I am lucky, or rather blessed, to be surrounded by dear family and friends. My mother was there to step in and help with driving my husband to his daily blood-work and injections appointments; my father joined me in putting back the blinds, light fixtures, and outlets following the painting of our new place; my younger brother babysat my children so my husband and I could go to some very important consultations; and my older brother assured us that he would be there with his pickup truck in tow to help with our move when we were ready (and he certainly kept his word). Our dear friends stepped in to fill in the gaps where I was struggling. My husband's coworkers assisted in chauffeuring him to work, my friends offered a caring ear and shoulder to listen to me talk (and cry) about my struggles and depleted energy levels, and my children's friends (and their parents) were readily available for my kids to drop by for a play date.
But then when our move was postponed from August 1st to October 1st due to four emergency hospital visits, we were in a bit of a pickle. My parents had departed on a long ago planned three week vacation. And I couldn't figure out how we would move from one community to the next with two kids three and under. But that's where the word community came in. Our community was there for us. My dear pal worked hard to cajole and persuade me into allowing her to organize a meal train where our friends (and acquaintances) stepped in and signed up for 12 days of meals (you'll find out why it took some convincing). On a daily basis, we received a variety of sumptuous piping hot meals including spaghetti and meatballs, marinated tofu salad and quinoa, creamy lasagna and spinach salad, chicken and rice. And of course desserts galore; cookies, cakes, bars (the dessert type, allow may some soothing wine would have been helpful too).
This was especially helpful because everything from our kitchen was packed up in boxes (in such a rush so unfortunately they weren't thoroughly labeled) at our new house, yet the stove and oven at our new house were not ready to be kashered (I wasn't sure if they ever would be, but that's another story). Furthermore, our new house was laden with dozens of boxes, some piled four levels high. It was in no condition to bring active curious little explorers. And yet, we could only work on unpacking our house so fast. I am with the kids at home (and the park, and the grocery store, and the library) all day while my husband works, and after we would put the kids to sleep, we'd take turns heading to the new place to schlepp over more boxes or begin the daunting task of unpacking. We kept 8pm - 2am hours at Project New House for two weeks. I don't know how we made it through. But here I am on the other side (albeit sitting on a box as a I type) to tell the story.
Around this time last year, my outlook on making meals for families in need (particularly post partum moms) changed dramatically. I had a wonderful pregnancy and labour thank G-d. Yet, at the very last second, it was discovered that I would need an emergency c-section, which resulted in my newborn son's admittance in the NICU on nearly every machine possible, and an extended stay for me in the maternity ward for two weeks with two blood transfusions. This all happened around Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Succos time, so things were a tad hectic (definitely more hectic than our holidays this year, but I am not looking for any competition next year).
For two weeks, my husband stayed with dear friends of ours who live a 10 minute walk from British Columbia Children's Hospital. They received a call from my husband Friday at 8am that went something like this, "Ummm, can I come for Shabbos with my two year old for uhhhh I don't know how long, because ummm Ettie is in the hospital with our son who's uhhh in very critical condition." With a miracle from the Almighty, we were joyously discharged two hours before the sunset and Yom Kippur would begin and had a jubilant end to the yomin tovim. However the challenges didn't end there; things were really tough, on all of us.
From the day we came home from the hospital, literally, it was me and my two beautiful children, baruch Hashem (I thank G-d because even as difficult as those initial months were, saying that it was me with my two kids puts an instant smile on my face, since things could have been very different). There I was with a super low iron level, borderline anemic, a newborn with a tongue tie that needed to be fixed thus nursing was slow to come, and a very active, independent, and vivacious toddler to keep track of (sadly, she’s didn’t get much attention those first few months, and we all really felt it, but there was just nothing I could do).
Meals were especially difficult. Although I am "Queen of Frozen Meals" and am best friends with my chest freezer, it was a very painful period; physically, mentally, and emotionally. My friend who my husband was staying with made a 'meal train' invitation to nearly twenty women, and not one replied. When I had one particularly difficult day (and previous night), I called my elementary school teacher nearly in tears saying that I couldn't serve my family cheese sandwiches or brown rice with a salad yet again (we had the food, just the moral was a bit low). She sent over a delicious gourmet meal our way (in addition to many while we were in the hospital, including the prefast Yom Kippur meal), and I have a feeling that she raised her eyebrows when I called her thanking her profusely (and I mean profusely) the next day (and the day after).
I felt so isolated during the period following my son's birth. One of my good friends was away for Succos but she called and emailed me to check in. She even offered to make a meal for me once she returned, but I couldn't bring myself to accept a meal four weeks post partum (granted, it was only two weeks after being discharged). My other good friend who my husband and toddler stayed by offered to make some calls to ask (or rather nudge) some friends to help out with meals. I politely declined; she had already sent out an invitation to a meal train. She tried to persuade me, saying that our friends probably missed her email during the yomin tovim or they couldn't figure out how they would get the meal to my city, being that I am a 30 minute drive away. But I wasn’t going to beg. We both knew that emails don't get lost in transition, the world wide web is awake 24 hours a day. And anyways, a friend from my city offered to bring the meals to her house on her way home from the children's elementary school, so the transportation wasn't an issue.
While in the hospital, my doctor also brought honey cakes and a piping hot meal; I already knew that he was a knowledgeable and skilled obstetrician, but I couldn't believe his unbelievable bedside manner, care, and compassion! Several women had sent over meals to my good friend while I was admitted in the hospital so that she would have what to feed two unexpected but wonderfully awesome guests over Rosh Hashanah. My husband and toddler are forever grateful! Being the gracious friend that she was, she sent over some of the meals my way (as well as her own yom tov cooking) so that I wouldn't have to eat hospital food over Rosh Hashanah and two Shabboses. She froze the rest so that my husband could bring them home once we were discharged. I made it through Succos, which that year was a three day yom tov because of that food. I also had frozen challah, dips, and side dishes as well, so there was no shortage of food over Succos. But I was so bleary eyed for the days (and weeks) to come.
While it was difficult, I learned a very important lesson from that period in my life. I learned to never make assumptions. I live this.close to my mother so maybe people thought she was helping. But my parents were on a long ago planned three week cruise and even missed my little guy’s bris (it seems all their vacations are planned just when I could use their assistance. What a coincidence, Mama. Just joking. Sort of). My mother-in-law flew five hours and made it with 30 minutes to spare before my son's bris and was scheduled to leave two days later. So possibly people thought she was staying. Or perhaps people assumed that my husband, who is the most amazing man on the planet was ‘stepping up to the plate.’ Putting my toddler in a playgroup or preschool or daycare wasn’t an option for several reasons. We are a 45 minute drive to the closest Jewsish school or daycare, so it would involve more schlepping than it was worth (three hours of daily driving, no thanks. Especially since I was instructed by my doctor not to drive for the first six weeks). My daughter was too young for the preschool and the cost of the daycare was $700 per month (yeah, that’s doable for a stay at home mom and single-earning family. Cough cough.).
Speaking of my husband, he had taken a full two weeks off work to take care of our toddler while I was admitted in the hospital. And then he would be taking another week for all the Tishrei yomin tovim. My husband is amazing in the kitchen, in fact he is a much better cook and baker than me. Literally, he could open his own restaurant or café, hands down. But he was working 9-5. He would roll in at 5:45pm to a scene of chaos. The kids were hungry. I was exhausted. And the house was a wreck from keeping my kids busy, active, and happy throughout the day (as the catchphrase goes, cleaning while the kids are home is like shoveling the side walk while it is still snowing). So he wasn’t able to only start making meals when he came home.
And my husband couldn’t do any prep in the morning because he would be taking care of the kids so I could at least get a bit of uninterrupted sleep from 6am-7:30am. And he was unable to work on the meals in the evening. Being that he was a fulltime graduate student, he had his studies, as well as some work projects he had missed in the three weeks he was off that needed some attending to. And he would often spend 10pm to midnight holding my newborn son so I (who had just had a c-section) could sit a bit with my feet up (and sleep a bit, because given our difficult nursing situation, sleep was something I was not getting much of).
I had made several ready to go trays while I was pregnant to stock up our freezer, and we were sure to freeze any leftovers from the bris (which we had catered, baruch Hashem to our energy level, not our wallet though). But I could never think clearly enough to ask my husband to defrost the meals the night before, and it was too deep of a bend for me to do on my own that morning. And the truth is, I was a bit embarrassed to ask him to go in the freezer, given its scrambled condition. But he persisted and found meals between the frozen chicken polkas and tubs of cottage cheese.
I didn't expect to have such a difficult recovery period. Following my daughter's birth, I was at the playground with her a couple days after we were discharged. And whipping up meals the day we came home from the hospital was no problem at all. In fact, we had streams of visitors who wanted to meet our precious baby girl after our long awaited journey to her birth just a few months before we celebrated our five year anniversary. I served coffee, tea, desserts, and snacks effortlessly. We had Friday night and Shabbos day guests the Shabbos immediately following our discharge. Thank G-d, I have been blessed with an extra measure of energy, and thus I would have never thought I would have needed to prepare several weeks of meals in advance (now I know for next time, better be prepared than sorry).
I know it may sound dramatic but those were among the most difficult three months of my life. I feel bad thinking of the time my newborn was born as one of the hardest stages of my life and a time filled with tremendous pain. But at least I have grown from it. Or rather, I have chosen to grow from it. I could have been hurt, upset, insulted, angry, and frustrated. Or I could have used it as an opportunity to learn and grow. I chose the latter. I have learned many lessons from the post partum period following my son's birth and I have used the experience as fuel for my passion of helping others, especially individuals in a vulnerable position. Anytime I hear someone had a baby, whether a close friend or not, I bring over a meal, offer to babysit, or volunteer to help around the house. And if I am too tired to make a meal, I encourage my husband to make doubles of whatever he is making for dinner that night. I make a little care package for the mom. And try to call or email to see how things are going periodically.
I have also learned the importance of not just asking for helping, but also accepting it when people offer. During our recent two months of one crisis after the other, the old me would have smiled and said "no thank you" when asked if there was anything someone could do to help. But this time around, when a friend of mine offered to take my daughter for the afternoon, or another friend offered to pick up some snacks for me when she saw my depleted cabinet at my old house where we were still staying (and sleeping on the floor as all our furniture had already been moved), or when my husband's friend offered to help reassemble our furniture, we readily agreed. We didn't need to be convinced. We couldn't say "yes please" and "thank you" fast enough. Receiving help doesn't make someone weak. Rather, it exudes strength as we recognize that we are not invincible, and how we appreciate and recognize our friend's roles in our lives.
I would hate for anyone to go through what I went through following my son's birth. I no longer wait for a friend to call me in tears as she suffers through post partum depression. Instead, I proactively offer to take her children to the park so she can rest. Instead of waiting for a friend's child to look longingly at my daughter's snack, I offer to bring home groceries for my friend (after all, I'm going shopping anyways, what's a few extra bags? I have the space in my trunk). Rather than waiting for my friend to vent to me at our toddler's playgroup that she has no idea why she even came with her three year old and three week old, I offer to bring her three year old together with mine to the program so that she could stay and bond at home with her newborn (I'm going to the program regardless, so what's an extra child?)
During our recent move, being on the receiving end of endless kindness has emphasized the importance of being on the giving end. I have had the opportunity to compare and contrast two very challenging experiences in my life, the period following my son's birth and our month of hospital emergencies and coinciding move. The meals that we received from our friends were delicious and nutritious. But the biggest blessing in those warm delicious packages were the care, warmth, and friendship. The "I'm thinking of you," the "I hear ya," the "it must be tough," the "you're strong, you can get through this."
In this week's parsha, Yaakov wrestles with an angel in a pivotal battle between man and himself. Our sages tell us that it wasn't an exterior force he was wrestling with, but rather an interior one. This is an article I really wrestled with. I originally posted a comment on a women's forum I belong to in response to some comments discussing the redundancy of making meals for new moms and how all women are busy so it's hard to make a time. It turned into a lively discussion about the man of the house cooking and ideas from other communities that have a bikur cholim organization that offers breakfasts for a post partum mom every morning or dinners for two weeks. My friend encouraged me to turn my thoughts into a blog post for her website, which I did, and it spurred even further controversy. Another friend convinced me to post it on another group we mutually belong to, so I obliged, and yet more dynamic dialogue resulted. I went back and forth about sharing this with a larger circle, but it was my husband this time who suggested that the A Shtikel Vort crowd may appreciate my ideas surrounding this topic.
I highly encourage women or men to make a meal for a family, whether they are going through a trying time or have just entered the bliss (and chaos) of having a new baby. If they do not have the time to make a full meal, a plate of cookies or a batch of muffins go a long way! I have been both on the giving and receiving end of meals and I have valued them 100%. While the meals were digested within a couple hours, the love and care put into them has stayed with me until now, and will probably stay with me forever.
-- By Ettie Shurack
Postscript: After being urged by a friend to share her experiences on two motherhood forums she is part of (in response to a thread about the responsibility of post-partum family meals falling on the husband or rather why or why not this is possible), Ettie Shurack wrote this article. She received so much feedback (some negative, but mostly positive) after sharing her personal experience and she recognizes that it was not only an individual struggle, but also a universal phenomenon that many women face worldwide. This prompted Ettie to begin brainstorming some ways where she can help the community through organizing meals and assistance for families in times of need. If you have a program that is successful in your community or would like to share some ideas, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.