Dallas Jewish Monthly, September 2018
“So, do twins run in your family?”
When I was originally asked this seemingly innocuous question, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Do I start explaining to the questioner my personal story of infertility, struggle and eventual redemption? Do I blatantly answer “No” ? For many years I shied away from openly sharing my experience due to my private nature and fear of vulnerability. However, over time, I came to realize that I had an opportunity to transform my own challenge into something positive, diminish the stigma surrounding the subject of infertility, as well as educate others by building awareness about the prevalence of infertility in the Jewish community and the world at large.
In the traditional Jewish world, there’s a strong cultural emphasis on family, the holidays, and the commandment in the Torah to be fruitful and multiply. In the book The Third Key, the authors Rabbi Baruch Finkelstein and Michal Finkelstein, RN, CNM, explain that the infertile couple suffers in six areas:
Spiritually (Feeling empty and not fulfilled)
Socially (Experiencing alienation and isolation from peers with children)
Theologically (Thinking, “Is G-d punishing me?”)
Psychologically (Feeling jealousy and anger toward fertile friends, neighbors and siblings, as well as guilt for having these emotions)
Physically (Undergoing invasive treatments, drugs and procedures)
Interpersonally (The husband and wife relationship is affected greatly, and intimacy is often damaged).
(and I’ll add FINANCIALLY!)
Furthermore, many couples do not experience initial difficulty becoming pregnant, but later they have difficulty conceiving again. Secondary infertility can bring shocking disappointment. Through all the prayers, hope and anticipation for a positive pregnancy result, an infertile couple will surely face disappointment and despair. Additionally, they’re bombarded by Facebook friends posting pictures of their latest additions to their families, as well as “picture perfect” moments of their children as they grow.
Surprisingly, the challenges accompanying infertility may continue long after prayers are answered.
Aside from immense joy after finally conceiving a long-awaited child, there may sometimes be feelings of mixed emotions. There is a blend of feeling joy for one’s own blessing, coupled with a shared pain and deep sadness for so many other individuals who still long to hold a child of their own.
During my fertility challenges I developed the idea to start Nafshi, a Jewish wellness organization. I wanted to help give people a sense of community and support and provide Jews with a platform for personal development and wellness through the lens of a meaningful Jewish experience. However, my energy and resources were so focused on my infertility that I was drained and unable to practically put my dreams into action.
Throughout my tried and failed medical treatments working with highly skilled infertility specialists, I pursued every approach, both physical and spiritual, to achieve my goal to conceive. I started to conduct my own research, which led me to a holistic approach to the body. I tried new diets as well as a slew of new vitamins after reading about the importance of vitamin D and B-complex. I went to an acupuncturist, and started seeing a chiropractor.
In the spiritual realm, I began a regular recitation of psalms and received blessings from many holy rabbis. I began to focus intensely on a new approach to prayer and began practicing a technique called Hitbodedut: speaking to G-d out loud in my own words. Sara Yoheved Rigler, my teacher and mentor for many years taught me that there is a connection between the Hebrew words chazan (prayer leader) and chazon (vision). Through the power of visualization, mindset and positive language, our prayers have the ability to move worlds. I began visualizing myself being pregnant and fulfilled, overflowing with light and positive energy. Every sports coach will tell you that you should visualize victory before each game. If not, then there is no chance of winning. However, after experiencing a loss, the athlete must accept it and realize that not everyone can win. But at the next game, she again must be 100 percent sure that she will win. This approach is part of our Jewish tradition. In my experience, I approach prayer with the belief that once I put in my fair share of effort, G-d can give me whatever I request. If my desire isn’t granted, then I must accept that G-d feels it is best for me that way. After years of personal efforts, as well as having reached the point where I was able to let go of control, I received a call from the doctor with good news: I was pregnant.
Our excitement over the positive news sparked my husband and I to want to help others who also longed to have children. We were finally ready to launch Nafshi, our Jewish wellness organization which began the summer of 2017. Although Nafshi provides programming that addresses all areas of wellness, our first initiative was called WOMBS, Women Of Mind, Body and Spirit. WOMBS serves as a small, private community where women gather to share their infertility experience and support one another in a positive, uplifting environment. Together, we study Jewish texts related to infertility, share our feelings and pray for one another. Beth Broodo, licensed clinician at Jewish Family Service co-facilitates the group and guides the participants through various healing exercises that often include a visualization and meditation. We’ve created a sisterhood where people know that they are not alone.
Soon we will be approaching the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah. Both the Torah and Haftarah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah broach the subject of infertility. The Torah reading begins by describing how G-d remembered Sarah and she conceived and gave birth to a son. Previously, Sarah had been incapable of conceiving and desperately longed for a child. Additionally, the Haftarah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah describes another woman named Chana, my Jewish namesake, who also struggled to conceive. The text reveals her anguished prayer for a child, and her promise to dedicate her child to the service of G-d all his life. Our Sages teach that on Rosh Hashanah G-d answered the prayers of both Sarah and Chana, as well as our matriarch Rachel, and they each conceived and gave birth to a son (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 11a). Sarah’s son Isaac, and Chana’s son Samuel each became future leaders of the Jewish people.
So why do we read about the infertility struggles of Sarah and Chana on Rosh Hashanah? The readings are meant to convey important messages to all of the Jewish people, not just women who have had similar struggles with conception. What are we all meant to learn from these women’s stories? The Hebrew word for year is shanah, which also can be translated as “change,” or alternatively “sleep.” As we gather in the synagogue in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and on the holiday itself, we hear the blasts of the shofar. These powerful blasts are meant to awaken us from our slumber, i.e. our routine. We are reminded that along with this new year comes new opportunities for change and growth. New opportunities to connect with G-d. New opportunities to connect with our deepest potential. New opportunities for our prayers to be answered, just as the heartfelt prayers of Sarah and Chana were actualized and answered on this auspicious day. We are taught that the gates to the heavens are wide open on Rosh Hashanah. We relate to G-d as an all powerful King who can answer any of our prayers, while also turning to Him as a loving Father who is intimately involved in our lives.
SO what do I now answer when someone asks, “Do twins run in your family?”
Instead of avoiding the question, or self-identifying as someone who has experienced the travails of infertility, I smile, reflect on my personal growth and inner strength, and reply resoundingly with a newfound sense of empowerment:
“They do now.”
Practical tips for family and friends of those facing infertility:
Don’t call a friend with your own baby making noise in background.
Don’t ask people directly about their infertility because they may not want to share. Be available for them if they do. Listen and empathize. Feel their pain.
Invite childless couples for holidays.
Pray for others.
Always give people the benefit of the doubt. We never know the full picture and what struggles lie beneath the surface.
Parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors: don’t ask too many questions.