris
September 28, 2006

For David and me, last year, the year 5766, was to begin with a sweetness we could almost taste. By Rosh Hashanah, we’d calculated, I would be more than three months pregnant. Early prenatal testing safely behind us, we would—after more than a year of trying and treatments—have been ready to tell his congregation our good news. Since David is the first rabbi at his synagogue to offer promise of offspring, our revelation would have unleashed decades of latent nachus; seismographs worldwide would have picked up a joyful disturbance somewhere around 17th Street and 2nd Avenue.

At the time, David had begun to draft a Rosh Hashanah sermon about the ways in which people walk around with invisible, private pain, and how we can support them even if we are unaware of its precise dimensions. In that sermon, he would have described our experience with infertility as one example of such pain. And in that sermon, our experience would have had a happy ending—or at least a happier new beginning. I started picking outfits in my mind. I couldn’t wait.

Then just before yontif, we learned that not only was the prenatal testing indeed behind us, but so, too, was our pregnancy. The baby, we were later informed, had been perfectly healthy. And the procedure we had chosen carried less than one percent chance of loss. But we, as it turned out, were the rare family who bore the heavy weight of that slim chance.

Our wounds too raw to expose, David revised the sermon. Last Rosh Hashanah, I held a friend’s hand as I listened to my husband’s words knowing exactly what was missing, feeling as if the “hidden pain” he was describing hung visibly between us like a thin, sharp wire that would cut me if I moved. And on Yom Kippur I listened more closely to the Unetaneh tokef than ever before. Who shall live and who shall die, indeed. Our creation, our creature, our tiny living soul: its life’s limit had been fixed, its destiny ordained. Like the angels, I shuddered.

This year, 5767, I got my Rosh Hashanah sermon. I am far along enough with baby Kinehora that my pregnancy is public knowledge, my belly practically public space, though it doesn’t always get me a seat on the subway, but that’s for another day. It was easy to select an outfit for the occasion; I have only so many maternity items (and people will just have to understand why I traded my trademark thrilling heels for arch-supporting clogs). David spoke, this year, about diverse approaches to prayer— including his own, last year, at our darkest time.

But my swelling belly was not the only reason I could listen and be okay. It was also because between last year’s Unetaneh tokef and this year’s, recited last weekend on Rosh Hashanah and to be recited again in a few days on Yom Kippur, I learned a little bit more about how to live. How to live all year long, that is, with the very uncertainty that we feel at the end of Yom Kippur, during Ne’ilah, when, we imagine, the gates begin to close.

There’s another reason David and I hid our pain last year. Just after our own loss, one of the synagogue’s families suffered an exponentially greater one. Their older daughter, a bright 28-year-old, was killed in a car accident on the Friday before Rosh Hashanah. The community convulsed with grief. And David and I were reminded that no matter how hard one works for, clings to, or focuses one’s life on a particular vision—get pregnant get pregnant get pregnant—other things happen. And not just to your own vision. Terrible things that you weren’t terribly worried about happen. All beyond your control.

Happy things you had nothing to do with happen, too, all the time. I’m not saying the lesson is that “tragedy lurks around every corner!” (Hard as my mom worked to teach me.) When I got pregnant this time, baruch hashem, I found myself a bit calmer. I certainly didn’t shrug off the possibility of miscarriage or other disaster; far from it. Believe me, I still haven’t. But I worked hard to separate the fact that we chose the procedure that ended our first pregnancy from the notion that we had any control whatsoever over the outcome. And this time, unless I hurl myself down the stairs like in old movies—which, I hear, is actually unlikely to do harm—I have found myself somewhat sturdier in the belief that my pregnancy is going to do what my pregnancy is going to do. And meanwhile, David could get hit by a bus. God forbid, but you see what I’m saying. Of course we have agency; I don’t believe in “fate.” But there is great freedom in accepting, living with, embracing, or—when appropriate—willfully ignoring uncertainty. The alternative, really, can make you crazy.

That’s also why I’ve been somewhat mellow, especially this time around, about superstition. It’s traditional for Jews not to have showers, to leave the baby-to-be’s room empty until his or her advent, and not to disclose names until after the birth. Just this summer, my cousins—who made me a beaded red bindel to ward off the evil eye—practically disinvited me from their father’s unveiling: too superstitious about bellies in graveyards.

I declined several kind offers to host baby showers—due more to a “Jews don’t do such things” gut feeling than to a belief that accepting a new pair of booties would cause us to give birth to an alien. It was also a karmic gesture to my infertile sistren: Should they suffer like I have? Instead, we planned two separate non-shower events to celebrate with friends and receive their non-Playskool blessings. While many mothers find a certain pregnancy book, the one that rhymes with “Mutts to Inspect When You’re Collecting,” the embodiment of evil, I do not believe that my hasty rite-of-passage purchase thereof last year was in any way related to our loss. It killed me to throw out the “pregnancy journal” I’d started, along with various other mementos of the first time—in fact, I made David do it—but it’s not as if our loss would have been easier without them.

For me, it’s come down to addressing this question: Which will make me more insane, having baby items in the house before she’s born, or not having them in the house before she’s born? In response, I have made utterly irrational and inconsistent decisions. The hand-me-down onesies stay in the hall, but the hand-me-down Boppies (current total: three. Please, no more.) make it into the nursery—I mean, den closet. The crib we ordered is ready for delivery, but we told Schneider’s we’d rather wait. In other words, I improvise. I ask myself what I can live with; the answers don’t always make sense. It feels good to wear the bindel, but mainly as a reminder that if God forbid something goes wrong, my family will be there.

Sometimes I wonder if writing about baby Kinehora in the first place will come back to haunt me. Sometimes I look around my expecting moms group and think, “One of us might not make it.” And when I hear Unetaneh tokef again, I may shudder anew. What will happen to me, our baby, our friends, our families this year? I cannot know, I cannot control it. All I can know is how it feels, at this instant, to be 34 weeks pregnant (currently, since you asked, it feels like someone’s doing Tae Bo in my belly), how it feels to watch my husband lead us in prayer, how it feels to mark the passage of another year, how it feels to be sitting, right where I am, in my sensible clogs, right now. To me—as I have learned, in a harder way than I might have liked—that is how it feels to live.

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