It is hard to talk to my baby in Russian

moscow mime

There is a meme going around the internet that is a picture with two eggs on it. The first, on the left, is a whole egg, round and white and smooth. The second, on the right, is the egg smashed into tiny bits and pieces. The whole egg is your brain before kids, and the right egg is your brain after kids.

I’ve found this to be accurate. Before I thought about all kinds of esoteric things, like the Kurdish oil region in Iraq, random blogs I used to read three years ago (what happened to Gubbi of Arabia?) , people I hate online, and losing weight.

Now, my thoughts usually go in this sequence: I’m glad baby is fed. Wait, do we have enough formula? I need to order more on Amazon. While I’m at it, I need to buy more diapers. Is she still size three? Maybe I should buy some in size four just in case she fits those? She’s been growing so fast. Oh, that’s right, she has her four-month checkup this Friday. I need to make sure she’s ok because she didn’t handle the vaccinations well last time. Her check-up is at 1:45, which means we have to start getting ready to leave the house at 12. We’ll need to pack the diaper bag. Oh, right, wipes. I think I’m low. I guess I should buy some of those too. Essentially, my brain loops around in an endless cycle of worry.

Then I get worried that I’m not spending enough time thinking about Mr. B. We used to be two married people with common interests and interesting conversations. Now we still have interesting conversations, but they’re mostly about the size of the baby’s cheeks.  When will we be a team again?

When my brain is not looping around the baby and Mr. B, it’s looping around work. I’m working three days a week now, which means I need to get everything done and squared away before I’m unreachable with the baby for two days a week. Which means my brain loops around work projects, and then, since they’re tied to staying home with the baby, it goes right back to the baby.

For some reason, my drive to and from work breaks the loops. I listen to music or audiobooks, and I feel a little bit like my old self again.  Yesterday, I thought about the California water crisis and avocados. But, as usual, no matter how far away my thoughts start, they always come back to my daughter.  Avocados are a recommended first food because they are soft and mild in flavor, and the baby will be able to start solids soon.

In order to save my sanity,  I’ve been trying to get further and further away from babies on my commute.  Two weeks ago,  for example,  I was thinking about  about Ben-Zion Ben Yehuda.

When Ben-Zion Ben Yehuda was born to his parents  in British Mandate, the first sounds he heard from his adoring parents were most likely in Hebrew. This may not have been remarkable, except for the fact that Ben-Zion, who later called himself Itamar, was the first native-born modern Hebrew speaker in the world. His father, Eliezer, a Zionist from Belarus,  was almost singlehandedly responsible for reviving Hebrew from a dead holy tongue where God be blessed this and God be praised that, to a living, breathing language full of refrigerators, telephones, and swear words.

Ben Yehuda the elder  spoke Yiddish, French, German, and Russian. But,  he believed that the only way Jews around the world could develop a single identity was to have a single language.

In order to raise a fluent Hebrew speaker in a country that was full of intellectuals from Germany, British soldiers, Arabic-speaking Bedouins, and Romanian refugees, Ben Yehuda imposed very strict rules on Itamar’s upbringing. In his autobiography, Itamar describes an incident where his mother forgot herself and started singing a lullaby to him in her native Russian. Ben Yehuda overheard her, come in shouting, and caused a great scandal. Friends had to pantomime around Yiddish in intellectual discussions, all newspapers were translated or banned in the household, and New words were invented to encompass modern every-day life. Yiddish and Russian, the language both of Itamar’s parents had grown up with, were persona non-gratis.

I thought about Itamar’s mother, Hemda, and how hard it was for her. To start with, her original, real Russian name was Paula. Ben Yehuda made her Hebraize it. Her whole identity was wiped out in an instant.  Then , there was the matter of the lullaby. I can just imagine her, hopped up on post-natal hormones, sitting in the filthy, undeveloped swamp that was British Mandate Palestine, trying to offer her screaming baby, and herself a bit of comfort in a song from her childhood. Maybe it was Ryabina. Maybe it was Oi, to ne vecher. Whatever it was, she couldn’t sing it because her husband had a Vision.

I thought about everything she gave up, and as usual, my thoughts circled back to my new tiny family because I speak to my baby in my first language, Russian, instead of my native language, English because I want her to know her roots, her culture, her people.   But,  good God is it hard to talk to my baby in Russian.

When I was in college,  I decided that I would marry a Russian speaker, and from that moment, I, like Ben Yehuda, had a Vision for my baby. My baby would not grow up monolingual.  She would not be described in biographies as “of Russian extraction,” or “having Jewish roots,” a vague way of abstracting away a person’s culture, of dissociating them from their family. My baby would not be plain American.

Moscow. Strong Cyrillic

I had a lot of grand plans for my baby.

As soon as I became pregnant, my husband and I would start speaking to each other only in Russian.

But then I actually became pregnant, and even saying, “я беременая”, instead of “I’m pregnant,” felt false and fake. The former felt like I was speaking from the mouth of a 60-year-old woman, or some show on tv, like I was putting on an act, like I was distanced from myself, like a puppet in a play. The latter felt like I was really saying what I felt.

I am Russian and Jewish to my very core, in my values, my beliefs, my sense of humor, my pride of my culture.  But I was five years old when I left and all of my Russian is my family’s Russian, not my own thoughts and ideas. My Russian is a shallow barrel of utility words that I’m constantly scraping the bottom of in an effort to explain myself, a pool that doesn’t include any of slang, cultural references,  or silly words I can make up myself.

My Russian is children’s books I was read when I was four, words for food that are untranslatable like kalbasa and kotleti, my parents murmuring to each other downstairs on Saturday mornings when I am warm and comfortable under the covers.

My English, on the other hand,  is a vast ocean that I have explored on my own. It’s my entire adolescence, my youth, my college experiences. It’s all of the slang I learned in AOL chatrooms, all of the nicknames my friends and I made up for each other. It’s the Babysitters Club Series, Shakespeare, Lev Grossman, any, every book I’ve ever read under the blankets late at night. It’s the language my husband and I lavish each other with endearing nicknames in. It’s this blog.

So when I became pregnant, I couldn’t bring myself to speak in Russian to my husband. And on the day my daughter was born, I lay in the hospital bed at 7 in the morning, three hours after her delivery. “Are you tired,” my husband asked me in Russian. “Yes, I’m tired,” I said in Russian back to him, cotton in my mouth.  We were starting this thing, but I was resisting it with my entire being.

Street life

Later, when they brought her in, I asked her, “Eva, how are you,” in Russian, and it felt, again, like a completely different person, a cheerful and fake paper doll, talking to my baby, instead of the real me. I almost cried from frustration, because I had just had my first baby, and I couldn’t tell her my emotions in the language that I felt them.

Every day, I almost gave up. I almost switched to English. Mr. B didn’t even talk to her in Russian at all for the first week. I tried to police him, to remind him to switch, but eventually I realized if I did that, I was just being a hypocrite, because I didn’t want to speak Russian, either.  I wanted to call her “kitten,” and “my baby,” and tell her about my understanding of the world, make up stories for her, do all the things I had been dreaming about when I was pregnant.

For a writer not to be able to tell stories in the language they are most comfortable in is sheer torture.

Every day, I would ask her if she was hungry, if she was thirsty, why she was crying, all in Russian, and I just felt like a fraud, because there was no emotion attached to those words. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to talk to her, so I would go for hours at a time of being mute,  just changing her diaper, feeding her, watching her, waiting for her to fall asleep so I didn’t feel the guilt of not saying anything. Nighttime, when you’re not supposed to talk to the baby anyway so they understand that it’s time for sleep, was my favorite time. I felt like a hollow robot.

Relatives continued to come and heap praise on her in Russian, making up cutesy nicknames for her, singing songs that I didn’t know, making up handclapping games that I couldn’t replicate because I had never been to Russian kindergarten or daycare, even.  I started reading books to her because that way I didn’t have to make up the words- they were there for me. We read Konek Gorbunok, the first couple pages of A Young Doctor’s Notebook,

Malye_Korely 3.19, Arkhangelsk, Russia

I can’t say when it started to get better for sure, but probably sometime around six or seven weeks old, I started feeling less like I was forcing cold, jagged letters through my mouth and more like I was actually talking and saying things I want to say.  Eventually, I was able to come up with some Russian nicknames for her, which I started using, although the number of English nicknames I have for her is 11. The number of Russian nicknames is 2.

I also started making up songs that semi-rhymed because I couldn’t think of words that rhymed quickly enough. Slowly, those songs turned into rhyming ones that made sense. I kept Russian TV on in the background, Russian radio on in the background, Russian music on in the background, everything Russian on in the background all the time until I started having some dreams in Russian.

The only thing that helped was constantly forcing myself, and Mr. B to speak Russian to her. We still speak English to each other, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Today, speaking English to her feels strange and foreign. But Russian, somedays, is just as unnatural. And so here I am in a land of in-betweens, unable to be truly affectionate with my baby, but unable to bring myself to deny her of a second language that will open an entire universe to her, as well as a much better connection to her family.

So, I’m still speaking Russian to my baby. It is the hardest thing ever, to speak Russian to my baby. I feel like Hemda-Paula, stripped of myself.  But, I think of Itamar Ben Yehuda, and I still do it, in the hopes that I will get somewhere, and that her first word will be Mama, not Mom, and that by losing a part of myself, I will be able to give that part to her to keep.


Pushing to production



In the IT world, large software development projects happen in stages. The first stage is a blueprint, sketched out hastily on  a whiteboard. The second stage is in development, where developers actually write the code. The third stage is integration, where the new, fresh code is blended into existing, working code to make sure there are no compatibility issues.  In integration, code can break, compatibility can break, and whole parts of software functions can be rewritten without consequence. It’s not code in the real world. It’s still on the scratch pad. The third stage is QA, quality assurance, where the software is tested even more rigorously to make sure it doesn’t break anything and that it works as it should with all the other systems the company has.

The last stage is when the code is released out into the world. At this point, the code lives in a sacred area called production. The process of releasing this code is called pushing to prod. Live code, such as what you see when you go to or the system your bank uses to allow you to withdraw money, is in prod.  There can’t be any mistakes in prod, and production can’t break, because real people use it to do real things.

For this reason, developers are very superstitious and protective of code going live.  One of the main superstitions, borne out of logic, is that you never push to prod on Friday, no matter what. All kinds of things can break, and no one wants to spend a weekend fixing them. Usually developers will also try not to jinx this code by talking it up or being overly optimistic about it.  They are pushing something that is warm and  live and  fragile out into the world, something that has the potential to soar or fail spectacularly in front of thousands of users.

I have been getting ready for my own push to prod. The development of a baby is much harder and much scarier than developing software, and there are many more moving parts that have to work together in order for a baby to be born, God willing, healthy. Even though it’s a process I have almost no control over, other than not eating sushi and going to the doctor when I need to, I am terrified of doing anything to compromise it.  For this reason, I am scared to post anything, either on the blog, or on Facebook, or anywhere in public where it might catch the dreaded evil eye.  Writing, taking pictures of my belly, baby showers, all have come harder for me than most of the women I see online, baring their bellies with ease, preparing nurseries, making fun gender reveal videos.

But at the same time, not writing about her seems ingenue, like I’m hiding part of my life.  Being pregnant has split me in two. One half of my mind is always on the baby,tucked safely in the back of my consciousness,  no matter what I’m doing.  I can’t do anything without thinking about the baby.  She is always there, with me, even when she is not kicking, and it seems ridiculous to think that I can nonchalantly write about a book I’m reading, a restaurant I visited, a class I’m taking, without also shouting it from the rooftops, “Oh by the way, GUESS WHAT THERE IS SOMETHING GROWING INSIDE OF ME! SHE’S 35 WEEKS OLD TODAY! BABY! BABY! BABY!”

But when I do start to write about it, I think that maybe I shouldn’t, since she will want to control her own life narrative. How much of this experience is mine, and how much is hers?  There is no answer on Google.

So I start, and then stop writing. But when I stop writing, the wolves come. The wolves are invisible, audible only to writers. When writers stop writing, they start slowly going mad because the wolves start howling, why aren’t you writing? Why aren’t you writing

I think, panicked, about all the memories that are already floating away from me, like butterflies I’ve released and have failed to capture in my writer’s net of experiences- the feeling of the roiling, unpredictable first trimester nausea, the days when I could only drink lemon water that Mr. B carefully mixed out every morning in the hot, hazy summer kitchen, the second trimester days where I felt like a tidal wave was pushing me backwards, unable to even stand from exhaustion, the current sensation of Mr. B bending down every day to gently put on the socks I can no longer reach. Every memory I don’t capture  on paper now, now, NOW,  is gone forever  – a writer’s greatest fear.

So I start writing, but then I stop again, because I run into the internet and real life. Every time I bring up pregnancy, people who have been through it have unsolicited advice, which, for some reason, makes me more irrationally angry than when people offer advice on, say, my MBA experiences, or cooking. I don’t want advice. I’m just sharing my life experiences, curating them, pinning them down and putting them on pins under glass.  It’s something I’ve always been doing and can’t stop, because then the wolves come.

So  for now, I work on essays about pregnancy in private, in ink, in development, away from production, because I still want to remember this strange, wonderful, terrible experience before it floats away from my memory, this fragile, when I spend my days exhausted, waddling, frustrated with anticipation,  and my nights tossing and turning to get comfortable on the three pillows that now occupy my side of the bed.

I’m almost nine months pregnant, and it’s the night before the big push to prod.  And then we’ll see what happens.


This is six years


Classic Photo 257

Two weeks ago at 3:45 in the morning, Mr. B’s phone rang. I heard it in my sleep. This the call, I thought mechanically, automatically. We’d been waiting for it, but not wanting it, for the past month. It was his mom, and it meant that his grandmother had succumbed to the heart problems that had been plaguing her for the past thirty years and reduced the warmth of her life to a series of emotionless medical statistics in cardiac intensive care units across Philadelphia for the past month.

I held Mr. B’s hand in the darkness as he fumbled for the phone, and in those three seconds between when the phone rang and when he answered it with someone else’s voice, I felt like he and I I had turned forty years old and the weight of the world descended on us in the early morning gloom. The baby kicked her quiet early-morning kicks, breaking up the silence of our small space. Mr. B got up. He was going to drive with his family to his grandfather to spend time with him before the funeral, four, five people trying to fill the space one person had created through over fifty years of marriage. He didn’t say a word, putting on his shirt methodically. I went downstairs to make him bagels and oatmeal and tea, anything hot, as if that would solve everything, wondering what I would do if he died, how I would fill the him-shaped space in my life. It was still 4:03 am.

Three hours before his grandmother’s funeral, my mom called me. “We’re going to the hospital,” she said. “Your grandfather called himself an ambulance because he was having strong chest pains.” My grandfather had open-heart surgery the following week. Before his triple bypass, all of my family was uneasy. We are not quick to turn to superstition, but when we do, we turn hard. The night before his surgery, I lay quietly in bed, just me, my beluga-sized pregnancy pillow, and whatever room Mr. B still had to sleep on, and I waited for the world to shatter.

I imagined my grandfather in his hospital room with just machines for company, beeping coldly. I imagined that the night before his surgery would be the last time I would see him alive. I imagined him all alone, over 80, in the operating room, under anesthesia, and my heart crumpled into a ball, sending out weak, helpless waves of empathy that couldn’t reach him. I tried to go to sleep on my own but the world weighed heavily on me, mortality lurking at the corners of the peaceful room in the suburbs. I listened to Mr. B. He was breathing the even, slow breath of dreamers, his lanky shoulder blade rising and falling, rising and falling, steady like a wave, and I closed my eyes, confident that everything was still alright.

When I made my wedding vows, these are not the moments I was thinking of. I wasn’t thinking that we would have to go to countless hospital rooms, to funerals, to dimly-lit restaurants where friends were crying because their own worlds were ending. I wasn’t thinking we would sleep on urine-stained mattresses in Jerusalem or that we would sleep separately for months in different cities.

When I made my vows, I just was afraid I was lying when I said I loved Mr. B, and I was terrified he would find out. Because, I thought, love is big and grand and patient and kind and all of that, and every second of every day that I didn’t feel that exact feeling, it meant that I didn’t love Mr. B and this whole thing was just a huge fraud.

But that’s not what love is. Love is not a big, grand man with a trumpet following you around with confetti and champagne. Love is small and quiet and takes time. Love is not the creation of something that’s not there out of nothing. It means creating a space in the other person for yourself, to the point where, if the other person is gone, you are not yourself anymore. Love wedges itself into the cracks of your personality until you’re not sure where yours ends and the other person’s begins. Love is not something that happens to you, or at least something that happened to me.

We built it together. We build it each time I make soup, even though I hate cooking, or each time he peels my pomegranates for me, even though peeling a pomegranate is one of the most pain-in-the-ass activities ever. We build it when we fight but don’t call each other names, or do call each other names but then apologize. We build it when we do things together, and it keeps us when we are separate.

Love means going on a business trip and thinking, “This is a great city, but why isn’t he here, enjoying the view with me? He would have loved this little store that sells tea.” It means waking up every day and thanking God he is still there, alive, breathing, mine.

When Mr. B’s other grandmother died three months into our marriage, I was heartbroken for him and for the woman she had been. When his grandmother died two weeks ago, I became heartbroken for his grandfather, because, after six years, I have finally begun to understand what it is to build love with someone, to carve space inside yourself for someone else, and then to have them leave. I saw ourselves, fifty years later, floating ghosts, soul-less, the love we had built into the other person, draining out, leaving a bottomless world void of meaning.

As he sat in the kitchen at 4:05, ashen, unshaven, drinking his tea, I looked at him, but I didn’t say anything. I could tell he felt the same way. I could tell he was thinking about the ghosts.  I moved to the toaster and quietly cut his bagel in half, turning the setting up to 5, the way he liked it.


Don’t trust Pinterest pregnancies



Before I was pregnant, I had a lot of great ideas about how I’d do pregnancy.

First, I would surprise Mr. B with a positive pregnancy test and something cute and clever I’d seen on Pinterest, like maybe a bunch of balloons with the test tied to them, or a t-shirt with “Best Dad” on it, and his eyes would light up and we would toast to our success and then casually go about our business.

In reality, what happened was that by the time we decided we wanted kids, we were desperately yearning for them. Wanting to have kids is not something other people can impose on you by constantly nagging you about when you’re going to have kids. It’s not something that happens overnight. But when it does and you’re ready for it, it is the most pressing, urgent feeling in the world.

For me, what happened was that everything that used to be interesting to me became boring. We booked tickets to Hong Kong and I thought, great, another vacation, just the two of us, alone together. Sitting in coffee shops reading alone slipped from fun indulgence to mindless luxury. Watching other peoples’ children grow up on Facebook became painful. Despite the fact that I had a successful career, was in school and active in the tech community, my life seemed dull, uneventful, like I was growing older for no apparent reason, without a purpose. It was like being in a Woody Allen movie.

We were really intensely ready and trying to read any and all signs that might mean the start of something new. I stared at the two faint pink lines on the pregnancy test, squinting. Was this really a positive test? It seemed so normal and innocuous on the counter. I called Mr. B in. “Hey, I think this is positive,” I said, as if hoping he could interpret it better than me.

He walked in eating a banana, carefully avoiding all of my sample specimens laid out on the counter. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe you should take another test.” I took another test. Same faint pink double-line. But no certainty. I started Googling. Well, not so much Googling as opening an anonymous browser, starting up a VPN proxy, and using DuckDuckGo, because, privacy. “It says we should buy an electronic test,” I said. What kind of mother was I, buying pharmacy brand? Mr. B went to get cash from the ATM, in case the test came up on our credit card statement, and bought three.

It said pregnant.

“Congratulations?” I said to Mr. B.

Even though our bathroom at this point looked like the beginnings of a meth lab, I still didn’t believe it. How can a simple pharmacy test determine the rest of your life?

I waited with Mr. B and the doctor’s office, feeling completely unpregnant.

A kind woman asked me the last date of my cycle and told me I was due in January. “Congratulations,” she said, handing me a Toys R Us catalog. “Wait, you’re not going to test me?” I said, incredulous. “You did take a pregnancy test at home, right?’ “yeah, but isn’t there something more official you can do?” I asked her. She looked at me like I was insane. “We can take the same test here, but it will charge to your insurance.” “And there’s nothing else?” “No, congratulations again,” she said, shooing me out of the office.

“What a scam,” I told Mr. B. “We can’t tell my parents yet, then. I’m still pretty sure I’m not pregnant.”

Two weeks later, while we were taking a morning walk, I threw up on the sidewalk. “That’s definitely pregnancy,” Mr. B said. “Or cancer,” I said, wiping the prenatal vitamin spitup off my chin.

I didn’t believe I was pregnant until I heard the heartbeat at my first official appointment. Then I squinted my eyes hard to stop the tech from seeing me cry with relief and awe.

The second thing I thought I would do is write a cute post on my blog that many bloggers do, starting with a coy allusion to “BIG CHANGES” and then maybe a picture of Mr. B and me and our shoes and another tiny pair, like they always do on all the lifestyle blogs. But for the first 17 weeks, I was too exhausted to even read the news. I was throwing up every other day, figuring out a new job, driving to class three times a week, and then slithering onto my couch and trying to gestate quietly without the room spinning. I never realized I could get this used to throwing up.

“How are you feeling,” everyone asked, and I tried to come up with a viable metaphor, but there is none. For me, the first trimester was like being hungover every day. Starting with the possibility of throwing up, followed by faint waves of nausea where you have to be prepared to dart to the bathroom at any time. One week, I could only eat chicken nuggets. Another week, it was Lifeway Kefir. A third week, only a specific cereal brand. Every day was like walking through quicksand: enormous and unimaginable.

Mr. B handmade me water with lemon juice mixed in for three months because I couldn’t drink regular water. He drove to the store on almost a daily basis because I couldn’t get off the couch. And if I didn’t eat, even though I wanted to, bad things happened. When I showed up at my parents’, not having eaten for three hours, and my mom didn’t have food I could eat, I broke down and cried. When Mr. B tried to dash out to the grocery store, I sat down at his foot and held his leg and cried, because I was worried he wouldn’t get a chance to eat first.

Every time I sat down to blog, I became drained, exhausted, and stupid. There was nothing interesting going on in my life, and nothing public worth sharing without giving it all away. Everything I’d written before seemed dumb and every analogy or allusion I could possibly write seemed trite, already written about pregnancy before.

And, there was no way I could write a cute post with a baby announcement, because of the third thing I’d thought about pregnancy, which is that I was constantly terrified. I thought I would do when I was pregnant is be happy that I was pregnant, and just become really nice and mellow. And there are some moments where I am. But mostly, I am anxious. Not terrified, but anxious. Anxious that the baby is developing fine. Anxious that the baby getting enough nutrition. Anxious that I am not in situations where I could expose the baby to harm.

Only chill American moms who aren’t anxious can write posts with cute baby clothes and baby plans looking out to 9 months ahead. Russian Jewish moms who are genetically imprinted to remember pogroms, cholera, the Mongols, Eastern European family heath histories and other tiny tragedies of every day life cannot be this blasé about babies.

In addition to the fears I knew from my own every day life, I was terrified of things I had read on the forums. “Don’t read the forums,” Mr. B said, but the forums were mostly helpful. Just sometimes, people would announce that they had had a loss at 7 weeks, 12 weeks, 13 weeks, and just when I thought I was safe, I saw their messages. I constantly checked myself between checkups for signs that my baby was ok, that it was growing and healthy. Every time I threw up, I breathed a sigh of relief afterwards because it meant everything was fine.

When I stopped throwing up and before I started feeling baby movements, I tried to read big fantasy books to keep my mind busy. Blogging about a process that was so fraught with terrifying potential avenues, that was so new and fragile, seemed like tempting fate, and it still does, but I’m getting to the point where I can’t not write, because writing is also my life.

When I did want to write, I was worried about privacy. I saw hundreds of naked babies on Instagram and Facebook, and didn’t want that to be me. Where do those baby pictures go when Instagram dies and Facebook becomes dismantled? Where does my privacy end and where does my child’s begin? I don’t know, and as someone who likes to document her life, it makes me worried. But I also didn’t want to not share, because it felt like was living life with a gag across my mouth. I’m trying to toe the middle line. (Maybe I’ll repost pictures of those Instagram babies as a compromise.)

So anyway, surprise blog post ending, I’m pregnant, and there is no certainty to anything about being pregnant like there was in every other part of my life, and it’s scary. But I am certain (knock on wood, tie the red bracelet, spit over your shoulder) that we are having a healthy, happy daughter in January and I could not be looking forward this part of my life more.

P.S. Don’t believe the sunshiney-happy-belly-rubbing pregnancies people tell you about in social media. Social media, especially Pinterest, was invented by Americans.