I have wanted to share my story and offer my voice for so many years. I have been waiting, and at times hoping, that I would have the courage to print my real name as the author. But alas, I am writing anonymously. It is a relief to allow my own voice to be heard by so many without my identity being known. After all, the experiences and feelings of struggling with infertility are not mine alone, but of countless others. There are so many couples living with this struggle in the world at large. Of course infertility is something that also impacts couples in the (Modern) Orthodox community, which I am a part of. We most often suffer silently, feeling the depths of despair so deeply, that the social silence is somehow comforting, yet overwhelmingly sad at the same time. I want to begin to break that silence. I want to share my voice, one typically not spoken, of a very painful journey.
Living in the Orthodox community, we all know there is no shortage of babies and couples pushing double strollers with other children trailing behind. Of course that is a good thing for the Jewish People as a whole. We place so much value on marriage and building families. Thankfully, for so many, the miraculous process of having children is not all that difficult.
On the flip side, the journey of infertility is a pretty challenging, miserable and lonely one. Even though, Thank G-d, I have the unwavering support of my loving husband and a few good friends who have had quite a difficult time trying to create a family, I still feel incredibly alone. This is especially true in social settings. I suppose that is by choice somehow, because my husband and I prefer to keep our struggle to have children private. The truth is, talking about intimate things with others is something that our community typically does not do, which makes it even more difficult for me. Especially when I feel inadequate and ashamed, helpless and overwhelmed, confused and resentful, cynical and devastated, empty, anxious, and even angry; all while longing to have a child and trying to be hopeful and faithful, optimistic and determined and look like things are “all good” and that I am happy with my life as it is.
Going through IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), a part of the scientific world of Assisted Reproductive Technology, has turned our life completely upside down. Because of the nature of our treatments, we are never really able to plan ahead since our schedule is not our own. Much needed vacations become almost impossible and we are often vague when a time commitment is required in any aspect of our life because our plans can change so quickly as we eagerly anticipate phone calls from our fertility center with the next set of instructions. It affects our work as we have many last minute “time-off” needs. And it affects our involvement in our community in myriad ways. In a world where most people befriend those similar to themselves or with children the same age, we don’t feel much connection with our peers with young children and as a result, are often left out of gatherings. I don’t always feel sociable or physically or emotionally able to have company, which isolates us further. Sometimes I am afraid I might just burst into tears and want to hide for no apparent reason. I dread the phone calls of being asked to make another meal for one more family who just had a baby or the requests to be the kvaters at yet another brit. Most don’t pay all that much attention to us when there is someone nearby with a young child on their hips. It also affects our family relationships. We’re the ones without (grand)children at every family event.
B”H many of our friends have been supportive and sensitive even though we may not have shared the details of our experiences. Thankfully I’ve even been able to cultivate some unexpected new friendships. But unfortunately, I have also lost some friends along the way.
Seeing the number of couples dealing with infertility in just one fertility center is astounding. Yet somehow everywhere else I go, everyone seems to be pregnant. I have been noticing more and more Orthodox women at my Center and crave that nod of “I understand,” yet most of the time we all tend to keep our heads down, trying to get through it all without feeling humiliated. The pain is so present that is feels suffocating. There is also the financial burden of the IVF process that heavily weighs us down. The cost of fertility drugs is exorbitant. Month after month the medical bills pile up. Thankfully there are (just) a few organizations in the Jewish community that offer some financial assistance and support with the various aspects of the process of infertility.
IVF and other ART treatments involve regimented protocols that come along with painful injections, various side effects and Niddah (family purity) challenges. The constant calls to my Yoetzet Halacha (female halachic advisor) to discuss the Niddah questions that go hand in hand with IVF are overwhelming. We are blessed to have a wonderful Rabbi, but quite honestly, it is difficult to ask these kinds of halachic questions even to him. First of all, he is not fully trained in the intricate halachic details of ART. And as you can imagine, it is also enormously uncomfortable for me to discuss such intimate and personal situations with a man other than my husband. I could have my husband ask our questions to our Rabbi, however that is not practical when most of the details relate to my body, and not his. The discomfort aside, we have chosen to share the emotional aspects of our struggle with our Rabbi, in part to further educate him and sensitize him to a journey that is pretty unfamiliar to him.
Going to the mikvah each and every month is not very invigorating when we have been married for years without getting pregnant/staying pregnant and are once again utterly devastated at the missed opportunity for life to come forth from my body. The loss of pregnancy and the grief associated with it do not have any religious or socially accepted rituals, which further complicates an already trying process. I feel like my own biological clock is ticking far more quickly than I thought ever possible. Living life month to month is grueling. Yet each day I strive to be grateful for the blessings I do have and try to manage this roller-coaster ride as best as I can.
I could write about the flippant comments my husband and I have heard over the years that were most definitely not meant to hurt, offend or cause discomfort, yet very much have. Most were about how lucky we were not to have children because of this reason or that. Going through any medical/scientific treatment to try to have children certainly does not make us think we are lucky. It has been an arduous process not to be sensitive to another’s missed sensitivity. We have learned that sensitivity often comes with personal experience and familiarity with a particular struggle. Many in the Orthodox community are blessed with children and have likely never thought about what married life without children could be like on a daily basis. Most are probably unaware of the significant emotional, physical and social/communal implications of struggling with infertility. I remember a friend once said to me, “Oh come on, no one really notices you don’t have kids. You are just really sensitive.” While I am sensitive about our situation, it is highly unlikely that those who see us regularly do not notice. In speaking with our Rabbi during one of our numerous bleak points in our lives, he told my husband and I that “everyone notices” but no one knows how to be of support or if support is wanted or needed. It can be much easier to share joy with others than emotional pain and despair.
My relationship with G-d is really a whole story in and of itself. My overall faith is enormously challenged month to month. My dialogue with G-d is constantly fluctuating, and not always for the better. I question if I pray enough and sometimes wonder if I even have the strength to pray at all. I can’t help but question what plan G-d has for my me and my husband. We yearn to bring a new life into this world. We ache for the unbelievable opportunity to be parents, to love a child the way only a parent can. We long to experience the wonder of being loved by our own child.
I believe that the more we – Rabbis as well as lay people – learn about the diversity of challenges that others face in the Jewish community, infertility being just one of them, it will open doors to those who may feel isolated. We have the opportunity to sensitize ourselves to the needs of our community at large by spending more time reflecting and working on our relationships. As a community we can continue to work on building awareness and sensitivity to the struggles of those around us.