When we were first married, about a decade ago, we lived in New York. We did not want to wait to have children; we wanted to begin a family right away.
However, we realized early on that it was not working for us. Doctors told us that Rachel has Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), and that began the process of going to many different doctors, trying a variety of medications in order to get pregnant.
Infertility was a strain on us, and on our relationships in our community. There are no meals delivered to people suffering from pregnancy loss, no time for mourning, no time off from work. When a person is experiencing infertility or pregnancy loss, the community is silent — and those suffering feel they have to be silent.
The pain of infertility is both physical and emotional.
When you see a couple without kids, obviously people don’t know why. Perhaps the couple is waiting, perhaps not. No one knows what each couple is experiencing. The only correct thing to do is not to assume you know what is happening in their lives.
While it’s sometimes hard to think of the right thing to say, there are so many wrong things to say — and we have heard many of them.
At one point, Rachel was at a relative’s house; a friend of the relative asked, “Do you have kids yet?” Another friend, also suffering from infertility, was asked, “How can you call yourself Jewish if you have no kids?” And another, after losing a pregnancy, had people say, “Just think — at least you don’t have to worry about changing diapers and sleepless nights” and “miscarriages are very common.”
Comments include, “You’ll still look great without gaining pregnancy weight” and, “You’re so lucky you don’t have to go through labor” and, “Take advantage of all the sleep and go on vacation.” Or, “Don’t stress out and then it will happen.”
One night when Rachel was vomiting from one of the drugs she was on, she got a call from someone who mentioned that someone else had bad morning sickness. It was hard for us to feel compassionate — while having children is tiring and pregnancy is painful, not having children is agonizing as well and comes with no reward.
Dealing with infertility involves a long process of seeing doctors, nightly injections, and early-morning appointments. The process may involve missing days of work, additional hormones wreaking havoc on your body, and expensive procedures and medication.
What can you say to someone going through infertility? Perhaps, just listen and sympathize and minimize the talk about your own children. Communities can arrange forums for people to come and communicate about their situations in an open and honest way.
If the topics of infertility and pregnancy loss were less taboo in the Jewish community, people could get the support they need.
The Jewish community needs to make all kinds of people feel welcome in their shuls and homes. Being single is hard, surrounded by friends and family who are getting married, and the shuls are filled with married couples and kids.
Being married without kids is also isolating. When you are suffering from infertility and hear about someone getting pregnant, you want to be happy for them, but it’s hard. Watching people who got married after us have their second child before we were able to even have one was also difficult. While we were happy for them (or really wanted to be), we also felt upset that God left us out and seemed to have forgotten about us.
A few months ago we shared our feelings on the JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminists Alliance) blog: “Lonely in a Crowd of Strollers” (http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/the-torch/2015/01/28/lonely-in-a-crowd-of-strollers/).
In our essay we wrote about our isolation, our lost pregnancies, the “intense sadness” we experienced, and the insensitive things we heard. Like, “We’d love to hang out with you, but then who would our kids play with?” And, when we had to leave a friend’s child’s birthday party a little early, “Don’t worry, it was really only meant for mothers and children anyway.”
Ultimately, in-vitro fertilization did work for us, but many others are not as lucky.
Even though pregnancy loss and infertility are surprisingly common, people don’t realize how many others are in their shoes. People in these situations won’t speak up, however, until communities encourage them to be more open by being more receptive to dialogues on these topics.
Rachel and Will Adler are professors of computer science and political science at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and the proud parents of Emily and Joey.