I arrived home last night to Israel, where I live with my husband and seven children. We were all in the U.S. to visit family, and I stayed on for a short book tour for my new memoir. It was an intense three weeks of 24/7 family bonding and little time for myself, and then suddenly I was left alone to promote myself and my career. The contrast was sudden and sharp. Yet, still, my emotional reaction to the transition took me by surprise.
When my husband and children dropped me off at a Logan Airport hotel on their way to catch their plane, I could barely hold back my tears. Then, as I sat in my hotel room, the tears finally came, mostly in response to my plan during this trip to finally wean my 3-1/2-year-old daughter from nursing, after months of on-again-off-again attempts. Saying goodbye to her and the rest of the family was symbolic of a more significant transition in my 45-year life.
Shefa is my last child after a sum total of 22 years of pregnancies, miscarriages, one adoption, and breastfeeding. (We bottle fed our adopted son, and while that liberating experience made me wish men had milk ducts, I would not exchange the miracle of breastfeeding for the convenience and egalitarian nature of bottle feeding). It has taken me almost a year to wean Shefa, and not only because she has resisted. In fact, her resistance may be in large part in response to my own.
When our sixth child, our adopted son, was 3 1/2 years old, I discovered, much to my surprise, that I was pregnant with Shefa. After a series of miscarriages and then months of failing even to conceive, I had already gone through the process of coming to peace with the fact that I would not be giving birth to and breastfeeding another child. This last pregnancy, birth, and nursing experience felt like a last chance gift given to me directly by God. I cherished every moment, and I was not to ready or willing to let go again. This time I needed help getting me through the process.
My plan was to do a weaning ritual prior to my book talk at Mayyim Hayyim, a beautiful and vibrant community mikveh (ritual bath) in Newton, Massachusetts. At the water's edge, I read from the book I had compiled the night before in my hotel room by cutting and pasting printed emails I had requested from friends and family for the occasion. I was touched by the candor and intimacy of these personal stories and blessings whose general theme was to embrace this new stage in my life while also appreciating what I am leaving behind.
As I descended the circular stair case with its seven steps leading down into the black-bottomed oval mikveh, its underwater lights slowly changing color, I tried to be mindful of the many steps along my journey of birthing and raising my children thus far: During my first immersion, I tried to recall life without children. I visualized myself back in college, always busy, but mostly with my own needs, rarely the needs of others. After reciting a blessing "upon immersing in the living waters," I immersed a second time, this time trying to be present in the moment, to truly tune into what it feels like to be me, now, in this intense period of caring for others while also trying to care for myself. I then recited a blessing a friend had composed for my ritual: "Blessed are you, Source of all Life, who sanctifies transitions."
Then, as I immersed my entire body for a third and last time, I tried to visualize myself with an empty nest. Although I am the mother of two adult children, they have not exactly left the nest yet. One has returned home while starting her studies after two years of national service, and one will just be beginning his three-year army service this winter. So I can really only imagine what it will be like to have all seven of the kids' bedrooms empty, to cook for only one or two people at a time, and to have 24 hours in a day to devote only to work and my own needs.
As I recited the final blessing -- "Blessed are You, Majestic Spirit of the Universe, who gives me life, sustains the rhythms of my body and brings me to this moment of renewal" -- my tears mixed with the living waters of the mikveh. I was overcome with the emotion of having reached this moment after months and months of anticipation, planning, and fear.
But fear of what? I asked myself. Fear of having no one to take care of but myself. Fear of entering a phase of open possibility when it is already too late in the game, when I will be too exhausted and burnt out to make much of it, and too old to gain the skills I would need to do that anyway. Fear that all I will want to do is put up my feet and read novels with all of my free time instead of trying to fix the world or even just focus on developing my career. Fear of having my life back and not knowing what to do with it. Fear of the unknown.
The author talk that night went well. I sold books and people appreciated what I had to say. And so went the rest of my book tour. I was so busy taking care of myself, promoting my book, developing my career, and spreading my message of world-fixing through fourth stage feminist Judaism, that I hardly remembered to call home and speak to my children!
As I waited at passport control in Ben Gurion Airport, I noticed a woman ahead of me in line with a baby strapped to her back. Unlike in past similar scenarios, I did not feel my heart-beat quicken with pangs of jealousy and longing. I could not imagine myself lugging a baby on my back.
That evening, jet lag convinces me it is only early afternoon, and I cannot fall asleep. Suddenly, I hear the pitter patter of 3-and-a-half-year-old feet. It is Shefa, whose eyes light up when she sees me. I kiss her cheek, which is even softer than I remember it being, and stroke her disheveled hair. She snuggles right into me and peacefully falls back to sleep. No reaching inside my pajama shirt. No begging for "just a little." No nursing. I realize then that I too am at peace.
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David runs Mikveh Shmaya on Kibbutz Hannaton, where she lives with her husband and seven children. She is the author of two memoirs: Life on the Fringes: a Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination (JFL Press, 2000 and reissued by Ben Yehudah Press in 2014) and Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles and Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening (Ben Yehudah Press, 2014). She recently completed writing a novel.