I hardly knew her. Miriam was a thirty-something professional – we sat in the same office, and had worked side-by-side for about a year. She was always very nice, intelligent and charming, but we were never close since she lived in another community and we didn’t travel in the same circles. I guess we were just so busy with our own lives, and since our lives were so different, they never coincided. While we really enjoyed working together; talking about this and that, we just never had all that much in common: After all, her whole world seemed to revolve around her work, whereas my career was my family; with the office but a small part of my life.
I’d always thought she was happy: everything in her life was going just as she’d planned – she loved her job and was advancing up the corporate ladder, she had a caring and successful husband, and they had just bought a beautiful home. Everything was going right. Everything was perfect. Or so I thought.
What had I said in the past? How had I been insensitive?And then, one day, out of the clear blue, as we stood around the coffee machine, she suddenly burst into tears. Startled, I tried to calm her, and when she felt a bit better she poured her heart out to me.
Everything was going right in her life… except for one thing.
She was not getting pregnant.
Miriam told me she and her husband had been trying to conceive, never expecting any problems, but after trying for over two years – nothing had happened. At first they’d laughed it off as ‘work-induced stress’, but after a while they realized it was a more serious problem. And so, while everything else was going so well, this one thing was certainly not. And this one thing was what they desired more than anything else.
“I thought of nothing else,” she recalled to me. “I would be sitting in a meeting with a client and would be thinking about having babies. I remember once one of our co-workers made an innocent remark about going away for the weekend with her husband and leaving the kids with her mother. She was nervous about the kids missing her, and about her mother’s ability to cope with three little ones. She smiled at me and said, ‘You are so lucky you don’t have these problems.’ I gritted my teeth, smiled at her, and then went to the bathroom and cried for two hours.”
I felt so terrible that someone said that to her, and then realized how easily I could have been the one to have. What had I said in the past? How had I been insensitive? It never even occurred to me that this was a painful topic. Never having had any inkling that she struggled with fertility problems (in truth, never having realized that anyone struggled with fertility problems) I was not aware of what a painful issue it was in so many lives.
I was taken aback – here I had worked next to this young woman for a year, we’d chatted casually about all kinds of things, and I had had the feeling that her life was proceeding just as she’d planned. Yet all along she’d been feeling deep-down miserable, and just hiding it well. And then, one day, over coffee, she could keep it in no longer – out it poured…and to someone she barely knew!
At first I didn’t know how to react. Ironically, I had always been a bit intimidated by her. Miriam was a real powerhouse. Next to her, such a successful career woman, I felt like an ordinary housewife. Little did I know that it was what I had that she valued most. But Miriam seemed to need someone to confide in, someone objective and somewhat removed from her personal life; and I had a responsibility to listen. While I did not know why she picked me, I figured that if she had, I owed it to her to try and help in whatever way I could.
She told me she had started seeing a medical professional, a fertility specialist, who kept sending her for more and more tests – with no results.
“You just don’t know what to do, who to talk to””I was overwhelmed; I would go to the doctor’s office to do an ultrasound test to see when I was ovulating, and then rush to work. Many times I came late, and though the boss was very understanding I felt bad having to explain to him and to all my co-workers why I was always late and often grumpy. And then when I started on medication I felt worse physically, as well. And after all that, I would get my period – I was a total nervous wreck.”
But just getting to a doctor, she explained, is not enough. Apparently each doctor has a specific specialty, and a doctor who helps one couple may not be able to help another. Miriam said she’s met many couples who spent endless hours pursuing unsuitable doctors and inappropriate, time-consuming, anxiety-provoking treatments. Sometimes they would wait for months just to get to see a particular doctor only to be told that they should stop trying, that they were too old to conceive.
“You just don’t know what to do, who to talk to”, she said. “And I couldn’t speak about it with anyone around me – my immediate family felt bad for us, didn’t want to bring up the subject at all; my younger sister was wrapped up in her own kids; and it was obviously too personal a matter to discuss with professional colleagues. All my friends either had their own children to keep them busy, or weren’t even interested in becoming pregnant… and they certainly didn’t want to hear about my troubles. I felt all alone, as though I was the only person in the world with such problems – I had no one to turn to. ”
Well … I was certainly flattered that she’d decided to confide in me, a virtual stranger. – it must have been an act of sheer desperation on her part. But I was also flabbergasted: here was a problem I personally – thankfully – had known little about, an issue which, for many, is all-consuming and even life-determining. In retrospect, of course, I should have realized how overwhelmingly difficult it must be to have trouble conceiving, especially in our community. After all, Judaism places incredible value on family life and raising children. And it is impossible not to have your life revolve around your children once you have them. From the moment of conception on, your lives are forever changed.
I’m ashamed to admit I’d not really given the whole subject of infertility much thought. I guess I had just taken it for granted that people had babies when they chose to. Once Miriam and I started speaking, I began to wonder who else I knew who might have been affected. It had never occurred to me that maybe some people that I thought just must not have wanted might have very badly wanted children and couldn’t have them. I never thought to be sensitive when meeting someone and immediately asking, “So, how many children do you have?” I started wondering how many people might have extremely painful stories to relate about my thoughlessness.
The first thing I did after Miriam and I spoke was to search the computer to learn more about infertility. Sadly, Miriam and her husband are far from the only ones – they are just one of the thousands of couples who experience problems conceiving. In fact, about one in seven of all couples may have problems with fertility at some point during their married life. And it appears that the numbersonly increase as the couple gets older. This means that around 15% of couples may not become pregnant after trying for twelve months. Some will subsequently conceive without any intervention, but most will require some medical assistance. It is unfortunately a rather widespread problem affecting many…and I was basically unaware.
One in seven of all couples may have problems with fertility at some point during their married lifeA few months after the ‘coffee-machine incident’, Miriam arrived in the office one day looking much more at peace than I’d seen her in a long time. She had finally found a medical professional whom she trusted, one who was a source of tremendous emotional support and comfort for her and her husband and was guiding them through the entire process of fertility treatments. He was helping them put things into perspective and regain control of their lives. With the positive feedback she was now receiving, she was continuing treatment with greater confidence and a renewed sense of hope.
Miriam continues to thank me for ”being there’ when she needed me; the truth is, I have learned a lot from her and have a lot to thank her for. I have learned to be more aware, to open my ears and my heart to others. And if someone should choose to confide in me and to express her feelings, or if someone just appears to be overwhelmed and in need of some support, I will try my best to listen, to let her speak freely of her frustrations and disappointments.
Because of Miriam I have started volunteering at a center for couples with fertility problems, sharing with these people their hopes and concerns. There are hundreds of couples like Miriam and her husband, most suffering in pain and in silence. They may well be our neighbors, our friends, people we go to synagogue with; and we may often be oblivious, or insensitive, or too absorbed in our own lives to share their worries. Through this incident, I have become determined to help, in any way I can. And not just by providing information about infertility to those who suffer from it, but to those who fortunately don’t, so that they will hopefully become a source of support and strength to those who do, rather than a source of pain and sorrow.
Most importantly, I have learned to count my blessings and never to take anything for granted. I hope and pray that one day I will be able to join in the happiness of Miriam and her husband, as well as the other families trying to conceive, so that I can be there when they do become pregnant, and give birth to a healthy baby, and gratefully welcome a little one into their homes.