I believe it was ninth or tenth grade, I don’t recall, and it doesn’t really matter. One way or another, I was playing hooky, pretended to be sick, and the school administrator fell for it. The school I attended was quite far from home, there were no busses, and so I had to hitch a ride home, which I did. A young man who I didn’t know, who was leaving the school kindly offered me a ride. I gladly jumped into the back seat.
At one point during the drive the driver asked me how the food was in the school’s cafeteria. I told him that our regular cook was sick and someone else was making the food. “So how’s the replacement cook doing?” he asked. “How’s the food?”
I shrugged and flippantly said, “You know, same old junk.”
At that point he turned around to face me and said, “I don’t think I introduced myself, I’m Moishe, and I’m the replacement cook.”
Let’s just say the rest of the ride was just a little uncomfortable.
But it was a wonderful lesson, it really was. I was a pretty sensitive kid, and this incident made me realize just how sensitive we have to be. And sensitivity is the overarching theme of my talk today.
Last Simchas Torah, the shul auctioned off the opportunity to choose a topic for one of my sermons, and a group of women banded together and did so. This past week they shared with me a number of their suggestions, and I have to tell you, they were all very important and timely topics and I hope to get a chance to speak about many of them in the next few months. But one topic struck a chord, and I would like to try to talk about it today and that is the topic of sensitivity to infertility.
Infertility is not a topic that is often discussed and for obvious reasons – it’s private, it’s more private than private. Discussing infertility is inviting someone into one’s intimate life, inviting someone into their deepest desires and the most personal of setbacks.
Although it’s not discussed, it doesn’t mean it’s not prevalent. “There are more than seven million people of childbearing age in the United States currently struggling with infertility. Up to twenty percent of those who do become pregnant experience a miscarriage. Eighty percent of those miscarriages occur within the first trimester, when the couple is unlikely to have told anyone they were expecting and before the woman begins to show.” (Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Infertility Etiquette) So yes, it is prevalent and yet, profoundly private.
And I think it’s safe to say that living in a community like ours, a Jewish community, that has been obsessed since the beginning of time with children and succession, makes this struggle so much more pronounced. This week’s Parsha when G-d describes the great blessings that He will bestow upon the Jewish People, the first of those blessing is pri vitnecha, children! We are a child-centric society like no other. And in such a society, having no children can be really, really painful. Rachel, like many of our matriarchs, suffered from the pain of childlessness. In one moment of despair, she screamed out in pain, “im ayin, meisa anochi, if I don’t have a child I am already dead.”
The National Infertility Association, Resolve, has a page to guide us in sensitively interacting with this population. It’s written anonymously by someone who experiences infertility and called Infertility Etiquette. I’ll read to you a few rules, but I encourage to read the whole thing by yourself.
“#1 – Don’t Tell Them to Relax
Everyone knows someone who had trouble conceiving but then finally became pregnant once she “relaxed.”… My husband and I underwent two surgeries, numerous inseminations, hormone treatments, and four years of poking and prodding by doctors. Yet, people still continued to say things like, “If you just relaxed on a cruise . . .” Infertility is a diagnosable medical problem that must be treated by a doctor, and even with treatment, many couples will NEVER successfully conceive a child. Relaxation itself does not cure medical infertility.
Rule #2 – Don’t Say There Are Worse Things That Could Happen” (As an aside, never say that. To anyone. About anything!)
“Rule #3 – Don’t Ask Why They Aren’t Trying IVF
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a method in which the woman harvests multiple eggs, which are then combined with the man’s sperm in a petri dish. This is a method that can produce multiple births. People frequently ask, “Why don’t you just try IVF?” in the same casual tone they would use to ask, “Why don’t you try shopping at another store?””
The final rule that I’ll mention today is, “Don’t Complain About Your Pregnancy
“This message is for pregnant women. Just being around you,” writes the author, “is painful for your infertile friends. Seeing your belly grow is a constant reminder of what your infertile friend cannot have.”
If I may, I would qualify this rule of hers. There is the insensitivity of having someone say something insensitive and there is the insensitivity of having a conversation stop short as soon as you walk into a room. (I know, it happens to me all the time!) I don’t believe she is recommending a pregnant woman or a mother to pretend she isn’t. What she is recommending is that we are a little more cognizant of how these words come across. In her words: “I’d gladly throw up for nine straight months if it meant I could have a baby.”
I remember getting just an inkling of this when I lived in the Pickwick apartments. On Shabbos afternoon, there would be these huge gatherings of women and their young children running around on the lawn. They were welcoming, they were friendly, but the women who did not have any children would often times hang back and wouldn’t come outside. Why wouldn’t she want to come outside and talk to a group of friendly neighbors? Why would she want to stay inside by herself on a beautiful afternoon? Because the pain of having everyone talk about strollers and milestones, and yes, even the complaints about how difficult child-rearing is were simply too painful.
But in truth, we shouldn’t really need rules. When Rachel screamed out in pain, her husband to whom she directed those words responded. She asked him to give her a child, to which he said, “Am I G-d? How can I give you a child?”
And you know what, he was 100% right! He was not G-d and her complaining to Yakov made no sense. But at the very same time, Yakov was absolutely wrong. As our Sages commented on this exchange, “Is this how you respond to a person in pain?”
What Yakov was lacking at that moment was insight. By insight I mean the ability to be able to see yourself from the other person’s perspective. He did not place himself in the mindset of his wife and our Sages take him to task for not doing so.
Some people are blessed with more insight and some people with less. I am sure you may have experienced this in interacting with someone who says something or does something that is just so insensitive, so self-centered, so embarrassing – for them! and you wonder, do they know how those words sound to other people?!
This type of insight is something we could develop, and even if you’ve been blessed with a good amount of insight, you could always use some more. When I prepare a sermon, I spend a good amount of time thinking not only about the message, but how you’ll hear it. I learned this the hard way, because, regretfully, unwittingly, I have insulted people when I didn’t properly think through how the message sounds not only to me but to you.
The way we gain insight is by listening to people, listening really well, by learning to understand others. And so I’d like to conclude today by reading to you a personal reflection from a woman who was experiencing secondary infertility, a condition in which couples who have already had one child naturally are, for no apparent reason, unable to have another. Perhaps in some ways it’s even more painful as people innocently assume such couples are really able to have children but are just choosing not to.
Before I quote her reflections to you,it’s worth acknowledging that no two people experience anything the same way. However, the more we listen the better we become at developing this invaluable skill. Allow me to read to you her reflection:
(Secondary Infertility, Rachel Fayga bas Hinda, Aish.com) “I have conducted endless Google searches in hopes of finding a story similar to mine. I found a handful of message boards and blogs of women suffering from infertility, some of them with happy endings and some not. But for the most part, nobody I can relate to. I felt alone and was desperately seeking a voice similar to mine to give me hope and faith. Lots of people will tell you they know someone who is going through the same thing or went through the same thing, but where are they? Why don’t they speak up and let people know their story?
I decided to be that voice. I know how much more difficult this road can be when you travel it alone; feeling like God is punishing you, feeling like everyone is looking at you and wondering why you are waiting so long. Hearing comments like “Don’t wait too long to give her a sibling otherwise she’ll be spoiled.” I know it’s not meant to hurt, but it does. A lot.
I started on this journey almost three years ago, a few months after my daughter turned two; I was 26 at the time. Getting pregnant with her was pretty easy. I had an amazingly easy pregnancy and a really quick labor. I thought it would take no time to get pregnant again.
Months passed and the pregnancy tests kept coming up negative. I knew I should go see the doctor, but part of me didn’t want to accept that something might be wrong. After eight months with no success I went to my doctor. He ran every kind of test on both me and my husband and found nothing amiss, so I was referred to a reproductive endocrinologist (RE). I put off going for two months because I was still refusing to accept that I needed medical assistance to have a child. Finally, at the ten month mark, I went.
I had my initial consultation and the doctor seemed positive that a couple rounds of Clomid (a fertility drug) would do the trick. Three rounds of the drug with two intrauterine inseminations later and still no pregnancy. I became discouraged and didn’t call them back for the next cycle.
I decided we’d try on our own for a while. I started to track my basal body temperature (BBT). BBT tracking helps predict ovulation based on changes in your resting body temperature. After six months of tracking there was still no pregnancy.
During this time, I was on an emotional rollercoaster. I was working as a psychologist in a women’s correctional facility. The job was stressful for many reasons, but mostly because on a daily basis I would encounter incarcerated women who were drug addicted and pregnant. I couldn’t understand the justice in that. I began crying myself to sleep every night, waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks or just plain crying, crying while driving to work, and crying quietly in my office at work. Soon the tears turned to rage. I was raging at everyone I met. I was angry at my clients. How could God give them a child and not me? I eventually had to leave the job because it was taking too much of a toll on my own mental health and making me very resentful of God.
I was angry at my friends who told me they were expecting their second after only a couple months. I was angry at my sister-in-law who told me she was expecting her fourth, and then my other sister-in-law made her pregnancy announcement not too long after that. I was especially angry at my husband. I had no good reason for the anger other than the fact that it made his pain less painful to me, but he suffers with this too and blaming him wasn’t changing the reality of our situation. I still wasn’t pregnant.
After the birth of my nephew, I couldn’t pull myself together. There was this constant heavy feeling in my chest and I couldn’t get the tears out of my eyes. The pain was so strong that I couldn’t control when and where I’d let it out. Every milestone or family simcha was tinged with this pain. Each birthday party for my daughter is bittersweet for me. Yes she is growing up, thank God, but she is still alone.
I caved to the pressure and went back to the RE and started rounds of fertility injections. My husband gave me injections every night. I was waking up at 6 a.m. for blood work and ultrasounds every day, suffering from terrible bloating, swollen ovaries, a five to seven pound weight gain (at least!), cramping, and fatigue. Three rounds later and still no pregnancy.
I stopped taking pregnancy tests months ago. I give extra charity, make challah with a blessing almost every week, light extra shabbat candles, and pray my heart out.
I’m done playing the blame game; I’m done being angry at God and feeling like I’m being tormented or condemned to eternal suffering. I’m done ruining my life and my marriage with my anger, jealousy, and negativity. I don’t have any more energy for it. I’m done crying every night (now I only cry once or twice a month). I’m done being ashamed and embarrassed of my condition. I’m done feeling alone and isolated. I’m done trying to avoid those “so when are you guys going to have another one?” questions.
I want my life back. I want to enjoy the two beautiful gifts God has already handed to me on a silver platter and said “Here, have an amazing life!” The gifts I have not paid attention to for the past three years because I’ve been too busy being miserable. They are my sweet, kind, sensitive, brilliant husband and my beautiful, incredible, amazing, daughter.
I began taking my life back eight months ago and while it still hurts each month when I see that I haven’t been blessed with another child, I can still hope and pray while I enjoy the blessings I already have. I know that God has a plan and that there is a reason for the situation I am currently in. Even though I do not understand it, I am learning to accept it. God has always pulled through for me before; there’s no reason for me to start believing otherwise now……
Lastly, for those of you who do not suffer from this condition, please be sensitive to your family and friends. Do not take for granted that they are waiting. Asking or making comments can be completely innocent on your part, but so painful for them. Pray for these individuals that God should bless them with healthy children in the right time.
Please pray for me and know that if you’re in this situation, you are not alone.”
Friends, let’s become more sensitive people; sensitive to the words that come out of our mouth, more sensitive to the people with whom we speak. Let’s grow and develop our insight becoming more and cognizant of how we come across by listening to other people’s stories and stepping into their shoes. And let’s take this woman’s wonderful advice and let’s pray. Let’s pray with all of our heart and soul, for all those who suffer silently. We may not have the right words to share with them – as there are no words, but we do have the words to share with our Father in Heaven, letting Him know that we care.