A month ago, a day after our son was born, my husband brought our “big girls,” ages 4 and 2, to visit me and the newborn in the hospital. “You have a baby brother!” I said to them. The big one, already old enough to know that boys have cooties, lamented the fact that it wasn’t a baby sister. The little one peered into his glass hospital basinet. “She’s a boy?” she asked.
Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve been surprised at the reactions, including my own, to the fact that a male child was born into our family. I have been overwhelmed by the rituals and practices that surround the birth of a baby boy. I gave birth on a Wednesday, and came home on a Friday afternoon, exhausted, and ready to cocoon. That very night, though, while I nursed upstairs, our living and dining rooms were filled with guests; well-wishers who came to sing, tell stories, give blessings, and eat chick-peas. This traditional event, called a Shalom Zachor, which takes place on the first Friday night after a male child is born, is an opportunity for the members of the community to come and welcome the new child. It is an event that takes place only for boys; girls are welcomed into the Jewish people immediately by virtue of their birth. But since the boy has not yet been circumcised, he is, supposedly, despondent, and is cheered up only when throngs of people descend upon his exhausted parents’ house.
My husband and I hadn’t even wanted to partake in this ritual, but gentle communal encouragement won us over. And I must admit, that, as I sat upstairs, listening to the familiar voices of friends singing and sharing words of Torah, I felt a surge of, could it be, maternal pride, and had a few private moments of clucking around like a proud chicken; I had produced a male heir. I couldn’t help but feel that all of these people were here to celebrate me, and that I had done something right in giving birth to a boy.
This was reinforced in the wider world as well. When I was leaving the hospital with the bundle in my arms, a woman smiled at me in the elevator. “Is it your first?” she asked. I told her that I had two girls at home. “Well,” she said, “you’ve finally got your boy.” In fact, when I gave birth to our second daughter, the nurses wished me well when I was leaving, and said, “see you next year.” When I raised my eyebrows they smiled – “well, aren’t you going to try for a boy?”
Do we still live in a world in which it matters whether or not you give birth to a boy or a girl? Is there something particularly to be celebrated, in the Jewish community and beyond, when a male child is born? Or is it simply that after having two of “the same,” what is recognized is having something “different?” And what does my moment of clucking maternal pride say about me? Am I simply reacting to communal forces that, despite myself, have affected me? Or am I carrying hidden stereotypes that I have never expressed, even to myself? And how do I navigate that, as a mother?
I’m not sure yet. In the meantime, though, I’m reluctantly introducing male pronouns into my daughters’ vocabularies.