Lately, I have been really fascinated by the book of Job, which explores the question of why we suffer. Rabbis and philosophers have offered many explanations and theodicies for human suffering, though few are actually helpful when we are in the midst of major life challenges.
For many of us who struggle with infertility, our faith in God, as well as our very identities, can be challenged, and the process of building a family can feel like suffering. Indeed, the Torah is full of examples of women who internalized their inability to conceive children as a threat to their core identities. In Genesis 30:1, Rachel says to Jacob “Give me children, or else I will die.”
When Isaac and Rebecca struggle to conceive, the former pleads to God “lenochach ishto” (Genesis 25:21), which is often translated as “on behalf of his wife.” But reading the text that way makes it seem like the problem was Rebecca’s alone. I prefer to understand it as Isaac praying “in front of” Rebecca – face to face with her.
Certainly in our case, Ryla, my partner, and I both had some medical challenges that contributed to our difficulty in conceiving. The unfulfilled wish belonged to us both.
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While this process has been difficult for me, watching Ryla struggle and trying to be with her on this journey without being able to “fix” the problem, has been the hardest part. No hormones were pumped into my body, nor I did I need to be routinely tested and probed and go through any painful medical procedures with a team of doctors and nurses surrounding me. I didn’t need to stop nursing Sheelo, our first daughter, early in order to start hormone treatment, and I didn’t have to withhold from holding her in order to avoid a miscarriage. But I did have the sometimes difficult job of being “nochach” with Ryla through the whole painful (yet sometimes comical) journey.
The fertility journey is not simple. But if it’s done with compassion and love and without blame or judgment – and with laughter and empathy – it can be an experience that solidifies your connection to your partner. I truly believe that because of our experience and all that we invested in creating our family, we have an increased sense of thankfulness and awe for the opportunity to be parents. We cherish our daughters differently than one might if it comes easily.
I also feel extremely fortunate to be living in a time when our Jewish community has stepped up to understand the needs of those dealing with infertility. We received financial support from Small Wonders, which offers grants and advice, an interest-free loan from Jewish Free Loan Toronto, which recently established a fertility loan program, and much guidance from rabbis and friends.
On the other hand, both the provincial health-care system and private health coverage have not been helpful. When I started a new job recently, I read the health coverage policy with great interest. As is often the case, fertility treatment and medication of any kind are not covered. To make it worse, those treatments are classified alongside erectile dysfunction as “lifestyle” treatments. Is having children really just about a certain lifestyle, just like going to the cottage on weekends or training for a marathon?
When I told a family member that I was going to write this piece, she expressed her surprise that Ryla and I were willing to publicly share something so private. But I don’t believe that we should feel any shame in our experience. We didn’t do anything “wrong” – in fact, the opposite is true: we were so committed to building a family that we spent tens of thousands of dollars on treatments. Keeping our experience in the dark would only allow the stigma to continue.
With that in mind, I want to leave you with a few suggestions:
1. If you have been trying for a while and your doctor says, “It’s only been nine months, let’s wait until we are at a year, and maybe you should reduce the stress in your life,” then reduce the stress in your life, and badger your doctor until you get a referral to a fertility specialist
2. Though fertility specialists may seem like magicians, they are doing a lot of guessing, learning through trial and error while you are flipping the bill, turning your life upside down and placing your dreams in their hands. Ask for clarifications when you want them and be your own advocate.
3. Request financial support from Small Wonders and Jewish Free Loan Toronto. They want to give it to you.
4. Talk to a rabbi for moral support and any questions regarding Jewish ethics and law you are dealing with.
Finally, share your experience with those who are able to support and comfort you, but only if and when you feel it will be helpful for you and your partner. About a year before we started trying to get pregnant, close friends shared with us in a very nonchalant way their own struggles. We were surprised by how forthcoming they were, but when we shared a similar fate, we knew that we could turn to them for support. Now we know dozens of people who have struggled, or currently are struggling, with infertility. We never want you to feel alone in this journey and invite you to reach out for support of any kind.
B’shaah tovah – may our deepest hopes and desires come true at the appropriate time. n
Yacov Fruchter is director of community building and spiritual engagement at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto. Yacov and Ryla are parents to two amazing daughters, Sheelo, 3, and Lev, 1.