New Ceremonies: Being Pregnant
In a world where pregnancy is a choice, we should ritually acknowledge those who undertake it.
Excerpted with permission from Daughters of the King, edited by Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut (Jewish Publication Society).
In many respects, pregnancy and parenting are new phenomena. This sounds like a patently absurd statement until we consider the dramatic changes that have taken place surrounding the experience of having children in the last 200 years. Women no longer expect to die in childbirth. Where once perhaps half of all women died giving birth, the number of women who do so now is small enough that we do not consciously worry about this risk any longer.
Today Pregnancy Is a Choice
At the same time that the physical prospect of bearing children has become less frightening, the material costs of raising these children have become more daunting. With the changes in our economic system, children are not the economic assets they once were. On the contrary, raising the middle-class child involves the expenditure of an enormous amount of money and a reduction in most parents' standard of living. Recent scholarship has indicated that the "maternal instinct" is neither innate nor universal. Deciding to have children is a difficult personal choice that involves love, will, determination, and a readiness for self-sacrifice.
It is in that word "choice" that the great magnitude of the change in childbirth becomes apparent. Pregnancy is no longer inevitable for most people. With our improved knowledge of birth control, pregnancy can usually be scheduled or prevented. Even when prophylaxis fails and accidents happen, modern abortion techniques make it possible to terminate a pregnancy early, easily, and safely. Theoretically, since every pregnancy can be terminated, every pregnancy that has not been ended has been accepted and chosen. Every pregnancy is a volitional act, every child is a "wanted" child.
If pregnancy has become an act of volition rather than inevitability, of decision rather than destiny, it demands conscious thought, recognition, and sacralization. We need to recognize parenting, with all its difficulties and sacrifices, as the valuable and valiant work that it is and to appreciate pregnancy for the labor and effort that it involves. We should celebrate pregnancy as a major contribution to our communal life. That we have not done so is due to the "naturalness" of the task and to the fact that the organized community has thought mainly about affairs in which men are more immediately involved.
Ritualizing Biological Events
All the major biological events of women's lives--menarche, sexual maturation, pregnancy, lactation, menopause--have been ignored by our religious traditions and thereby made into secular events. The androcentricity of our inherited religious and cultural traditions, however, as well as their lack of attention to biology, are not irrevocable and should not cause irremediable loss. Now that women have had greater access to learning and to participation in Jewish public life, now that we have found our own voices, it is time to turn our attention to the "female" (biological) aspects of women's existence. If pregnancy is a decision, it should be a spiritual and religious decision, and if childbearing is an important and sacred task, it needs to be affirmed and celebrated as such. For this, we need new prayers and rituals, and women in the last decade have been writing and performing new women-centered and women-acted liturgy.