Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Public Etiquette Reminder to Marrieds and New Parents

Just a little public service announcement, to keep us all as thoughtful and sensitive as possible . . .

This has been said before by people better than I, but it bears repeating:

Never say anything to a single person that you wouldn't say to an infertile couple.

It's a pretty easy rule of thumb to follow, really.

If you wouldn't say "soon by you" (say, at a bris) to a couple who has been married for 8 years and hasn't had any children, then you may want to think twice before saying "soon by you" to a single person at an engagement party or a wedding. If you wouldn't say "may we hear happy news from you soon" to a woman who has been undergoing invasive fertility treatments, then avoid saying it to a person who has been dating for a long time.

Obviously, if you are tempted to say one of these phrases, then you mean really well and sincerely want this single person to be happy. But actually -- you may not realize this-- many, many singles find these phrases, if not outright painful, then annoying at best.

How about just saying "all the best to you" or "may Hashem bless you with only sweet things"? These are very kind, generic sentiments which, when said sincerely, mark you as a nice and friendly person, without drawing unfortunate and unwanted attention to the single person's state of singlehood.

In the interest of lifting us all up to higher levels of sensitivity, I would like to add an example that is not much discussed: the mass emailed birth story.

Let me explain what I'm not talking about.

Birth announcements are great. A formal card or an email which announces the birth is clearly something that you would send, even to people struggling with infertility (if they are close to you), because, after all, the fact that you had a baby is important news to anyone who cares about you.

For example, the following sort of text is, I would guess, always welcome:

"I'm pleased to announce that my wife Rachel gave birth on Monday night at 4:30 am to a beautiful little boy. All went well, thank God, and mother and baby are fine (if more than a little tired). Rachel and the baby are expected to come home this afternoon, and the naming will take place tomorrow morning at Congregation Shomea Tefilla. Details about the bris are forthcoming. May we all share happy occasions. All the best, Josh Cohen."

From this short email we know a lot of information, either stated or implied: that the baby has arrived, it is a boy, it is healthy, and that Rachel Cohen has had a normal birth -- that is, an extremely tiring and probably very painful experience which resulted, miraculously, in the emergence of a precious new human being. We know that the couple was up all night. We know that the father has survived the experience and is very happy and has lived to write this email. We know that Rachel and Avraham consider us to be close enough friends that they want to keep us informed of this very important event in their lives, and that they will continue to inform us of events that have communal import, such as the bris.

In other words, we know all that we really need to know, and perhaps then some. All the important points are included. Anything that is really our business, and which keeps us feeling emotionally close to the couple, is included in those five lines.

If, God forbid, something had gone wrong, I think it would be appropriate to indicate such, perhaps like this:

"The baby is doing fine. Unfortunately, Rachel had some complications and will remain in the hospital for a few more days, but we expect that we'll all be reunited at home next week. Her mom is in town helping out, so we're doing OK on the food end (thanks to everyone who offered to cook), but we could use some babysitting help for our older kids in the early afternoons if anyone is available."

This announcement is a good one because, in my opinion, it is safe to assume that those who care about the couple at any level will want to know how the mom is really doing and why she's not coming home yet, and how they can help. Those who are very, very close to the couple might feel comfortable calling to find out details about what happened . . . and those who are squeamish or not quite that close to the couple can send best wishes (or offer to help, without finding out details of what is going on).

The key is to share news, without making anyone feel that you are divulging Too Much Information . . .

. . . and without making any of your friends who are struggling to have children, or who are in their 30's or 40's and unmarried and therefore do not have a chance to have children, know that you are so incredibly happy about the new baby, floating so high in the mists of rapture and exhaustion and physical trauma and wonder and stress and complete disbelief that this tiny little person is your responsibility, and did I mention exhaustion? and awe? and stress? that you have forgotten that they are unable to experience those feelings themselves, and might be feeling sad about that.

Here is what I am talking about. I don't know why anyone writes mass emails such as the following, but when they do, I really, really hope they do not include infertile couples on their recipient list:
Mild contractions started on Saturday right after kiddush. My mom had arrived on Friday, just in time. The pains got stronger and slightly more frequent on Sunday, but I was feeling pretty good and we actually went shopping. Water broke and we decided to go to the hospital on Monday at 5 pm . . . this was the name of our nurse . . . and our midwife arrived at 6:30 . . . and I didn't get any drugs, though by midnight I was sorely tempted. . . hard labor lasted for 3 hours, I started pushing at 4 am . . . he came out slick and crying and beautiful and the midwife said it was the most peaceful birth she'd ever attended . . .

I have a therapist friend who encourages new mothers to write down their birth stories. It helps the mom process this profound event, and of course it is really nice, down the road, to have the details that otherwise one might forget over time. The story is a treasured and precious memory to write down, and to hold on to.

Giving birth is a big deal. Writing down the story is a healthy and helpful thing to do for the family, and perhaps for any extremely close friends who really want to hear the entire event from beginning to end.

And . . . if you are ever tempted to send this sort of text out in a mass email, please be very careful when creating the recipient list, and ask yourself "for whom is this too much information?"

It's so easy, when you have so much going on, to just choose all your friends from the address book and press "send" . . . and for very understandable reasons you are in a haze right now . . . and you are, indeed, safe in assuming that any normal person would be happy for you, because who wouldn't be? . . . so how impressive and amazing and gracious would it be if, in the most profound moment of your life, you take a moment to consider the feelings of others? No one expects this of you, but it would indeed be extremely gracious.

Remember, if you would not say it to an infertile couple, don't say it to a single person who is, oh, say, 35 years old and might seriously never have children unless something changes soon, and who might not feel comfortable knowing how many minutes you were pushing. (I'm just sayin'.)

Oh, and mazal tov on the new baby! May he/she quickly learn to sleep through the night, and may he/she grow up to Torah and good deeds . . . and chuppah, please God.