When a person is born or a person dies the Jewish community rallies with meals, support, and love. When a person is experiencing infertility the community is silent – and those suffering feel they have to be silent.
This is a strange omission, especially considering that the history of the Jewish people is replete with tales of infertility – Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel all have difficulty conceiving and pray for children.
After being married a little while we soon realized that having a baby was not something that would happen easily for us. Rather than feeling like a part of the community, we began to feel isolated. Friends from the past would say things such as, “We’d love to hang out with you, but then who would our kids play with?”
The road to having children can feel endless and lonely. Watching friends and family have babies while they examine your never growing belly can lead to an intense sadness that only those experiencing infertility can relate to. At an engagement party, someone once came over to us and said “you never change,” pointing to Rachel’s stomach.
After almost three years of many doctor visits, no pregnancies, and thinking it probably wouldn’t happen for us, we did finally get pregnant, only to first have a chemical pregnancy, followed by an ectopic pregnancy. When suffering from pregnancy loss, people are quiet and suffer in silence. There is very little in the way of a support network. Mentioning pregnancy loss or infertility can lead to weird looks rather than sympathetic responses. People aren’t sure how to respond. There are no meals delivered to people suffering from miscarriages, no time for mourning, no time off from work, and people are expected to attend synagogue the week of a miscarriage with smiles on their faces. After all, no one knows the internal struggle that’s going on.
If the topics of pregnancy loss and infertility were less taboo in the Jewish community, people could get the support they need. Dealing with infertility involves a long process of seeing doctors, nightly injections, and early-morning appointments. Many times husbands may not be able to attend the appointments, and wives are left going by themselves. The process may involve missing days of work, additional hormones wreaking havoc on your body, and expensive procedures and medication. For many, adoption may seem like the only answer, but that’s also a difficult, long, lonely road, with expenses that add up quickly.
Ultimately, in-vitro fertilization did work for us and helped us start our family, but many others are not as lucky. Infertility is a lonely experience that changes a person. We will never be the people we were when we first got married. While we knew having a child might be difficult for us, we didn’t realize how long the process would be and the toll it would take on us as individuals, our relationship to each other, and relationships with our friends. At one point after being invited to a friend’s child’s birthday party, we had to leave a little early, and our friend told us, “Don’t worry, it was really only meant for mothers and children anyway.”
The experience of infertility shook our confidence in the Jewish community and some of the friendships we had previously formed. It removed the (possibly naïve) optimism we had when we first got married. After being in the dating scene a little while, getting married seemed like the answer to everything. We would finally be able to fit in and catch up with a community that centers on marriage and children. But rather than fitting in we began to feel more and more isolated. It got to the point that we were jealous of our pregnant pet guinea pig. Our confidence in our community and ourselves was (and still is) shaken.
While the experience of pregnancy loss or infertility will never be easy, perhaps if the topic of infertility were less taboo in the Jewish community, more people would speak up about their struggles and more support could be offered. How can we make the topic less taboo? For starters, synagogues can have lectures to raise awareness of the issue, communities can ensure they include and invite all members for Shabbat meals, especially those who do not fit in as well. Perhaps meal conversations can have less discussion about people’s children, or instead schedule Friday night meals in such a way that kids can be put to bed before the meal or before dessert and the adults can hang out together afterwards. More community events can be offered for people with infertility to interact with each other so that they don’t feel so alone. Synagogues could also organize meals for women who experience pregnancy loss, and communities could organize rides or company for women going to doctors’ visits alone. While there are some support organizations out there, there are few (if any?) Modern Orthodox organizations that help people connect with like-minded couples experiencing infertility.
The more the Jewish community speaks about topics such as infertility and pregnancy loss, the more those suffering from it will feel comfortable reaching out to their community for support and discussing what they are going through. A cultural change like this may not happen overnight, but perhaps future family and friends who suffer will have more support to make the process a little less unbearable. Let’s not allow those in our community to suffer alone and in silence.