There is a misconception among many women that “real”–that is, intervention-free–births are beautiful, spiritual, and a necessary rite of passage to become a complete woman. And then, oy, there are c-sections, something to be ashamed of, feel like a failure about, and generally spend a week (or months) crying over. Not because the stitches hurt so badly, but because you feel like you have failed as a woman, mother, Jewess, and resident of the planet Earth.
A lot of women have c-sections–A LOT–and thank G-d, because c-sections are available, countless women and their babies, G-d willing, will be healthy after the birth (not to mention alive, which might not have been the case 100 years ago). If you are pregnant now, there is a decent chance that you will be have a cesarean, and that is why I want to tell you all about Leah Glaser, a mother in my neighborhood who is in her seventh month of pregnancy, has already set up the appointment for her seventh cesarean, and IS HAPPY ABOUT IT.
Leah is the proud mother of seven children. She grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Connecticut, and graduated from Brandeis with a major in Sociology of Spirituality. What can you do with a major in Sociology of Spirituality, you ask? Well, Leah decided to pursue advanced studies in her college major as a rebbetzin, teacher, and Pinsk-Karliner Chassid in a Yiddish-speaking section of Jerusalem.
Now, Leah is one of the most natural people that I know. She’s the kind of person that you consult with about the best brand of organic sprouts to buy, or whether soy or almond milk is healthier. So, how is it that a woman who makes whole wheat challah every Shabbos is so into c-sections?
This is her story.
Twelve years ago, Leah was becoming observant, and at the same time she began thinking about the connection between Torah and living a healthy lifestyle–eating healthy and organic food and using natural-holistic healing in order to have healthier and stronger bodies with which to serve G-d. A few years later, Leah met her husband who, like her, teaches Judaism to beginners (he teaches at the Aish Hatorah Yeshiva) and they decided that G-d’s special mission for them was to teach people in the Orthodox community and the newly religious that G-d really wants them to be more natural–in how they eat, heal themselves, and give birth.
She and her husband moved into a Chassidic community, and Leah taught a class on natural nutrition to 10 of her Yiddish-speaking neighbors. She introduced them for the first time to the benefits of eating tofu, sprouts, whole wheat flour, and so on. And then she got pregnant.
Since she was so worried about the effect of drugs on her and the baby, Leah prepared for months to ensure that she would have the most natural birth possible. She took baths every night with rosemary oil and drank liters and liters of raspberry tea. She did not take notes when her birthing class teacher discussed painkillers or c-sections, as she was sure that section of the class didn’t apply to her.
Her water broke one Saturday night during a melaveh malkah (meal that is customarily held after Shabbat) meal, and she went with her private midwife, labor coach and husband to the birthing center. It was a very difficult labor, and after 50 hours, the midwife could tell from Leah’s contractions that she was going through transition (the part of labor right before the birth). But when she measured her, Leah was still only three centimeters dilated. The midwife started crying, and left the room. In the end, the baby was in distress, and the doctor decided on a cesarean.
To say that Leah was disappointed would be the understatement of the century. She was depressed, traumatized, angry, and crushed. How could G-d have let her down? She had done everything possible to ensure that she would have a positive, beautiful birth–an opportunity to bond with her husband as well as provide a personal example for other religious mothers that drug-free, natural births are possible and better for the mother and the baby. She had just wanted to do G-d’s will by being as healthy as possible, not wanting to use any drugs that she feared would hurt the baby, and G-d had rewarded her for her desire to serve Him with a c-section?
For six weeks she was in a state of shock and could barely function. A good friend carried her baby around in a sling, since she was too exhausted and devastated to take care of the baby outside of nursing her. When friends visited, she tried to put up a good front, saying, “I’m sure G-d runs the world,” and, “Everything’s for the best,” but she felt like she was just mouthing cliches. And then there were two more births. Two more times her water broke during the melaveh malkah meal on Saturday night. Two more times she dilated to three centimeters after hours and hours of hard labor, followed by two more c-sections.
The doctors could not figure out any reason why she could not dilate. She did not have any psychological or emotional blocks to explain it. All that Leah could figure out was that G-d was trying to tell her something–but she didn’t know what. Leah explains that it was at this point that “having the carpet ripped out from under us turned into a springboard for huge growth. It enabled me and my husband to become who we are today.”
This growth came about through the gradual and simple revelation that she had been assuming that her will was the same as G-ds’ will. She had thought that what G-d wanted from her was to eat organic, drink raspberry tea, use homeopathic remedies, and get Shiatsu pregnancy massages so that she would have beautiful intervention-free births. What she realized is that what G-d really wants from her is to make efforts according to the natural world to live a healthy, natural life, but to let go of the results. Or as Leah puts it,”We’re responsible for making the effort; G-d is responsible for the outcome.”
Today, Leah continues to exercise, eat healthy, and drinks her pregnancy tea. She also schedules the appointment for her cesarean sections. But even this she does with a continued openness to G-d’s ultimate will. She still thinks it’s possible that G-d will surprise her, and she’ll go into labor and give birth naturally before the doctor can operate. To Leah, it no longer matters. What’ s important, and what actually makes being alive and serving G-d beautiful, is going about her life and watching G-d reveal the Divine will, which is so much more colorful and complex than anything Leah could have thought up. She has learned to want what G-d gives her, which, as strange as it may seem, is c-section after c-section.
To this day, Leah can’t explain on a rational level why G-d wants her to go through a c-section each time she has a baby, having to send her children to neighbors’ houses in the weeks following the birth and not being able to have students over during the long weeks of recovery. But she has come to accept that G-d’s understanding is infinitely bigger and greater than a mere human being’s understanding of what is rational, logical, and good. G-d does what G-d wants, so even though sometimes we look at the world and it looks as messed up as the bottom side of the carpet, G-d only sees the incredible, beautiful, intricate pattern on the top.
While at this point in Leah’s life she can’t see the pattern, that’s okay with her. Just giving herself over to play the role that G-d wants her to in His universe is what being a Jew is really about. She, in her limited understanding, had wanted to serve G-d by teaching her neighbors about the virtues of natural childbirth, and in the end, G-d wants her to serve Him by scheduling her c-sections with the doctor, and resting afterwards in order to recuperate.
Leah compares her service of G-d to that of a worker in a factory. The factory owner likes it when his worker shows initiative, and comes up with his own ideas to improve the factory–just like Leah did when she tried to introduce healthy living to the Orthodox world. But if the worker’s suggestion hurts the interests of the factory as a whole, then the owner will reject the worker’s suggestions, even if the worker cannot understand the reason his suggestion has been rejected while standing at his spot next to the conveyer belt on the factory floor.
Since Leah does not give birth to her children in a certain sense-they, in a way, just appear–the cesareans also make it easier for her to relate to the traditional Jewish idea that parents are just caretakers of their children, that these precious souls really belong to G-d.
Chana Jenny Weisberg is the creator of JewishMOM.com.