In Joy I Reap: An Infertile Couple's Journey to Parenthood
In Joy I Reap By Raizel Stern
Taken from Special Delivery: Jewish Birth Stories of Faith and Inspiration (on sale at www.Targum.com)
I glance at my night table and at the current stack of books cluttering it; the contents of my night table reflect the various stages of my life. As a secular college student, I read trendy philosophical books. When I adopted a religious lifestyle, my reading material changed accordingly. I began reading books Jewish life about Jewish philosophy. About five year later, books on marriage joined the pile. I assumed that parenting books would soon be added to my collection, but instead I spent many years surrounded by reading material of a very different nature- infertility.
As the years passed my collection grew to include books on adoption. But eventually, Thank G-d, after 12 years of waiting, birthing books prominently adorned my night table. My reading material has now progressed to include books on childcare and parenting, reflecting my treasured new status as mother.
Some challenges and conditions can be successfully hidden, but infertility is not one of them. Throughout the years, my friends were empathetic and caring, although I did not discuss with them my pain and frustration of my journey to motherhood. I am now prepared to share some reflections on the years that preceded the birth of my children, to help others appreciate the miracle that is often taken for granted- that of bringing children into this world and to help others with their pain as they wait for their prayers to be answered.
I was in my mid twenties when I met my husband and we were married three months later. Each passing month we looked for signs indicating that in nine months time we would be parents. Little did we realize that our path to parenthood would be significantly longer and fraught with uncertainty. But it would be a road that we traveled together, growing closer and giving each other moral support. Maybe it was a premonition of difficult times ahead, but more likely it was just a natural step for someone of my somewhat anxious temperament, which motivated me to consult with a gynecologist a few months after we were married.
When I look back now, I realize that the “treatment” that he prescribed was very minor-league, compared to what was to follow. However it helped us to begin to face the issues of infertility. Once he felt that he had gone as far as he could he recommended that we go to a clinic which specializes in fertility problems. We looked to a Rav for guidance whether I should go for a complete fertility workup. The Rabbi was emphatic, that we had not been married for long and the time was not right to place myself in the category of “infertile.” We followed the psak of the Rav. This was not the time to be challenged by the stresses of fertility treatment. H-shem would let us know when it was.
We think that we make all the decisions, but H-shem sets the stage and pulls the strings. Various factors converged and we were now ready to enter the world of major league fertility treatment. I would soon be entering into a new phase of my life, a phase where most of my emotional energy would be invested in fertility clinics, asking complicated ‘sheilos’ going to support groups and trying to maintain some level of normalcy.
My first trip to the fertility clinic stands out in my memory. I have a vivid memory of walking away from gynecologist’s rooms down a brightly lit corridor to an infertility clinic. I had crossed into another realm, a little-known world where all the players were either infertile couples like us, or medical personnel wishing to employ all their medical expertise to help us conceive. Infertility is a great equalizer. Age, status or finances have no bearing here.
Each woman subjects herself to endless blood tests, hormone treatments, ultrasounds and other invasive procedures. Her life revolves around this clinic and she complies with the doctor’s orders, even if they may be uncomfortable. Daily visits to the clinic become the norm, and life becomes an emotional roller coaster. Do we dare hope that the next treatment will be successful? How do we deal with reality when the caring staff informs us that success has eluded us yet again? How do we protect ourselves, and give each other encouragement when the months roll into years?
The earlier years were in a sense more painful, as our hopes were high and the disappointments cut deeper. As the following years progressed we developed better coping skill but the pain never left. Somehow we pushed ourselves to continue treatments, even though they were extremely stressful and the chances of success were decreasing with each subsequent treatment. Each woman copes with the stress of treatment and infertility in different ways. I was not interested in the medical aspects of the treatments.
Divorcing myself from my body was one of my major coping mechanisms. I did as I was told, and kept as busy as possible, trying to ensure that there was never time to dwell on our childlessness. I tried to avoid situations that would be painful. For example I didn’t hang around the park before the Shabbos afternoon shiur. When is the time to give up and say that it was just not meant to be? How much disappointment can one bear? Do we continue, somewhat resigned to the fact that all our efforts may possibly be in vain? Do we ask what are the chances of success? Are statistics important?
Entering the “over thirty five” category was particularly difficult. Was there still room for hope? Do I let that depress me? All we need is one successful fertilized egg to grow into the miracle of life? Is it ever meant to be? What should we be doing? Who should we turn to for a blessing? Can you follow up on every ‘segula’ which well meaning people recommend? Even though I am not a ‘segula person’, I sat on a certain chair in Ashdod, prayed at the grave of a childless washerwoman and followed some other recommendations provided by well-wishers. I had a friend set up a shmeras halashon [anti-gossip] rotation when we were having a treatment. We prayed constantly to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
At the same time as doing infertility treatments we looked into adoption. We went to discuss the issue of adoption with a Rav who we are close to. He said we should speak to a famous Rav in Bnai Brak. He told us that he knew the Rav and that he would accompany us to the Rav’s house. The Rav gave my husband a bracho, he said we should only adopt a Jewish child and we should continue treatment. I very much wanted to adopt through a certain agency but there were no Jewish babies. It must have been difficult for our parents and siblings to see us in this trying situation.
I appreciated my sister-in-law calling personally and telling me she was pregnant, although it must have been very difficult for her. They knew we were having treatments but we didn’t tell them specifics or even the dates of the first nine IVFs. I think we wanted to spare them the pain of disappointment. It was easier for us to cope on our own without having to cope with their disappointment Our friends were supportive, even though they could not fully understand what we were going through.
I especially appreciated the fact that they treated me as a normal person, and not somebody who had to be treated with kit gloves. They always included us in the family activities and we chose what we felt comfortable to join in. Relatives, neighbors, and colleagues on the whole were generally sensitive. The challenge is answering innocent questions posed by strangers such as, “How many children do you have?” I felt worse for the person asking than for myself. I would spend the next fifteen minutes explaining that it is a natural question and they had not hurt me by asking it.
The more meaningful reaction was the countless number of people who were hearing the answer who said that they would ‘daven’ for us. The only social situation, which was really stressful, was being a ‘kvater’ at a bris [passing the baby at the bris to the ritual circumcisor/mohel is an auspicious practice to conceive]. However we never passed this up. As the successive treatment failed, alternative treatments of questionable halachic status were suggested, but we could not accept them neither on a halachic nor an emotional basis We felt we were at an impasse.
“You must meet my uncle,” exclaimed a former student, explaining that her uncle, a respected Torah scholar, was an expert on fertility treatments. Her words came at a time that we were dealing with the reality of stopping treatments. Should I make the call? Could he really help us? I called and later that evening we found ourselves sharing our medical history with a distinguished-looking man clad in rabbinic garb.
His manner was both professional and caring as he asked for medical details. At this point he declared, “You may think you are young, you may even look like you are young but your body is not”. I was 37 years old at the time. He then proceeded to outline for us exactly what we should do including what particular procedure should be used. He told us that he would make all the initial appointments. Something in his manner propelled us to follow his directives.
He followed the case along, calling me and supervising progress. Who is this man, and why was he so devoted to my case? Apparently, he had amassed information on fertility, possibly based on his own personal experience, and because he genuinely feels the pain of a couple going through this challenge. He feels it is a sacred obligation to do all he could to assist countless couples along their quest. Somehow everything was different with this IVF before my son was born. We were at a new clinic. It was in a different city, my husband accompanied me to every visit to the clinic. This wasn’t necessary in previous treatments.
I went to the clinic and then went to work. Also this time we told family and close friends that we were having a treatment. I set up my own mishmeret of shmeras Halashon [a program to eliminate gossip in her community]. A special atmosphere permeated the shul that Rosh Hashana. No doubt everyone had something to pray for. I davened like I had never davened before. Just the previous day, I had undergone yet another IVF implant, under the direction of my new clinic.
On a medical level, chances were slim. But I had just spent the month of Elul learning at a women’s seminary, and felt that spiritually ready for Rosh Hashana. Was there a possibility of success this time? I turned my energy upward and appealed to Hashem, the All-Merciful One. The days passed slowly, as we found ourselves in the familiar situations waiting the results of the pregnancy test, praying for success but also bracing ourselves for disappointment. The minutes dragged. Part of me wished that time could be sped up and we could phone immediately. Another part wished that time could be frozen so that we would not have to face another disappointment.
This was our tenth IVF. We had invested so much in this treatment. Before the appointed time, the phone rang. My husband answered immediately recognizing the voice of the nurse. She asked for me, and then pronounced the long awaited words, “You’re pregnant, girl!” Was I prepared? Could one be prepared for a gift of such magnitude? I had hoped and prayed for this day for over a decade, not knowing whether I would ever arrive at to this point. My life shifted into a different gear.
Caution was in order and I was told to take it easy. And take it easy I did. I arranged for the best in medical care, as well as attending birthing classes. When I was 12 days past my due date, it became apparent that a c-section was required. The hospital would not induce on a previous uterine scar, which I had earlier in my life. Also, today was elective cesarean day. If I didn’t do it today, I would have to wait 2 more days and be fit in towards the end of the day, after orthopedics and others. Honestly, I was so ready emotionally to have this baby.
Others may have done it differently but I didn’t want to wait longer and I didn’t really want to go through labor at this point. At 38 years old, I wanted to just see my baby. Right or wrong, that’s what we opted to do. So, on a pleasant summer day, a few months after our 12th anniversary, we were blessed with a most beautiful baby boy. It is impossible to describe our elation. My husband called everyone we knew all over the world. I could not sleep for a week. I wanted to hold the baby all the time. I had made sure he was safe. The hospital staff was understanding, allowing me to ignore the standard routines.
I set aside my normally reserved demeanor and I proceeded to share my good news with everyone. This together with the surgery, lack of sleep and the endless discussions about the bris, were all very emotionally draining. The bris was a very moving, with family friends and colleagues participating as if our simcha was their own.
When my son was six months old I began thinking of the possibility of having another child. I didn’t want him to have to be an only child. But dare I ask H-shem for another miracle? Motivated by my desire for my son’s happiness I contacted the clinic again. Again we proceeded with treatments, but my whole state of mind was different. I did not come home to an empty house after each visit. I came home to a gurgling baby, happy to see me. Although the stress level was lower, the roller coaster of emotions began again. Could it possibly work?
I was older, but I had successfully carried a given birth to a live baby. I appreciated the doctor’s honesty when he did not give me any false hope. Again the day arrived and we waited anxiously for the results of the pregnancy test. There was no early phone call, definitely a negative result. We waited patiently for the designated phone time. With trembling hands I called, surprising my doctor who answered the phone. I said who was calling and he said, “Mazel tov.”
We could not believe the kindness of H-shem; another miracle. I could not take it easy, I had an energetic baby to take care of. Thanks to him I went into the second c-section in much better physical shape than the first. I thought of names for my son’s soon to be playmate, began to plan a bris assuming all along that it would be a boy. Imagine our elation when we were blessed with a beautiful little girl to complete our family.
Now, five years later, I try to be constantly appreciative of my precious treasures and try never to take them for granted. I aim to be the perfect parent, and feel guilty when I am not. Being an older parent has lots of plusses and lots of challenges, but I am grateful for the way our children have changed our lives. We are extremely grateful for the many medical professionals as well as family and friends who were always there for us.
One nurse was particularly caring, making herself available whenever I needed her. She helped me with all my medical needs but in addition was a source of tremendous emotional support. Her strong emuna and bitachon gave me the courage to cope with the treatment. I value her friendship to this day. I see great siyata dishmaya [Divine intervention] in every step on our long journey to parenthood. How has my whole experience affected me? Although I would have never chosen this path, I see how our marriage and we have grown from our challenges. I try to have greater sensitivity to others going through difficult times.
We continue to see the G-d’s hand guiding us in all aspects of our lives and our children. We are eternally grateful to Him for our twofold treasure. We pray that we will be able to raise our chidren to be a true Ben and Bas Yisroel [son and daughter of the Jewish people].
Generally I don’t dispense advice. However, since I have crossed the bridge and am now a mother women have asked me to give them:
Suggestions of what to say to a neighbor, a friend, relation who is childless.
1. I tell them there is no magic formula which is right for everybody, and even if you say the right thing you may say it the wrong time.
2. If you can, try to include them in your life but give them the space for their privacy. I have learnt that you can have a close supportive relationship with somebody even if you don’t share intimate information.
3. Try to see where the person is terms of your children. It is wonderful if a natural bond develops but you can’t force it.
4. Don’t try to tell your children not to ask where their children are, children ask. And don’t be embarrassed when they do, it is a perfectly normal question. If it is difficult for the person to answer tell your children that they should daven that soon this person will be a mommy.
5. If you notice, I was the one who was always getting support. There are two members in a couple; husbands need support too. This is more complicated because in general men don’t seek support or give emotional support the way women intuitively do. Invite the couple over and try to encourage your husband to develop a friendship. It is unlikely that the husband will discuss anything related to the infertility but he will appreciate the warmth of a friendship.
What would I suggest to childless couples.
1. Find a Rabbi who you are prepared to follow his psak [ruling], and who is knowledgeable as possible concerning aspects of infertility treatments. When you go ask a sheilo [question] make sure that you present all the relevant information. ”
2. If you choose the medical route, find the best medical treatment available.
3. Look for support groups. Other people are a source of important information.
4. Try to give yourselves mechanisms of coping when things get rough, as they do. Pamper yourselves go out for dinner.
5. Don’t feel obliged that you have to share what you are going through but if you can find the right person it helps.
6. Prepare tactful answers for insensitive questions. Don’t let yourself get hurt by tactless comments. Judge these people favourably; they have no means of understanding the depth of your pain.
7. Avoid situations that are painful but don’t exclude yourself from society.
8. Be a source of support for one another. ” Pray, having faith that your prayers will be answered
9. Do all the hishtadlos [efforts] necessary, physical as well. Slim, healthy women have a higher chance of fertility being successful.
10. Don’t put your life on hold. See yourself as a whole person waiting for your little pikadon [deposit]to be delivered bezrat H-shem.
*IVF, in vitro fertilization, the fertility treatment that eventually worked for us, entails surgical removal of a woman’s eggs, fertilizing them in the laboratory setting, and implanting them in the woman’s womb. It is an uncertain process, since there are some many variables at different stages of the procedure. Thank G-d; we have two beautiful children resulting from this process.