Sixteen months ago I walked arm in arm with my parents with slow and steady steps to my Chupah to meet my beloved under a canopy of white. Sixteen months ago I walked around him seven times, seven circles of envelopment, seven turns of intimacy and of building a home together. Sixteen months ago we stood together surrounded by family and friends and celebrated the beginning of our lives together. Sixteen months of dreams and hopes, growing and connecting, struggle and triumph, tears and laughter. For the last sixteen months we have been trying to bring a precious life into the world to add to the family we have created together. And while we continue to labor to bring more love and understanding between us, bring greater intimacy and closeness between us, we have not yet been blessed with a child.
I feel somewhat ambivalent and unsure of myself as I write this, especially in light of knowing how many women all over the world have been struggling to have children for much longer than I have. I read their excruciating accounts on Facebook and in online forums. Some of them are my friends. They have been poked and prodded more times than they can ever count, have been tested and investigated, their insides examined with a fine tooth comb, questioned, and have been subject to more well meaning but hurtful comments, suggestions and recommendations than can fill a huge tome on the subject. So who am I at sixteen months of marriage to be able to even comment or add a voice to this topic?
When I was in my early twenties I learned that I had a medical condition called PCOS with which millions of women struggle. At first everyone, was also quick to tell me that this diagnosis was not of concern and dismissed the strength of the possibility that it would affect childbearing. However after seeing several different doctors, I learned that indeed this might impact my ability to conceive. Facing the reality of it now, is much more challenging and heartbreaking. I have always tried to put this struggle into the context of other struggles I have had in my life, and by far the hardest, the sixteen year struggle to find my Bashert. And yet this challenge feels different somehow. Maybe it is the judgment or assumptions of others, that once you get married you will have a baby, that to “have it all” means to be married and have children. Maybe it is the self judgment or assumptions I have that lead me to question my self- definition and what it means to be able to become a mother.
Ever since I was a child playing dress up with dolls, or helping to care for my younger siblings, I have always assumed that I would one day be a mother. That I would know what it would be like to hold a child within my womb, to watch it learn to walk and talk, laugh and cry, to learn to love G-D and Torah, to love others and to become one of a greater whole of a nation. Within whom I would be gifted the responsibility to foster their creativity, independence, imagination and love. To watch a monitor and see a life forming and growing, hearing a heartbeat and laboring through to bring a child into the world, has always been a given. So what do you do when that is a question? When you don’t know that this will indeed become a part of your reality, and that you may have to re-examine who you are and how you see yourself, and what your role in the world may be without the added title called Ima.
The process of self-exploration can be heart wrenching, where you break down the parts of yourself, who you have thought yourself to be, who you have hoped to become, where you have not met those expectations set by others and oneself and, what that means in all the dynamics of relationships, ones relationship with family, spouse, friends, oneself and G-D. To examine and reflect on how you self- identify if you are not any of those things at a given time, or are all of those things but not exclusively one over another. I am a friend and sibling, a child, and employee, a supervisor, a spouse, and a soul. All of those things are a part of who I am and how I self- identify. To see myself as only one of those things without also acknowledging the other parts of myself means to not be genuine to all that I am. But I am not yet a mother, and cannot add that to the list of roles I play in my life. I don’t think I fully realized how much that sense of identity meant, what it means in how others perceive you and how you may perceive yourself, until I started this journey. The question asked by so many “do you have any children”, is so innocent but can feel like a stab to the heart when you aren’t yet a mother and that is also what you yearn to be. I am a person of faith and a belief in G-D and his infinite kindness and I have always held very strongly to the my faith, and the idea that I am more than just one role that I engage in with myself or others. But the hole that is left in your heart when you want something so badly, when you want to be able to be and identify as a mother and it feels just beyond reach, is a huge vacant space as big as the Grand Canyon.
What should I, and so many others, who are struggling to become parents do? What do we do for self- care? How do we allow ourselves to be honest with our feelings while not giving in to the darkness that can overtake a person? I don’t know that I have any answers that are different than what others have said in the many articles I have read, and the many people I have spoken to. I know that what it has meant thus far for me has been to make sure that I have support and good friends, take care of myself and do what works for me, not what other people think I should do. This means attending birthday celebrations, Brissim, family gatherings only if when want to, and leaving when I need.
For me, it also means faith and faithfulness. It means using the time to be honest about my relationship with G-D and calling out from the depths of my being, both my gratefulness for the struggle and asking for what I pray for to be answered. I know it may sound strange to thank G-D for ones struggles but I do so because it helps me recognize all that I learn from the challenges and ways in which it helps me grow. It allows me to see that this time of waiting is a time of growth, both my own growth, in terms of patience, wisdom, hope; and growth in my relationship with my husband. It also means having moments of despair, moments of pain and worry; many moments of tears and times of fear. They are not mutually exclusive, we do not live in a world of either/or, but of both/and. I cannot tell you how many tears I have shed each month when I see that I am not pregnant, or the range of emotions that come with each new procedure and each new reassurance from the medical staff who wish me luck with the new cycle of treatment, only to be disappointed when it isn’t meant to be this time. The anticipation, the hope, the fear of being too hopeful, the anger, the sadness, they are all a complex web of all that I feel in this process.
Post many unsuccessful cycles of medication and IUI’s, my husband and I are moving into the world of IVF. This is new and unfamiliar territory for us. It’s ironic because for the general public it is probably the treatment that is most synonymous with infertility, while in actuality it is not the first step for most couples but rather one of the latter. The complexity of all of the information one must learn and understand can make your head spin. Additionally, the financial aspect of IVF can be all consuming and incredibly overwhelming. While I am grateful that I have insurance that will cover the cost of at least one IVF cycle, there are still out of pocket expenses that have to be covered. All of that, combined with the emotional toll is incredibly overwhelming and stressful.
The emotional toll of this upcoming treatment brings me to self-reflect and ask the following questions: What does it mean for me to see myself as someone who is now in the world of IVF? How do I feel about myself, about the “failures” to get pregnant without medical intervention and the inability to get pregnant despite many different types of medical intervention? The loneliness of this experience can be overwhelming and at times debilitating, despite having wonderful friends who have been there and get it, and a wonderful spouse who is so incredibly supportive, they still cannot fully understand the experience going on at this moment in my body.
I find that too often in life things are seen as either/ or instead of both, and too often as black and white instead of gray. To me, G-D lives in the gray and this brings me great comfort on this journey. This comfort allows me to grow and stretch myself just beyond the moment of my feelings and experiences. These thoughts always lead me to the question of what lessons am I to learn from my life experiences in general and this experience in particular.
One of the many things that have come to mind are some ideas related to counting and numbers and I wonder about it’s role in life and specifically in this particular part of my life. What does it mean to have to count or to be counted? What does the number sixteen mean to me at this moment? I have always been someone drawn to try to understand and see with a deeper vision, that which I do not yet understand. And it makes me wonder why I was pulled to write about this experience at this point. I could have after all thought to write this at any point over the last sixteen months but am feeling a pull to put pen to paper, so to speak, at this juncture.
Counting is an essential tool that we learn as children, it distinguishes how much of something we have or don’t have, it determines how much time has passed at different intervals, and it is actually an essential aspect of Torah Judaism. We learn throughout the Parshios that we are counted as a nation by Moshe at Hashem’s instruction. Hashem counts us because we are dear to him and he loves us. We also count the days of Nidda, time of not being able to touch and when we can be together again. We used to also count the days of the cycle of the moon to determine the new moon and when to celebrate Rosh Chodesh and Chagim. We count the days of the Omer as we move day by day toward receiving of the Torah. We use those days to reflect and work on our Middos with the help of the Sefirot. We just recently counted the eight days of Chanuka when we bring more and more light into the world to dispel the darkness.
On its face the number sixteen doesn’t seem to have much significance the way that other numbers such as three or seven do in the Torah. In processing what it means to me, I can think of its significance and I would like to share that with you. We learn in the Gemarah that after the creation of the world, G-d has been busy making matches, which anyone in the dating scene today knows how challenging and difficult it can be to find the right person. It takes a lot of patience, faith, humor and Hishtadlus and can be as hard as the splitting of the Red Sea as it is quoted to be. To find the right person with whom you can build a life is beyond the rules of nature and we learn that eight is representative of beyond nature and above the natural world as is the light of Chanuka that stayed lit for eight days. And after many years of waiting and growing and searching, I was blessed with my miracle of eight in finding my soul-mate. And for a person to be gifted with the gift of a child is also above and beyond nature. There is so much that can potentially go wrong, and unfortunately sometimes does, but many women across the world give birth on a daily basis, despite the many challenges surrounding them, in war zones and under the threat of death. It is truly above nature that a child is brought into the world and is truly miraculous.
So for me, my focus on sixteen at this moment is a reminder. A reminder and a promise that all things that have not come easy are things that are above nature, are miraculous and are things that only G-D can give you. They are a reminder to hope, to hold onto the candles of Chanuka inside of myself, long after they have physically burned out. It is a reminder that there are miraculous moments happening around me all the time.
All I have to do is open up my eyes and see the light, the light of hope and redemption, the hope of salvation and of prayers answered.