After two years of nearly monthly ovarian cyst ruptures, this past year I was diagnosed with PCOS.
Recently, my husband and I talked about starting to try again, and we decided to check in with my doctor, who informed me that she didn’t think I should have more children. It was too taxing on my body, it had been too hard, there might be too much scarring from the cyst ruptures in my ovaries. She told me, “You have two children. You have enough.”
Shortly after these personal experiences, I began The Layers Project series on Infertility. (More on that here.)I listened to how these women worked so hard to have children – investing time, money, and pain to become mothers. I listened to their losses, their isolation, their feelings of otherness.
They told me about the endless insensitive comments they received, their struggle with their complicated feelings of success or failure, how it all impacted their sense of selves, the sense of where they fit into their communities, what they felt being a Jewish mother truly meant. With every new profile, in my countertransference, I was forced to reflect on my own experience of motherhood.I tried to explain the cultural concerns, that Orthodox women usually try to have many children. We are expected to have large families. The conversation ended, and though I have received other opinions informing me that it might be possible for me to try again, this conversation stayed with me. Devastated me. It made me feel like I was broken. I have been told, “Some bodies are just not made to have many children.” Consequently, I wonder about the choices I will make, and the choices that won’t be up to me, in the future.
I listened to how these women worked so hard to have children – investing time, money, and pain to become mothers. I listened to their losses, their isolation, their feelings of otherness.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Rachel Imeinu. Rachel lived her whole married life struggling to have children. She wrestled with deep jealousy and pain from witnessing her husband’s other wives able to have children. She was the most beloved of all of Yaakov’s wives, but his love alone was not enough for her. She died in her quest to have more children. She didn’t even live to raise the ones she had.
Yet, Rachel is a paradigm of motherhood. When we think about her, we automatically think about Kever Rachel, and how we have included her powerful supplications on behalf of her people into our liturgy and imaginations. We actually don’t jump to think about the fact that she couldn’t have children. Our first thought is about how her motherhood transcended the physical, how she became the archetypal mother. Her drive, love, and suffering elevated her beyond her journey to become a mother. It is Rachel that cries for her children, the ones she had and the ones she was never given. Though she did not birth all of us, we are all her children. Of all our matriarchs and patriarchs, it is Rachel’s prayers that God listens to on our behalf.
Maybe we should reassess how we talk about “real families” and what meaningful contributions look like from women.
So what meaning can we make from Rachel’s legacy? Maybe we need to spend time thinking about our communal expectations. Maybe we should reassess how we talk about “real families” (“three kids or more”) and what meaningful contributions look like from women. First we must as a community acknowledge that not every female body was created to make a large family.
Perhaps we need to deal with the fact that there are many types of mothering, and many children who were born into this world who need adoptive and foster mothers. We need to release our “ideals” from the unrealistic plane in which they exist, and look around our community. One out of every eight women is struggling with some form of infertility, and we need to give space for that reality in our conversations and “community standards.”
We need to leave room for women to feel like they belong and are worthy no matter how many babies their body makes. We need to share honestly so that other couples feel less alone, and so that we can wake up from our dream state and acknowledge what reality looks like for one out of eight families in our Jewish communities. All our matriarchs struggled with infertility, and the Torah made space for them. So why can’t we?
Shira Lankin Sheps is a writer, photographer, and trained clinical social worker and is the creator of The Layers Project.
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