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It was a clear spring day in Tempe. I’d been in Arizona less than a year and was still learning the feeling of living under a sun so forceful that it made all thoughts except finding shade and water secondary. Luckily, there was ample shade in the backyard of Julie’s midcentury ranch house, which was down the street from the one my husband and I had just moved into. Julie’s house belonged to her husband, too, but he wasn’t there for the occasion.
I had only been to a couple of baby showers before this one, but apparently they’d been unconventional by the standards of my new life, because they’d been hastily assembled and cheerfully disorganized gatherings, with men and alcohol and without themes or colors or games. This shower was staid by comparison. A half-dozen women in their 30s sat around tables on the patio, sipping iced tea and nibbling on unremarkable finger food. I don’t mean to imply that the snacks weren’t good. It’s just that nothing felt totally real to me, because I’d had my first baby a few weeks before. And this was my baby’s shower. Was this how it was supposed to be? I had no real frame of reference, about baby showers or anything else baby-related. And I was 34 years old.
If I sound clueless about social customs pertaining to the perpetuation of the species, it’s because I was.
I was raised by civilized wolves. My parents, both immigrants to the U.S. from other countries, didn’t do things the way American parents did. On top of that, we moved frequently, belonged to no religious organization, and had no family, immediate or otherwise, within hundreds of miles. (We weren’t in the witness-protection program, but we might as well have been.) What traditions the five of us practiced were our own, cobbled together in relative isolation, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized there were major gaps in my understanding of how regular life worked. I knew about some Jewish traditions thanks to my father, an unaffiliated agnostic Jew, and I knew about some Christian traditions thanks to pretty much everyone else, both at school and on television. But I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere except at home.
When it came to a baby shower, I was doubly in the dark. Over the years, I’d come to rely on my friends to help me figure out how to celebrate and mourn, but when I was three months pregnant, I’d moved to Arizona, where I knew no one. My then-husband had grown up in a relatively traditional Jewish community in Detroit, where everybody was trying to keep up with the Kleinfelds, so by the time you were planning your own “lifecycle” event, you’d already been to dozens and you knew what was expected. That community was like a well-oiled machine that took over and figured it out for you. But my husband was ambivalent about the traditions he’d grown up with, and we weren’t in Detroit — so we had some wiggle room and some autonomy. It was primarily up to me to figure out what kinds of customs I wanted my child to observe going forward.
Jewish tradition holds that you don’t have a baby shower until after the baby is born. Why? Depends who you ask. As the old saying “Two Jews, three opinions” would indicate, there are multiple explanations. Most of the Jews I asked didn’t know why it was, whether it was superstition or commandment. They just knew that it wasn’t done, the same way you don’t name a baby after a living relative.
So when my new neighbors proposed a baby shower before my daughter’s birth, I paused. I didn’t want to seem like an ingrate or a religious zealot. But I’d gone so long without feeling like I belonged anywhere that it was a strange relief to be part of a “we,” as in, “This is how we do things.” And “we” didn’t have baby showers before babies were born. Nor did we buy stuff for the baby before it arrived.
The idea of not celebrating something before it took place made sense to me. If you counted on something good happening, you were tempting fate, and fate would fuck you up. Tall, cheerful poppies got chopped down. People who counted their chickens before they hatched ended up watching other people eat chicken stew. None of this had been explicitly imparted to me by my own family, but a cursory glance at the previous few generations made it clear. My mother’s father had moved his wife and teenage daughters from rural England to the U.S. in search of a better and more economically stable life and then died of a heart attack, leaving his widow pretty much penniless and unemployable. My own father had started life in Berlin as an adored and privileged single child, only to become a homeless teenage refugee. It was dangerous, if not obscene, to be happy. It was treacherous to count on the future.
I explained to my new friends that in the Jewish tradition, the baby shower was held after the baby’s birth. They were kind about it, but I sensed a certain disappointment, perhaps because there would be no games involving guessing the baby’s birth weight, no uncertainty to play with. And they thought it was nuts that I was going to bring a baby home to a house without all the stuff I’d need to raise her. I promised them I’d cheat and get some of the essentials beforehand (a crib, a changing table, some diapers), and that there would be plenty left to buy the kid after we brought her home.
I remember sitting on Julie’s patio with people I’d only known for a few months. I remember the weather was perfect, the sun bright and merciless as usual. I remember receiving a little white sun hat and some other presents. I don’t remember much else. A few weeks after she was born, my daughter required hospitalization for several days. Did that happen before or after the shower? I don’t know. I look back and I see that I was sleepwalking, too afraid to look past the next day. I think that’s how I spent much of my life, actually. It was too vulnerable to be present.
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When my daughter was 2, the marriage she was born into fell apart — spectacularly, but not all at once, like a crystal bowl with a fatal crack. None of the traditions and superstitions we’d adhered to protected us: not the glass my husband smashed under his heel as I stood next to him in a custom-made gown at our lovely wedding, not the baby shower with the baby herself as guest of honor, not the baby-naming ceremony attended by not just one but two rabbis.
Those things didn’t enter into the final equation, as reassuring as they were at the time. Like the magical thinking of my childhood, honed over hours of trudging to and from elementary school (“If I get to the corner before a red car passes me, it will be okay”) and sitting on the toilet praying to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in to make my stomachaches go away, they allowed an illusion of control, of keeping the worst at bay. But the truth is that people are fucked up, and terrible things happen, and no amount of magical thinking, religious or otherwise, can change that. It turns out that whether you expect disaster or not, it will come — which I find oddly liberating. We can’t invite bad luck by our actions; it’s already on its way!
The second time I got married, my husband-to-be and I went to the justice of the peace. I wore boots, a gold skirt, and a black sweater. It was a few years ago, and neither of us can readily come up with what the exact date was now. I had no special superstitious feelings about the sum of the day and the month and the year and what it portended. But I remember standing in the judge’s chambers, very clearly. I remember feeling happy and excited.
And so far, so good.