Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Niddah and Childbirth

Something I've been thinking about over the expanse of this pregnancy is what happens after the pregnancy. Yes, there will be a baby and chaos and madness and a lack of sleep and insanity, but what happens between husband and wife?

Now, I'm not about to get personal on you here, but this is a topic that a lot of women in the religious Jewish community have to deal with, and I think it would be nice to have a quick, concise understanding of what happens once baby arrives. Also, I never thought I'd like being able to canoodle with my husband 24/7 without those monthly disturbances, but after being married one month and getting pregnant, I've been spoiled on the ability to always get a hug when I need it.

What is niddah

When a woman isn't pregnant or breastfeeding and her menstrual cycle is functioning as normal as one does, she goes through the ebb and flow of being a niddah. Contrary to popular belief, niddah doesn't mean "unclean" or "dirty," but rather "separate" or "moved" according to ritual impurity. Yes, the term impure is a pretty loaded term, but there are plenty of ways for men to become impure as well.

A woman is considered niddah after her menstrual cycle ends and she experiences seven clean days without bleeding and when the total of bleeding + clean days adds up to at least 12 days. Yes, that means most women will spend half the month and year in niddah, unable to do a variety of things like having sex with her spouse. There are differing opinions on the 12 days rule among different groups of Jews, and Yoatzot.org goes into some of those here.

Once the clean days have finished, a woman goes to mikvah (the ritual bath as its known) and dunks, and is once again back to normal life with her husband.

So what does this have to do with being pregnant and giving birth?

In the final stages of labor, a woman becomes a yoledet, which puts her in the same category as niddah. There are a ton of different aspects of the birthing process that complicate or intensify things like whether it's a natural birth or C-section, whether she's having a boy or a girl, and so on. But basically a woman becomes a yoledet and the rules of niddah take over. For a woman in the midst of birth, I can imagine, this can be a pretty emotionally rotten time for her husband to be completely hands off.

I'm struggling a little bit with this concept, especially because (in my mind) after you give birth or in those final moments you want your partner's hand to squeeze and a kiss after going through the crazy ordeal of bringing a miniature human into the world, but it's all hand's off because of niddah.

There are even many rabbis who have ruled that a husband shouldn't even be in the birthing room at the time of labor because of the laws of yoledet/niddah, which prohibit the husband from seeing his wife naked, let alone any other graphic things that go on in the birthing room. Luckily, Rav Moshe Feinstein has said that it's okay for the husband to be in the birthing room supporting his wife, but there's still a hands-off approach (Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:75).

This might be one of the reasons that doulas are a popular addition to the Jewish birthing process, me thinks. Giving birth is such an all-sensory experience, I find it hard to imagine not sharing the physical side with Mr. T. No kiss? No hug? No job well done?

And, since you become a yoledet/niddah in labor, you have to go through the normal cycle as you would any other time. Once the bleeding after birth stops, you have to count seven clean days and visit the mikvah. Then you're back to that pre-baby pregnancy bliss of being able to canoodle your spouse whenever you like. Heck, squish that baby between your faces and smooch away!

At least that's how it works for some women. Your period can return anywhere between 11 weeks and 24 months after you give birth, depending on oodles of different factors. Some women start menstruating right away and can get pregnant immediately, others opt for birth control to regulate things and put off a baby a bit further. As all things with a woman's body go, it's a complete crapshoot.

It will be interesting post-birth to see how this all impacts me. I've never been a super touchy-feely person when it comes to significant others, but I've grown to enjoy the comfort of knowing there's a kiss or hug around the corner when I need it. Knowing that birth can do all sorts of wackadoodle things to your hormones has me in a bit of a stomach knot, because observing the laws of taharat ha'mishpacha means that you live within the confines of Torah and it doesn't bend to your will or want -- even when you think you need it.

On the other hand, it might be nice to get back into the mikvah-going mindset. Once-a-month getaways with some silence and relaxation to reconnect to myself, my body, and HaShem? Sounds divine. It really is a toss-up, and I only wish I could see the future.

What has been your experience with giving birth and being a yoledet? Was it difficult? How did you cope with being physically "alone" during such an intense time?