When I congratulated “Julie” at her son’s bris, I couldn’t believe she looked better than I did at my wedding. Like most of the other women attending the ritual circumcision, we were amazed that anyone could be so put-together eight days after giving birth.
Trim and graceful with manicured nails and perfect makeup, Julie went out of her way to insist that I sample the blintz soufflé on the elaborate buffet table, making me highly doubtful that this could be the same woman who had just shared her horror story — 30 hours of excruciating labor.
Women like Julie shouldn’t shock me anymore, but somehow they still do. As the wife of a mohel, I have seen them all. From moms who fit into their pre-pregnancy size 6 suits to others who still generously fill their maternity clothes and make me wonder if they already had the baby, meeting new mothers is routine as grocery shopping.
Brit milah (ritual circumcision) permeates my home in uncanny ways. During dinner, it is our favorite conversation-opener. The autoclave my husband uses to sterilize his instruments has piqued the interests of many of our guests, wondering if we use it to sterilize our baby’s bottle nipples as well. While I am trying to watch my weight, my husband jumps at the opportunity to get ice cream at the local Carvel because his favorite surgical supply store is on the way.
One of the best perks of living with a resident mohel is, when I accidentally cut myself in the kitchen, my husband runs for his gauze pads and Polysporin ointment. After all, healing a wound is his forte. I must be the only woman in the world who has had avkas bris, a powder manufactured in Jerusalem especially for mohelim, sprinkled on her cut.
More than anything, as a mohel’s wife I have gained a profound appreciation for the role of a new mom. I am always amazed when eight days after giving birth to a boy, while she is sore from pushing, exasperated from a lack of sleep, nervous her newborn is not eating, irritated by her aching breasts, annoyed with the wobbly donut that has replaced her stomach and often recovering from routine surgical procedures such as a C-section or an episiotomy — not to mention she’s postpartum and definitely hormonal — a new mother is expected to entertain guests at her son’s bris when the last thing she wants to do is get dressed.
No matter how sensitive the mohel is, a mom still emotionally raw from the experience of giving birth is pulled by polar opposites: the innate need to mother her baby and the social obligation of putting on a happy face while her son goes through minor surgery.
When I was pregnant with our first child, I wondered if I would be able to live up to the legacy so many amazing women have placed before me. I doubted I could be like “Melissa,” who vaginally delivered twin boys and showed up at her synagogue’s social hall eight days later as cool as Jackie O in a mint-colored moiré. Or like “Shira,” who, after greeting her guests, made sure the caterer wrapped up the extra food for a charity so none of it would go to waste. I definitely couldn’t follow in the footsteps of “Deena,” who not only attended the early-morning prayer services, but gave a 10-minute speech during the meal following the bris.
A month before my due date, my husband and I discussed the details of a bris just in case we were having a boy. Of course we knew which mohel to use, but other aspects require more planning. I found myself wishing I belonged to the group of Chassidic women where a new mother customarily stays at home while her son’s bris takes place in the synagogue. To be relieved of the pressure to entertain when all I would want to do is nest, appealed to me. But what would the spirit of a bris be like without the mother in attendance? Without her smiling countenance and joyful tears?
Although we spent evenings contemplating the perfect bris, comparing small affairs with elaborate ones, making a guest list and then crossing out half the names only to realize it was still too large, we never found an ideal solution. In the beginning of our discussions the idea of creating an environment where a new mother can feel comfortable attending, yet free of pressure to play the role of hostess, seemed attainable. But when my water broke two weeks early, I was disheartened that my image of a picture-perfect bris was still fingertips out of our reach.
So when I gave birth to a girl and blissfully didn’t leave my house for the first three weeks, I was grateful for the opportunity to bide my time, wondering if, perhaps with my next baby, I will be up to making a bris.