The mitzvah of mikveh was explained to me in many beautiful ways: It’s an opportunity to connect with our spouse. It provides a rhythm and structure in an otherwise hectic life. It’s a reminder to make sure we’re prioritizing our relationship. It’s a fresh start, every time you go. It’s a trip to the spa. It’s a chance to pamper yourself. It’s a prime time to daven for things you need before you head back home to the rush of life.
It’s not that I don’t think about those lofty thoughts, sometimes, and maybe, just maybe, if we had a master bath with a nice tub with Jacuzzi features, maybe it would be easier to remember.
But considering the grit on the bottom of our shared family bathtub, it’s not exactly a spa experience. I don’t usually feel pampered so much as harried and mildly grossed out.
Even if the tub was pristine, the idea of relaxing me-time is hard to tap into when I can hear the chaos of bedtime just outside the thin bathroom door. When I jump every time little hands rattle the locked doorknob. There are times of year when it is more relaxing, when the sun sets later in the day, but that feeling of tension from the bedtime routine doesn’t wash off so quickly. It lingers.
The actual mikveh experience is usually nice enough. There’s something about the waters that make me feel directly connected to Hashem, that make me feel refreshed on the deepest level.
I quickly whisper tefillos, my thoughts and dreams, during that precious final immersion.
“Please help me with shalom bayis.”
“Please help me with lashon nekiyah.”
“Please help my children succeed.”
“Please help me be more patient.”
“Please help me not have another miscarriage.”
That last request was a new one for me. For ten years I didn’t experience that kind of loss. I was one of those charmed women who got pregnant relatively easily and had uneventful pregnancies, save for the one where I gained a little too much weight.
In the past, when comforting a friend who had experienced a miscarriage, I was only ever able to give remote empathy, to listen and support from the distance of someone who didn’t have personal knowledge of that kind of pain.
When I realized I was pregnant with my fifth child, I was happy but relaxed enough that when the first available appointment wasn’t until I was eleven weeks along, I didn’t push for an earlier date. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I could wait a few extra weeks to start that relentless schedule of regular appointments.
In the doctor’s office, I innocently made pleasant small talk with the nurse, who had raised five children of her own. We chuckled about what a handful little boys could be, those rascals. She deposited me in the exam room and I waited for my doctor, new to me since our relocation back to Cleveland.
As my doctor was preparing to start the ultrasound she asked me,
“Are you happy you’re pregnant?”
“Yes,” I replied.
Then, instead of that familiar rapid whoosh whoosh whooshing of the little heartbeat, nothing.
“Your bladder is very full,” she commented. I had just emptied it prior to entering the exam room. Where was the baby? Why couldn’t she find it? Was she incompetent?
She tried a different kind of ultrasound.
“This baby doesn’t look eleven weeks,” she said.
“Too big or too small?” I asked. Not that it mattered. Not that I knew anything except that this was not how this appointment was supposed to be going.
Then she told me she was sending me to the big ultrasound office to see if they could find the heartbeat. What she didn’t tell me, even though I knew, I knew, was that my baby wasn’t alive.
The ultrasound doctor confirmed my fears, handing me a box of tissues as I started sobbing. I was startled by the intensity of my reaction. Once I was more composed, I was shuttled back to my ob-gyn’s office to talk about what to do next. What to do besides feel like I had crossed into a parallel universe where now I would be able to empathize with my friends. Where I joined the ranks of the many, countless women who had lost a baby.
Of course, I hadn’t “lost” the baby. What a ridiculous euphemism. That was something else I noticed. The language to describe this experience was either very blunt or very avoidant. It made it hard to talk about. Harder than it already was.
I survived the next difficult couple of weeks with the support of my incredible friends, my family, and my therapist. I was surprised at just how much I withdrew from the world during that time. I don’t normally react to loss or pain in that way, but I suppose this is the most personal loss I’ve endured, so of course it could have the capability to surprise me.
It is a uniquely personal experience, and it was hard for me to accept that whatever I was feeling was okay, that I didn’t have to feel the same way my friends did. That it was okay to be sad, but it was also okay to not be sad. That there wasn’t a time constraint on how long or short it took me to find my footing again. That it was okay to view this loss as something more complex, something where I could feel both disappointment and relief.
By the time I was ready to go to the mikveh, I was more or less on emotionally stable ground again. I was able to joke around at carpool, schmooze with neighbors and wasn’t really thinking about my miscarriage all that much.
I prepared in the slightly rushed mindset that I usually found myself in on these nights. It was just another trip to the mikveh, nothing felt out of the ordinary at all, not until I approached the front door of the building.
I was overcome with an pronounced feeling of unfairness. I wasn’t supposed to be here tonight. I was supposed to be avoiding wine and raw sushi and deli meat and complaining about heartburn and how often I needed to run to the restroom.
And then I thought about how many women have had to go to the mikveh after a miscarriage, how many of us are going through these familiar motions, not knowing when we might be blindsided by the emotions of our loss.
I cried after I toiveled. It was a spontaneous emotional cleansing after the systematic spiritual cleansing of the mikveh.
For the first time since my miscarriage, I don’t feel scared about getting pregnant again. For those first few weeks I didn’t think I’d be able to bear going through that again. I felt like I would just crumple. But, true to the potential for renewal that we have access to with the mitzvah of mikveh, I feel a renewed strength and courage, that whatever unexpected feelings or pains that arise, I will get through them.
And, though I would rather have awakening experiences that don’t come with a healthy portion of pain, I have been feeling a renewed desire to reconnect more deeply with my own spiritual practice. To embrace that whatever happens in my life, it’s something I am meant to experience. To treat mikveh as more than just another thing on my to-do list. To turn my thoughts and heart more frequently to G-d.
I am sad for what I lost, but grateful for what I have gained, and those feelings of grief and gratitude are impossible to separate from each other. I am grateful to be alive and to experience the messiness of life.