Is now the time for an Infertility Awareness Shabbat?
For the last four years, every March, synagogues around the country observed National Infertility Awareness Shabbat to show support and raise awareness for those suffering from the condition.
This year, with coronavirus locking down the country, Yesh Tikva, the organization supporting Jewish people facing infertility, decided to the turn the program, planned for this Shabbat, virtual. Even now.
Even now, as the Jewish community is not only worrying about our health, our finances, the elderly and underserved, but are particularly concerned for certain segments of the population who refuse to self-distance, for community life when we can’t commune, and about Passover when we can’t clean, purge or host, making space for those suffering from infertility is important.
“The reality is that infertility hasn’t gone away for the one in eight couples who are suffering,” says Gila Muskin Block, Executive Director of Yesh Tikva. Block suffered four years of infertility before she had children through IVF.
In a normal year, the awareness Shabbat is there to show support for others, to help sensitize the community to the issue and teach them how to help, and understanding that there are different ways to help. “It’s not enough to know there are others like us,” says Block. “But we need to know that there are people who are in our immediate community to provide support.”
Block says communities are being asked to “hold space” for infertile couples. “It’s a way of joining together with communities worldwide in solidarity for all the men and women facing infertility and showing them that this issue is important to the Jewish world, and that we want to end the stigma, shame and silence surrounding this topic, as people navigate this expensive and emotional roller coaster of infertility.”
Right now, while most people are trying to figure out how to get through the long days with their children on the computer, off the computer, in confined spaces, worrying about their elderly parents, food, themselves, it can be an even more trying time for those suffering from infertility.
“Emotionally, this is putting a tremendous strain on people with infertility – people are having cycles cancelled,” Block says, referring to the fact that most fertility clinics have closed. Also, for religious women, “many can’t go to the mivkah,” Block points out. (If women can’t dip in the ritual bath, they cannot have relations.)
Many doctors are also advising their high-risk patients to not even try naturally. “I am telling women who have a history of pregnancy complications to rethink trying naturally right now,” says Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, a fertility doctor in California. If a woman would need medical support, or is unable to quarantine safely, or is at risk for multiples or pregnancy complications, it’s best to wait, she says.
But it’s not easy to wait, as people are panicked and posting about family troubles.
“It’s been such a long journey,” says Stephanie, a nurse who preferred not to give her full name because she’s not public about trying. “We’ve had so many things that stopped us along the way, it’s taken years for us to get to this point,” she says, referring to finally having a healthy embryo created through IVF ready to transfer. For her, these times are even more painful. She thinks: “Oh my God, a worldwide pandemic is stopping me from having a baby?! Someone, somewhere, a higher power is telling me I can’t.”
Moreover, she is annoyed that “regular” people aren’t being told to refrain from trying, only fertility patients are: “Everyone keeps joking that in nine months’ time there will be a baby boom, but it’s not a joke to us. There’s not going to be a baby boom for us because our cycle was just cancelled.”
Stephanie feels very alone now, especially with what everyone is talking about online. “I have a lot of co-workers and friends who are complaining about spending time with their kids. I had a miscarriage, so you have no idea what I would give to be cooped up with that baby now – I will never be able to.”
Block says that this time is already isolating enough – and even more so for people who don’t have children but want them. There are still ways to help, she says.
“Send a text, an email, a card, set up a virtual coffee date — so people know that you still see them. Just because we are physically distancing, doesn’t mean we’re emotionally distancing.” If you can still send something do it! “Getting a bar of chocolate in the mail is a tremendous pick-me-up, knowing someone’s thinking of them.”
For all the people suffering alone, this weekend is a good time for communities – no matter how we gather – to remember those suffering from infertility. Let’s send the message: “I’m thinking of you; you’re not being forgotten, just because we can’t see each other. You are not alone.”