Culture and Spirituality in birth - meeting people where they’re at


This past week I attended an important and really excellent event focusing on postpartum depression and the Jewish community. Why the Jewish connection? Surely all communities experience postpartum depression. But this panel got into the specifics of cultural approaches to these issues and, more specifically, how in the Jewish community there are rituals and ways of dealing with postpartum depression. For example, we have rabbis as resources. We have ceremonies that help mark transitions such as the transition to parenting or after birth; these often take place in a ritual bath called a mikvah. We have certain prayers or blessings that some families find useful. And we have cultural traditions like not disclosing pregnancy until after the first trimester, which make some families feel lonely in the event of pregnancy loss etc. We also have cultural norms around stigma for such loss, and for postpartum depression, and these need to be dealt with from within. 

Many cultures share this dynamic, but it is nice to have a specific lens, to see oneself represented in these discussions, and to feel that your own community is learning, engaging with these issues, and will have your back. To truly heal from postpartum depression, infertility, pregnancy loss, difficult birth experiences, sometimes a spiritual practice can be of help. As doulas we often say we focus on the physical and emotional needs of our clients, but to ignore the spiritual is to ignore an important dimension.

The other piece I wanted to speak about here is how doulas and clients can connect around certain ritual practices, especially when these practices are unfamiliar to the doula. Recently several doulas in my (awesome, vibrant, wonderful) doula community were speaking about how they advise clients against circumcision, one of them noting that a Jewish couple they were working with was turned off by this. I understand the complexities around circumcision. I have counseled many couples in my role as a rabbi who are struggling to decide. I am an advocate neither for nor against circumcision; I think it’s complex and my role as rabbi or doula is to help families find what is right for them. The doulas who point to evidence from the scientific community that there is no health benefit to circumcision are correct. But paediatric societies and others do not recommend against circumcision either. If a client asked me whether they should circumcise for health reasons, I’d tell them that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that it is needed, but also that there is no evidence to suggest that it is harmful. But most Jewish or Muslim clients are approaching this question differently; they are wrestling with some combination of religious observance and belief, cultural norms, deep-seated affiliations and identity markers (being circumcised is a physical sign that you are of this community), family pressure, and more. For many families, this is an agonizing decision.

My second child was assigned male at birth and I struggled with this decision. I’m not going to tell you what I decided because that would be a breach of his privacy. But I will share that I had some people who are close to me tell me that if I circumcised my son then that would be tantamount to child abuse. And I had others tell me (on the day of the birth no less) that if I did not circumcise then he wouldn’t be a real Jew and would face discrimination from his own community for his whole life. Becoming a parent is hard enough without this kind of pressure from family members who often mean well but whose opinions are not helpful.

Doulas are not there to make decisions for our clients, but rather to empower clients to make decisions that work for them. My hope is that doulas would hear the concerns of their clients, try to understand their cultural or religious attachments to practices like circumcision, and approach them with non-judgemental language and empathy. Cutting someone off from something they find spiritually significant is not good for birth or for babies. 

I have worked with clients who are not of my religion. My very first birth was with a Muslim family (which I loved as the Jewish Doula!) and I regularly work with couples who are intermarried, who are secular and non-religious, who are Jewish but practice their Judaism really differently than I do. My goal is always to meet my clients where they are at, and to help them find the spiritual side to birth that will work for them. In my final blog entry in this series on culture and spirituality for birth, I will share some specific blessings and practices that I use with clients. 



Me and my Jewish Doula info table at the event

Me and my Jewish Doula info table at the event