A Ceremony Is Born
by Rabbi Danielle Stillman
The women who attended my blessing circle couldn’t believe the news when they heard it. I daresay everyone felt like they had a little bit to do with it—I certainly think they did.
My first baby was born three weeks early, causing me to miss the blessing circle scheduled for one week later, and disrupting my plans for a home birth. When I was pregnant with my second baby, I was determined to have a blessing circle and to do everything I could to enable a homebirth. I wanted to be able to relax, to trust my midwives, and to feel confident in my ability to birth. Since one of the best ways I know to prepare for something is through ritual, I was determined to use many of the rituals available to me!
The friends who were organizing the blessing circle were only available ten days before my due date—a little late, but I had no choice. I decided to immerse in the mikveh on the Saturday night before the circle. Many Jewish women visit the mikveh when they enter their ninth month of pregnancy. One of my midwives accompanied me as a witness. I used the time to set my intentions, to voice my hopes for a healthy, smooth birth and to find the flexibility to accept the unexpected. The warm water of the mikveh surrounded me and buoyed me up; I felt light and held by the womb-like space.
Two days later we held my blessing circle. We went outside and set a beautiful table with cookies and tea sandwiches. While the guests were eating, my friend Sara instructed everyone to write and decorate notes of encouragement, blessing or wisdom on small, circular cards. She gathered them into a box she had decorated for me to read when I needed them. Then, everyone gathered in a circle and my friend Abby taught us a song about opening. Next, it was time for henna. I rolled up my shirt and each woman took turns decorating my belly with concentric circles of her own design. While they worked, we talked, and some gave blessings and parenting wisdom to me. As I sat and let the henna dry, I shared my feelings about the upcoming birth. I unwrapped a “birthing bundle” that I had prepared to bring with me into labor. It contained three symbolic objects—one that represented the baby about to born, one that represented my husband and birthing partner, and one that represented the birthing mother. To end the blessing circle we sang again.
That evening I began to have contractions, but it was hard to tell if this was the real thing. I opened the box that contained the blessing cards from the day, and read each one, feeling the support and love of my friends. As my contractions continued, I let my husband and midwife know that that the baby might come that night. I brought the box and the birthing bundle up to my bedroom, where I planned to have the baby. The last thing I did before I lay down to rest was wipe the dried henna off my huge belly. The lines were faint but visible.
Yasmine was born in the early hours of the next day—at home as planned. The women who attended my blessing circle couldn’t believe the news when they heard it. I daresay everyone felt like they had a little bit to do with it—I certainly think they did.
Danielle Stillman is the rabbinical advisor at Ursinus College Hillel in Collegeville, PA.