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Bein HaShemashot of Motherhood

Can you be both pregnant and not? It’s a more spiritual question than it seems.

Shira Hecht-Koller
February 04, 2020
Shira Hecht-Koller
Shira Hecht-Koller
Shira Hecht-Koller
Shira Hecht-Koller

Each day the sunset indiscriminately throws the world into a haze of uncertain beauty. Like the fluids that paint the body of a newborn child, bands of pink and purple, ruby and rust bleed into one another across the horizon and the sky is streaked with promise and possibility, but also with longing and loss. For photographers, the moments after the sun goes down is an essential time. Adjustments to aperture are urgently perfected to capture a series of fleeting instants. What is now vivid and evocative will soon be darkened and cloaked in mystery. As the colors and cloud formations shift and change with each passing second, painters furiously mix pigments to capture a world sliding into invisibility. It is a time when transparency gives way to opacity, allowing for the imaginative possibilities in between.

The complexity of the moment is one that is almost impossible to capture in all its dimensions, if at all. Even the clearest lens or surest brushstroke struggles to do justice to what the eye can behold. And yet–to forsake the attempt is to give up something vital about life. As Susan Sontag reflects in On Photography, “A sunset in real life might be the corny sunset of a photo, but what happens when these two worlds collide—and, as is sometimes the case, the real sunset is enhanced by the romanticism of the photographed sunset, and life becomes augmented, almost doubled?” Dusk is a time, standing in between two worlds–or perhaps inhabiting both–that life has the potential to become “almost doubled.”

Most of the time, we can live with the doubt of not knowing if we are at the end of the day or the beginning of the night. We can deal with the ambiguity, and may even thrive on it. Dusk is fleeting and provisional; by the time you notice it, it is already partway fled. But Jewish law, halakha, demands categorization, and strives to classify this period of time, called ben ha-shemashot, literally, “between the suns.” It is a murky time punctuated by urgent questions. Is it still a time to recite the afternoon prayers? Can the night-time commandments be fulfilled yet? And when does shabbat begin? The talmud says that the reigning paradigm of this interval is safeq, or doubt: “Ben ha-shemashot: it is safeq partly day, safeq partly night, safeq entirely day, safeq entirely night.”

What is the doubt? Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that this is not a case of a lack of knowledge, or an inability to decide, but a tension between two ways of thinking about the day. It is not that we know too little, but that we know too much. Dusk holds two truths in tension. The night starts at dark, and until then must be day, but in another vein, the day ends at sunset, and night begins immediately thereafter. So what is this period? It is a different kind of a safeq, an extraordinary kind of a space that is not in doubt but liminal. It is both day and night.

“Pregnant” is usually a clear-cut category, stark and binary. The same is true with “day” and “night.” But sometimes these clear-cut divisions fail us, and collapse into each other. Sometimes it is both day and night, neither and both. And sometimes one is both pregnant and not. I was, nine years ago. I was 33 at the time, the mother of a daughter and a son, ages nine and six, and had been trying conceive for some time. After many days of unnatural bleeding at the end of what was my normal cycle, I visited my physician, not at all expecting to hear the footfalls of life that would follow. He asked if there was a chance that I was pregnant. I responded, perplexed, “well, anything is possible, but no, I don’t think so.” When I was hooked up to a fetal monitor and heard the soft yet firm pounding of a beating heart, I was disarmed and jolted into alertness. I was confused–and excited–but I was not at all prepared. I had thought that my irregular bleeding meant that conception the prior month did not take. As my doctor and I huddled together over the sonogram, he gently cautioned me not to get too excited, as the fetus would in all likelihood terminate itself, the bleeding a sign of an unhealthy pregnancy. The truth of the heartbeat existed alongside the truth that the fetus was not viable.

I walked out of the office that night, alone, and plagued by an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty, of safeq, of existential doubt. I came to the office not thinking I was pregnant, left knowing that I was, but that by the next week I would not be. Like the moment of sunset, the bands of color were shifting by the minute and painting my body with possibility and promise, but also with the potential for longing and loss. I wondered – how was one to walk through the world in the days that followed? In the mindset of carrying a child, or not? Was it day or was it night? Was I pregnant or was I not? I was living in liminality, disoriented, impossibly situated. It was a moment that was powerful and perplexing and though years have passed and I have given birth to more children, the feelings are still raw and visceral. I was neither here nor there, but inhabiting both spheres. In halakhic terminology, I was in the ben ha-shemashot of motherhood.

Pregnancy is not just a present reality; it also indicates a future trajectory. Being pregnant is a plot, an ending written into the beginning. I already had two children and was fully entrenched in the throes of motherhood, I knew all too well what the subsequent weeks, months and years would look like. That is what made the days that followed, days of uncertainty–when I went for hormone treatments with a sense of urgency–both personally poignant and conceptually interesting.

Was I pregnant? In a sense, yes. But also, no. Even though technically there was the fusion of fertilized egg and sperm in my body, nestled in my womb, it was a womb that was bleeding itself out, and the pregnancy was going to self-terminate. So what does it mean to be pregnant if the odds are not in your favor? Was I pregnant or not pregnant?

For me this particular moment years ago captures something essential about a critical and existential dimension of my life as a mother. In reflecting upon my identity, I constantly think – am I, or am I not “a mother”? On one level, of course, I am a mother, as I have conceived and born children. But more philosophically, when I wake up in the morning, I think to myself – who am I today? Who do I want to be? At any given moment, it can shift. More often than not, my maternal identity is embraced whole-heartedly. (Responsibly, I have no choice. There are mouths to feed and emotions to tend to.) At other times, however, it is willfully shed. Yet, even in those moments of supreme independence, freed from the bonds and chains that the umbilical cord demands, the maternal can abruptly envelop me, jolting me into alertness and overwhelming me with emotion, unexpectedly, as it has before.

Now that my oldest child is just shy of eighteen–and on the cusp of being an adult herself–and my youngest is four, still a baby to me, I think about all the things my body has been through over the years–the different stages and fleeting moments of motherhood, the intense feelings of pleasure and pain, the instances of uncertainty, shifting by the second, and I try to capture and behold what is and what is not. Each moment feels different, hazy, existentially fraught, and filled with an aesthetic beauty of living, that, like the painted sky, is fleeting. It is at once day and also night. I am simultaneously pregnant and I am not. I walk through the world inhabiting my identity as a mother, but also, I shed it willfully. It is perplexing, but essential to who I am as a human.

Through the haze, there are of course moments of clarity. So often they are suffused with great joy, gratification and abundance. But when they are ones of pain and trauma, when the sun sets, and all the colors become black, and there is no question that it is night, and the potential life turns out to be temporary, there is comfort in knowing that there will always be another day.

Shira Hecht-Koller, Esq is an educator, attorney and writer. She is currently the Director of Education for 929 English, a global platform for the study of Tanakh. She is the proud mother of Dalya, Shachar, Amitai and Aiden.

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