In spite of myself, I started to become a mother the moment I said the shehecheyanu after seeing the faint positive sign appear on the pregnancy test. I knew that not all planned first pregnancies end with you holding your baby in your arms, but they do all begin the same way: with a giddy combination of fear and naïve excitement. Ashkenazi tradition strongly discourages us from making plans too early, but I couldn’t stop myself from visualizing the journey we had begun. Would I spend the next nine months with a beatific smile on my face, reveling in the miracle of my body, or would I be completely miserable the whole time? How would I handle being heavily pregnant on the T at rush hour during the dog days of summer? How perfect would it be when I watched my husband hold our baby for the first time?
I knew how I wanted to give birth, which stroller and baby carrier I wanted to buy, and which names I liked the best (in English and in Hebrew). I did not know how despondent I would be when the pain and the bleeding began.
There is no way to prepare for this.
In the first few days after my body betrayed my heart, I was shocked at how profoundly I felt the loss. What was I mourning? Not a child, but the idea of one. The idea of myself as a mother, of my husband as a father. The grief was keener than what I felt after the loss of real people, family and friends, whose faces I’d seen and whose voices I could still remember.
Going to the mikveh was hard for me even as I was looking forward to it. I had imagined myself immersing again in late summer, feeling relief as the water supported the weight of my heavy belly, emerging ready to bring a new Jewish life into the world. My husband was going to accompany me and immerse to mark his transition into fatherhood. Instead, when we walked down the path to the mikveh together it was my heart that was heavy; my husband’s first immersion marked his acceptance of a loss.
We stood beneath the cloud lights between the two mikvaot and read the prayers in the couple’s ceremony for mourning a miscarriage that Mayyim Hayyim provides, and then we separated, preparing and immersing alone. I go to the mikveh regularly, but as I walked down the steps into the pool that day the ritual felt alien. What had in the past been a celebration of my body and my marriage was now a cry for wholeness. I had been torn apart and was hoping that the water would put me back together again.
After I immersed three times and said the prayers, my guide gave me some time alone. As I stood in the pool I remembered a moment during my mikveh guide training when we discussed the fact that the water is not magic. I knew then that what I was looking for wasn’t in the water. Well actually, it was in the water, but only because I was in the water. What I was looking for was within me. I sank beneath the surface one last time and spread my fingers and toes as I realized that it was the act of coming to the mikveh that meant that I was ready to begin living again. Because I had the strength to walk out of the water and back into the world, I knew I had the strength to carry on.
Before my husband and I clasped hands and walked together back up the path to the parking lot, I thanked our guide and wrote in the guest book: “The mourning has not ended, but now the healing can begin.”
Alissa Golbus is a member of the seventh cohort of mikveh guides at Mayyim Hayyim.