Monday, July 9, 2012

Pregnant in Jerusalem

I'm 36 weeks and 5 days pregnant. Aside from not being able to run much, not having a flat belly, and not being able to wear my favorite jeans, I feel pretty much like the same person I was nine months ago. The fear of taking care of a baby is overshadowed by the impending doom of labor and a two-night stay in a foreign hospital.

In fact, it's not really the labor part that scares me. It's the foreign part. And really, it shouldn't scare me at all. I've been pregnant in a foreign country for nine months already. Practically all I know of life in Israel comes from a pregnant perspective. So now I'll share that perspective with you.

Starting with my expectations. When an American woman gets pregnant, she thinks about a few things that will happen during her pregnancy - friends getting really excited for her, a baby shower, fun prenatal clothing shopping at various specialty stores, putting the nursery together, strangers politely not saying anything about her growing belly, and a simple birth with an epidural and a tv monitor overhead running the latest movies. This is how I thought it would all go.

Here's how it actually went. First trimester doesn't count because I spent most of it inside, eating plain crackers, and lying on my couch. When the second trimester came, I popped pretty quick. With the baby belly in plain view, I would go to friends' houses for dinners and they would politely pretend they didn't notice the bump and offer me wine. Like a rehearsed dance, I'd politely refuse the wine and thank them, asking for juice instead. Still no comment.

Though I was done with the first trimester, I never felt comfortable talking about my pregnancy or relaying the fact that I was pregnant to anyone except close family and a few friends. People have different traditions here regarding pregnancy - some people wait until they're six months pregnant to talk about it with others, others are open about it after the first trimester. Generally, though, people stay pretty mum about the pregnancy until about 5-6 months. The purpose is to avoid the "ayin harah" or the "evil eye."  Same reason that people don't have baby showers before the birth or begin building a nursery in their homes. Everything waits until the baby is here, safely.

And then I reached that 5-6 month mark and all of a sudden the barrage of comments started coming. First my ulpan teacher asked me in front of the entire class if I was open to telling everyone that I was pregnant, because I obviously was. Then my other ulpan teacher incessantly began asking me how I felt. Again, in front of the entire class. People started to get up from their seats for me on the bus. Things were still a little lowkey at this point.

At the end of my sixth month, though, I started to notice a strange phenomenon. Men were commenting on my belly. The first one to do it was the middle-aged Sephardi manager at our local post office. As I dropped a letter into his hands to be mailed to the US, he pointed at my soccer-ball belly and said, "That is beautiful. Really beautiful." I was taken aback, and responded with a quick thanks and mentioned that I thought it was huge. "No, it's beautiful," he said.

For the next couple of months, the only people to comment on my pregnancy were men! Middle-aged men, not old, grandfatherly types. Most wanted to guess the gender or my due date. Some wanted to thank me for adding a child to their nation. Once, when I was looking at an apartment with my husband, the owner of the apartment began a conversation with me by guessing the gender of the baby, then continuing to talk directly and only to me about life, his wonderful memories of San Francisco and his dreams for the future. For about 20 minutes this went on while I was standing holding my husband's hand. Despite my bump and my husband on hand, I honestly think the guy was flirting with me.

After those couple of months, I concluded that men in Israel are fascinated by pregnancy. That they think it's beautiful. This came as a welcome surprise.

Then the eighth and ninth month came along. I carry very forward, so I look like I'm ready to pop. This is when the men stopped commenting, and the women began. Some gently patted my belly while casually walking by, saying something like, "In good time." Others tell me not to worry. One woman at the natural foods market reminded me that I should be practicing for labor. Then she gave me samples of creams I could put on my baby. Other women didn't say anything, but smiled at me reassuringly as I walked past. As if to say, 'don't worry, it's going to be fine.'

This army of women, I feel, sees my impending labor, my impending induction into the world of motherhood. From their angle, they feel a little sorry for me, perhaps a little nervous. It reminds me of high school, when I would run a race, finish it, recover, and then wish the next girls luck before they stepped on the starting line. My stomach would jump with butterflies while I reassured them that if they relaxed and did everything they practiced, they'd be fine.

In the end, I didn't have the baby shower, the friends ooing and ahhing over my belly, the pre-designed nursery, the polite silence of strangers in public, or the assurance that I'd have an epidural and a tv set in the hospital. Instead, I got to follow an ancient tradition of keeping my own secret for as long as I felt comfortable, of not bringing baby stuff into my life before the actual baby arrived, and most importantly, feeling that despite being around strangers, I was still amongst a group of people who genuinely appreciated, respected, and felt excited about my pregnancy, too.

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