[I wrote this essay in December 2020 but was very hesitant about publishing.... My daughter has since given birth thank God to amazing and miraculous twin girls.... an experience I will write about in due time.]
When my oldest daughter recently shared with my husband and me that she is pregnant, my immediate reaction, as might be expected, was one of unadulterated joy. It’s like the feeling you have when you find out that you are having a baby, only multiplied by a generation. This beautiful creature who came out of your body is bringing another miraculous being into the world – in this case, two miraculous beings (!) – and the feeling is overwhelming.
But as our new reality settled in, more emotions came flooding. As a mother to a daughter, I also feel like a link in an induction into one of the formative experiences of women over the generations. Although not all women get pregnant or can get pregnant or want to get pregnant, and some women become mothers without getting pregnant, and some women get pregnant without becoming mothers, and being a parent is of course also an experience for non-women – while all of this is true, it is also true that the fact that women can get pregnant is a defining feature of our lives. If we are born with uteruses, these are as much a part of our beings as our hearts and lungs. Plus, our societies make sure that we don’t forget it. From the time we are pre-pubescent and listen to nurses or teachers or aunts teach us about getting our periods, through adolescence when we are overloaded with messages about our sexuality and all kinds of messages and perhaps warnings about pregnancy, through our adulthood when the reality of our fertility is often intertwined with every major life decision, pregnancy is like the background music of our experiences. It is a different kind of music for everyone, for sure. Some hear this background music as happy music, others as scary, others as tragic, others as longing, and others as angry. But it’s there. We carry our fertility as a vital piece of our life stories.
In that sense, the life stage that I’ve just entered is one of transferring the baton in a way, of moving aside as my own period of fertility ends and my daughter’s just begins. I feel an urgent desire to protect her, to teach her, to support her, and to give her whatever tools I can to keep her and her babies safe, healthy, and loved. It is a lot. I have a lot to do.
In my case, though, this task – which feels like the most important thing I’m doing with my life right now – is fraught with complications. Although I know what I want to give her as a pregnant woman, I am burdened by traumatic memories around my own pregnancies, and especially around the experiences I had of induction into motherhood.
My first flood of memories came around my own first pregnancy. All around me, the discussion of my body centered around one thing: My weight. My father went on and on about women who gain too much weight during pregnancy and how if women don’t get back their pre-pregnancy bodies right away, they are ruined. They become unhappy because of the extra weight, he said with authority. So it’s a pregnant woman’s first priority to make sure, no matter what, that she doesn’t get too “heavy”. Which mostly is determined by the shape of her face. Her chin especially. A woman whose face becomes too round during pregnancy is in a lot of trouble.
Mind you, I was 22 years old at the time and perfectly thin, but had spent nearly ten years listening to this stuff and had spent my entire adolescence being watched and measured for the flatness of my stomach and the single-ness of my chin on a weekly basis. The most terrifying thing in the world to me was become fat and unacceptable. I mean, our Shabbat table was filled with gossipy discussions about the stomachs of women in synagogue. Who was gaining weight and might be pregnant, who was getting fat and “out of control”, who was waiting too long and may be “having problems.” I am deeply ashamed at how much I participated in this chatter, and have a particularly embarrassing memory of asking a classmate when her older sister was going to be getting pregnant because isn’t that what was supposed to happen. I was fifteen at the time, and should probably forgive myself for not knowing any better. But the remorse is overwhelming.
Today, I can go back and say that my father was being cruel and narcissistic, indoctrinating his daughters into how to fit into his own fantasies of what a correct woman should look like, no matter what our bodies were doing to serve us. The fact that our experiences did not matter in our own lives was something that would take me years to unlearn. But how in the world was I supposed to know that then? I had nobody in my life who could even begin to give me that language to push back and take ownership of my life.
Certainly not my doctor. He was just as bad. This crotchety old man who my mother recommended because he was her doctor for decades used to spend our entire 15-minutes-monthly talking about how I needed to eat less and watch my weight. “Eat melba toast”, he told me idiotically. I still cringe every time I see melba toast in the supermarket.
I mean, seriously, what is with these men looking at pregnant women and trying with all their might to mold us as skinny? Even when our bodies are supposed to be big, they can’t stop treating us like objects in their sexual landscape.
And my mother. My mother. A full participant in this, and worse. For my mother, my pregnancy was not only proof that I am turning myself fat but also proof that I don’t know what I’m doing with my life. I would walk into shul, sit down in my mother’s row with some aunts and other members of her chorus, and get drilled. “What are you going to do with the baby after you give birth?” someone asked, with a tone of accusation clearly received from my mother. I said I didn’t know yet. “Maybe take her with me to work for a while,” I said, perhaps naively. The women looked at each other, with a knowing, judging look, and my mother said, “You see?”
My mother’s opinion that I was irresponsible and unfit to be a mother was proven, in her mind, by a whole bunch of things. She used to tell me and everyone else that “Ever since Elana got married, she has turned off her brain and made terrible decisions.” One of those “terrible decisions” was that my husband and I chose not to live right around the corner from my parents but closer to our work and school. “Do you hate the family that much?” one of my sisters demanded at the time, echoing my mother. My husband and I eventually caved in and moved a mile away and dealt with the ridiculously long commute, only to please my mother.
Another example of how terrible my decisions were was, of course, my weight. I’ll never forget the time I walked into my mother’s living room on a Shabbat afternoon where my mother had lots of guests and she said, “Oh, Elana, we were just talking about you! I read an article that reminded me of you – ‘Women whose husbands make them fat.’” I wanted to turn right back around and leave. But I didn’t. It took me another twenty years before I realized that I actually had that option. By the way, I was around six weeks pregnant when that happened. So there’s that.
Then there was my health during pregnancy. I was nauseous, for a long time. I was throwing up way into my second trimester – which today, I can say for sure, is normal. But in my mother’s mind, a woman who throws up is obviously doing something wrong. When a woman is sick, it’s her own fault. One Shabbat, we drove up to my parent’s country house where the whole house was staying, and I threw up along the side of the road a few times.
During the Shabbat meal, I continued to feel sick, and I left the table to throw up. When I came back, everyone was looking at me with judgment.
“You see, I told you that you can’t handle this,” my father said.
The idea that normal women don’t get sick and don’t complain and don’t need help was echoed throughout the pregnancy. My stupid brother-in-law, self-proclaimed expert on women’s bodies, told me that his wife never had an epidural, because normal, healthy women don’t need it. I had no skills to push back against any of this. Although I did have an epidural and did not tell anyone about it.
In later pregnancies, when I developed gestational diabetes, my mother further used it as proof that my life was a mess and I didn’t know what I was doing. “What’s the matter with you?” she would ask, not as a loving inquiry, but rather as a demand to know what I did wrong to bring on this shame.
After I gave birth, this all got worse. Thankfully, I brought into the world an amazing, beautiful, healthy baby – that same one who today is pregnant – and I was full of joy and excitement at becoming a mother. But the birth itself was not easy, nor was the recovery. It is, after all, birth. The doctor – that awful, patronizing doctor – mocked me, laughed at me, and shamed me in front of his students about things my body did during labor that I won’t repeat here, as if it were something I could control. My aunts and uncles talked about how I took such a long time to pee afterwards. My mother told them all that I had a difficult labor because, you know, I’m so irresponsible and I also eat too much.
And yet, within all this, my mother was all I had to help me. The rule in our house was that a woman who gives birth stays at her mother’s house for two weeks to recover. I needed my mother for help – she taught me about using witch hazel and sitz baths, about how to swaddle a newborn and give a baby a bath – at the same time that she was reinforcing to me that I was a terrible person and too immature to be a mother. And that the most important thing for me to do was to lose all that belly fat. That was how I became a mother.
One thing that my mother could not teach me was how to breastfeed, because she never did it herself. She was of the generation where stupid doctors told women that formula was best. My mother, unfortunately, held on to that opinion even when the science, as well as the real lives of so many women, proved otherwise. My mother mocked and criticized my decision to breastfeed, and openly made cow jokes. But like many women, I had trouble learning how to breastfeed. A woman in my shul, a nurse named Audrey Rosner, saved me. She came over to my mother’s house, sat me down in my mother’s dining room, and showed me how to do it. She saved me and my baby – but my mother looked on with horror at what was happening under her roof, and treated the whole episode with open hostility. I don’t even know why.
The hostility about the breastfeeding continued for months, years really. Around a month after I gave birth, I needed an outfit for my cousin’s bat mitzvah. My mother took me to Loehmann’s, her favorite stomping ground, where I was trying on dresses in size 8 or 10 (gasp!) that had easy baby access. My mother was mortified. By the whole thing. By how fat I was and by how committed I was to breastfeeding. It was all so, you know, embarrassing.
For me, breastfeeding was an incredibly bonding experience. There is something indescribable to me about what it means for your child to be literally feeding off of what your body is making for her. It was a practice for me that was all about unconditional love. You are just giving of yourself, and your child enjoys every second and every ounce.
As I did this, I realized that this experience – of unconditional love – was the exact thing that was missing from my life. I still think that perhaps if my mother had been allowed to breastfeed instead of getting all kinds of rubbish ideas from her own doctors, perhaps she would have been a different kind of mother. Maybe she never learned how to love. Maybe nobody ever trusted her to know how to be a mother.
Shortly after I gave birth, my husband and I announced that we were moving to Israel, in a few months. It should not have come as a surprise because we were saying we were going to do it since before we got engaged. Nevertheless, my family reacted in horror. My father showed up to my house in the middle of the day – something he never did; he never left work for anything – and sat down on my couch as I paced with my baby on my shoulder, and said, “You are making a big mistake.”
Mind you, he was telling me that moving to Israel was a mistake after sending me to 12 years of religious Zionist education.
What was the big mistake I was making?
“You will never be able to manage without your mother,” he said to me.
I knew even then that he was wrong. I did not have the language then to say that my mother was emotionally and verbally abusive to me, that she was a blamer who scapegoated me, shamed me, and gaslit me at every turn. It would take me another 20 years to accumulate those skills and to walk away. But I did know enough even that about the way my mother hurt me incessantly to realize that my father is clueless. I would not only manage quite well without my mother – I would be better off.
That conversation happened the day before my father’s fiftieth birthday. I know because as I was standing there, listening and crying and finding the strength to say that he was wrong, I was also in the process of wrapping his present. It was a picture frame of him holding my baby, and the frame said, “Fifty never looked so good.” I had done that for him, even as he was hurting me in so many ways.
I stood there crying along with my baby, trying to resist. And I handed him his present. He loved it. I was broken.
I turned fifty last year, and I, too, am becoming a grandparent. But it’s a whole different thing.
When my father finally realized that I wasn’t going to change my mind about moving, he finally said, “Okay, well if you’re going to do this, you’ll never be able to survive without my help.”
And so the narrative switched – from the idea that I’ll never survive without my mother, to the idea that I’ll never survive without my father. My father, of course, was not about to help with anything having to do with child-rearing. He’s never changed a diaper in his life, and would not even know how to boil his own water for tea. When he says “help”, it only means one thing: money.
And so, my father decided on that day that we would never make it in Israel without his financial help. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy that sounded like generosity but was really an exercise in narcissistic control. That, too, took me many years to get out of. But that’s the subject of a whole different story.
We moved to Israel with a four-month-old baby, we have since added three more amazing babies to our family, and today – the year after I, too, turned fifty – my oldest child told us that she is pregnant.
It is an amazing experience. But also a time when I have been revisiting many painful memories. Like, the other day when a few people were sitting around talking about the pregnancy and someone mentioned weight. I nearly lost my mind. I did not say anything at all to the people in the room, but in the car ride home with my husband, I was screaming and shaking. That is how trauma works. It comes and goes and sometimes takes over my entire being. I am fully aware that these experiences have planted all kinds of scars inside my soul. My relationship with my stomach has never been okay, and may never be. But I’m working on it.
Mostly, I am fully and completely dedicated to ensuring that my daughter gets the love and support that she needs. Yes, I’m giving her witch hazel and a sitz bath, acknowledging that even within the abuse, there is also a passage of knowledge from one generation to the next. I’m also giving my daughter pregnancy massages and reflexology, and a pregnancy pillow, and other things that make her feel good.
And here’s the thing: By giving her those things, on some level I’m giving them to myself, too. By being for her what I needed for me, I’m fixing and healing some of my own deep scars, too. As if I’m remolding my own experiences of pregnancy and motherhood. I’m breaking the cycle of trauma and abuse around women’s bodies – not just for my daughters and future granddaughters, but also for myself.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, anthropologist, speaker, publisher, coach, and educator. Her most recent book, Conversations with my Body:
Essays on my Life as a Jewish Woman (Lioness Books 2021), explores her personal journey of healing from spiritual-emotional abuse.
Elana has bylines in Slate, The Atlantic, Everyday Feminism, Lilith, Ha'aretz, The Jerusalem Post, The Jerusalem Report, and more. Two of her books won the National Jewish Book Council award, and one won the Gourmand Award. She holds a doctorate in gender studies and education from Hebrew University. Elana blogs at www.jewfem.com and her new blog www.conversationswithmybody.com.