Thoughtful Thursday: Jinx

January 29, 2009

Thoughtful ThursdayFor last week’s Thoughtful Thursday, we explored the topic of luck — specifically, whether you can improve your luck. In the comments, some people thought that you can change your luck through lucky charms, positive thoughts, actions, etc. Many other commenters agreed with me that lucky charms don’t actually work, but it’s still nice to try to believe. A couple of commenters have come to abandon luck, since no lucky charm has ever helped to bring the good fortune of children.

This week, we’ll explore the flip side: bad luck, also known as jinxes.

In her comment last week, N from Two Hot Mamas said:

It’s funny, because I don’t believe in luck, but I’m still superstitious. I guess I believe in bad luck, if it’s possible only to believe in that.

It’s human nature when bad things happen to look at the preceding events and work backwards, trying to figure out possible causes. In the future, we then avoid whatever we think might have made the difference last time. Those of us who have experienced infertility or loss often make concerted efforts to avoid jinxing pregnancies (potential or actual). In some cases, it’s a concrete action — for example, in the case of one person I know, an airplane flight closely preceded a stillbirth; this has led to her refusal to fly at all during subsequent pregnancies, even though the doctors don’t think that flying would make a difference. At other times, we can’t pinpoint what we’re avoiding. In An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, after her first pregnancy ended in stillbirth, Elizabeth McCracken describes deliberately doing everything exactly the opposite with her second pregnancy.

Some cultures have fashioned entire lifestyles around avoiding bad luck. For example, many cultures fear the “evil eye.” In her comment for last week’s Thoughtful Thursday on luck, Mel mentioned her hamsa, a common charm in both Judaism and Islam. The purpose of a hamsa, though, is not to bring good luck… but to fend off bad luck. Many hamsas actually have an eye on them, representing the evil eye that they hope to ward off.

Here is one of the hamsas in my house. Like all hamsas, it is shaped like a hand — supposedly the “hand of G-d.” This one does not have the eye in the middle. I display it prominently in my house because it is pretty and because it belonged to DH’s late grandmother. I do not believe that it wards off bad luck; I just like to have it around.

Hamsa

There are numerous cultural traditions associated with avoiding jinxes for pregnancies and babies. For example, some cultures, including stricter sects of Judaism, prefer not to have a baby shower or buy anything before a baby is born. Many cultures have specific rules about when pregnancies should be announced, often with much fanfare and ceremony.

In North America, not announcing a pregnancy until a certain point (often, the end of the first trimester) is common practice among all women, not only those who have experienced infertility or loss. There are plenty of women who blab to everyone before the pee has dried on the stick, but most people are more cautious. But I would argue that the true purpose is less about avoiding a jinx, and more about not wanting to untell the news if something bad does happen.

Other than people following specific cultural customs, it seems very rare in North America to put off purchases and arrangements until after the baby is born. At minimum, almost everyone obtains a car seat so that the baby can come home from the hospital. In actuality, most people buy (or receive as gifts) everything they could possibly need in advance, expecting that shopping will become near-impossible with a newborn as well as satisfying the nesting instinct. But for those who do observe the custom of waiting to make most purchases and refusing a baby shower (which in my own life I’ve seen in people of Jewish and Indian backgrounds, but I know there are other cultures that do this), I again wonder about the true purpose. The cultural explanations are focused on tempting fate. But many of us who have dealt with infertility and loss also hold off on preparations — not because of jinxing, but because we are afraid of ending up with a nursery that’s fully furnished but is missing the baby. We are afraid of the Babies R Us equivalent of untelling, of getting stuck between not being able to get rid of the baby items but not bearing to see them around the house.

Let’s change gears for a moment and talk about baseball (maybe it will bring in some male readers!). In baseball, when a pitcher is several innings into a no-hitter, people start to realize what’s going on, but they’re not supposed to say anything. Anyone who mentions the burgeoning no-hitter is immediately shushed by friends and strangers alike. My husband is unflinchingly logical, yet he joins this superstition. His explanation is that he doesn’t actually believe in jinxing the no-hitter, but he enjoys participating in the tradition, and it’s fun for a stadium full of people to collectively cheer the pitcher on.

How does this baseball analogy relate to infertility and loss? Like my husband does with no-hitters, I have seen pregnant women go through the motions of respecting the tradition. They acknowledge that they’re not supposed to tell people too early, then in the same breath they do it anyway. Through the acknowledgment, they evoke the don’t-tell tradition enough to avoid the jinx, and they also invoke a collective wish for the pregnancy to go well. Usually, “I’m not supposed to tell anyone this early, but I just can’t keep it a secret anymore!” is answered with, “Oh, I’m sure everything will be fine, you have nothing to worry about.” In its own way, those reassurances are a form of avoiding the jinx, as if saying everything will be fine can make it so.

Personally, I have toyed with the idea of refusing a baby shower when the time comes, to be consistent with observant Jewish practice (for new readers, I am not Jewish but in our home we practice many elements of Judaism consistent with my husband’s Orthodox upbringing). Instead of the charade of being a normal oblivious pregnant woman, which I don’t know that I could pull off at a baby shower or anywhere else, I would instead don the persona of being anxious, superstitious, and culturally respectful.

Let’s get real. The Real Me wishes that I could have lived a life where obliviousness at my own baby shower was possible. The Real Me anticipates that when the time comes, nobody will throw me a shower — definitely not in the city where I live now, and probably not in any of the cities where I used to live; the only possibility for a shower is in one city where many of DH’s friends and family cluster. But if that hypothetical baby shower does happen, the Real Me doesn’t want to field questions like “What took you so long?” or tolerate innuendo about the sex that created the baby. In addition to giving the impression of religious observance, refusing a shower would be a defense against the anxiety that none of my friends care enough to hold a shower and an avoidance of “normal” bullshit. Refusing a shower would also be a passive-aggressive act to withhold my joy from the people in my life: I haven’t deemed most of them worthy to share in all of the pain that it will have taken to get to that point, so maybe they don’t get the good stuff either. Would I really let them off so easy, letting them eat sheet cake without ever having fielded a sobbing phone call about a BFN? Would I give them the satisfaction of letting them coo at onesies when they never earned it by sending a miscarriage condolence card? Yes, refusing a baby shower would have its purposes, but for me none of them having anything to do with avoiding a jinx.

And so, as you must have guessed by now, I do not believe in jinxes. I go through the motions of avoiding jinxes, not to hedge my bets in case they do exist (as I do for good luck charms), but because the jinx traditions have real functions. I will insist on waiting longer than usual to announce a pregnancy, having made the opposite mistake with my first miscarriage and told too many people too early. The bad “luck” I am avoiding is not some nebulous evil eye, spirit, or will of G-d, but the pain of sharing my past and potential future heartache with others. I am also avoiding the bad “luck” of most people behaving in a way that is totally unhelpful if something bad does happen. Similarly, with purchases, I will probably put off pregnancy and baby purchases longer than most. The dozens of children’s books and toys in my house already raise eyebrows; when people have to trip over a stroller to get past your foyer, fake explanations become progressively more difficult. What is this jinx that we imagine we are avoiding by refraining from making purchases? Part of it, I think, comes from doing anything we can not to make a potential loss even more real, even more painful. I know that there are people who truly believe in bad luck, in tempting fate, in drawing the anger of the gods (and I’d love to hear from you in the comments); for me, the jinxes I’m trying to avoid are the ones in my head.

Your Thoughtful Thursday question for today:
Do you believe that you can do or say things to jinx an outcome?

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