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In honor of Passover  – removing chametz from our lives and leaving the narrow places – Hasidah invited several guest bloggers to provide support for dealing with infertility during the holiday and beyond.
Guest blogger Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores, is a marriage and family therapist in Santa Rosa, CA

Many Jewish holidays can evoke grief for women and couples experiencing infertility. Rosh Hashana brings the Torah stories of the matriarch Sarah, finally learning she’s pregnant in her old age, after struggling with infertility for decades, and of Hannah–who prays so fervently for a child that the priest Eli takes her for a drunkard. Channukah and Purim can evoke the envy of watching friends’ children light up with glee over the fun of the holidays. As one friend recently put it, “Channukah just isn’t fun without little ones around.”

Perhaps no holiday is as replete with themes of fertility and birth as Passover, during the spring season of rebirth. In the Passover story, the Jewish nation is literally ​so​ fertile that pharaoh commands that their baby boys be thrown into the Nile for fear they will grow into a nation that will overpower the Egyptians. The brave midwives, Shifrah and Puah, save these babies, telling pharaoh that the Jewish women give birth so quickly, and in such high numbers, that they cannot possibly gather all their infant boys. Imagine hearing this story year after year, while trying, and failing, to conceive. Jewish culture values the family above all else, except perhaps the Torah or a good brisket. Thus, being childless can feel shameful and isolating.

Passover was my mother’s favorite holiday. Early in my marriage, I looked forward to hosting her at our home in California, where she’d travel from the East Coast, after so many years of enjoying her beautifully prepared family seders. I happily anticipated showing her the lilacs blooming in our backyard–both of our favorite flower–reminiscent of those outside my childhood house. But my excitement over her visit was tempered by the fact that I had not yet been able to give her grandchildren. I’d prepared a beautiful meal and created a spiritually meaningful Haggadah, but there were no little ones present to ask the Four Questions or to excitedly search for the Afikomen. Part of the purpose of the seder is to pass on the story of Jewish survival to the next generation. Would our family have a next generation to continue the faith and lineage? I identified with the Israelites wandering in the desert, as I felt lost in my own desert of barrenness. When we invited in the Prophet Elijah, I prayed to this purveyor of miracles to grant me my wish for a baby.

Raised in a traditional Conservative home, I had long been interested in exploring how Judaism can provide meaning to our modern lives, through the renewal and reinterpretation of ancient teachings and rituals. I began to look to Jewish resources for how to cope with infertility, reading essays and creative prayers by women rabbis about fertility, pregnancy and childbirth. I was grateful that women’s experiences and voices were increasingly a part of our tradition, as I drew from their wisdom. I began to put myself in the shoes of our matriarchs–Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah–and was inspired by their patience and faith. About the same time, I had a woman friend in my synagogue community who experienced a miscarriage. Alone with her disenfranchised grief, she felt that she could not share her pain with many friends, lest she be told, “You can always have another baby.” Friends didn’t understand the unique bond she’d had with ​this​ particular child. Her struggles with infertility afterwards only added to her feeling isolated and excluded. Like many women I’ve counseled through infertility, she felt many conflicted feelings when invited to friends’ baby showers–a churning in her stomach of joy for them, tempered by her own grief, jealousy, longing, and bitterness.

When my friend next became pregnant, she asked that our Jewish renewal community develop a ritual for her to celebrate and pray for her and her baby. Our ​rebbetzin ​at the time, herself in rabbinical school, designed a beautiful ceremony where we women sat in a circle with our friend, as the ​rebbetzin​ dipped her feet in water, in a symbolic mikveh to mark the holiness and transition of this time in her life. We took turns offering her blessings, to comfort her pain over past loss, soothe her worries and fears, and offer hope for new life.

I was inspired by this ritual to develop my own. One Shabbat, during the days in between Passover and Shavuot, when my community was offering each other creative, individualized Priestly Blessings, I asked that a group of my women friends encircle me to send blessings for fruitfulness. As I felt their love surround me, I felt their strength infuse me and I knew that I would be better able both to maintain faith whether or not I bled the next month. I also realized that if it was not my fate to be blessed with my own children, I would find a way to have children in my life, through friends, family and my counseling work.

The practice of developing creative rituals within Judaism has made my faith feel more authentic. I have gone on to co-create rituals marking friends’ hysterectomies and menopausal passages. As more Jewish women leaders and lay leaders add our experiences to Jewish practices, the tradition itself grows, expands, and becomes more life-giving and more fruitful. Eventually, my husband and I were blessed with a beautiful baby girl. I’ve celebrated as she’s chanted the Four Questions at seder, rose to the Torah for her Bat Mitzvah, and has grown into a strong and articulate young woman in her own right. I continue to pray that as a community we will include and support the disenfranchised grief in our own midst, even as we celebrate the joyous miracles of life and rebirth.

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 As part of  Passover preparation – removing chametz from our lives and planning to leave the narrow places – Hasidah invited several guest bloggers to provide support for dealing with Infertility during the holiday and beyond.
Dalia David is co-founder, choreographer and Education Director at Uprooted – A Jewish Communal Response to Fertility Journeys

At the center of the Pesach Hagaddah, embedded in the reply to the ‘child who does not know how to ask’ is the instruction: וְִהַגְּדָתּ ְלִבנְךָ ההוּא ַבּיּוֹםַ (Exodus 8:13) and you shall tell your child on this day. This is the mitzvah of telling one’s child about the journey from slavery to the Promised Land.

But what if you feel as if you never made it to the Promised Land? What if you sit at the seder feeling enslaved, yearning to be free of your fertility struggles and family building challenges? What if you sit at the seder watching those around you tell the Exodus story to their wise, wicked, simple, and quiet children, longing so desperately
for a child of your own? To whom can you tell this story of enslavement?

Perhaps this is the moment to invoke the fifth child. This fifth child is absent from the Hagaddah because this child is not yet wise, wicked, simple or quiet. This child has yet to be born and resides entirely in your heart and in your dreams. The fifth child reaches out to to the heart’s of the seder guests, gently reminding them to be conscious of their fellow guests who can only dream of having a child to ask the Four Questions, or steal the Afikoman, or spill grape juice on the tablecloth. By including the fifth child, perhaps we can break free of some of the isolation experienced by those in the throes of fertility struggles and help them experience the seder as a night
of freedom rather than another night of darkness.

Please consider including the following paragraph to seder:

The Yet to be Born Child – what does s/he say?
“Why is this journey so long? Why does the path seem so obscure and unending?”
With no real words to answer, you of er him/her understanding with a hug, a moment
of quiet and the chance to express thoughts and feelings, for you both hold the truth
that fertility journeys are עבדהָ קשׁהָ –  brutal work.

 

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As part of  Passover preparation – removing chametz from our lives and planning to leave the narrow places – Hasidah invited several guest bloggers to provide support for dealing with Infertility during the holiday and beyond.
Erin Schlozman is a licensed professional counselor specializing in women’s reproductive health at Mama Wellness Co. in Colorado

In Judaism, we are told to “be fruitful and multiply.” We come from a tradition steeped heavily in a narrative filled with the promise of creating new life. How many of you were asked as soon as you broke the glass under the Chuppah: when are you going to start trying for a baby? This question seems earnest and innocent, however the reality is that 1 in 8 couples will have a difficult time getting or staying pregnant. For couples that are facing infertility questions like “are you trying to get pregnant?” and “what are you waiting for?” can feel intensely personal and also crushing. Below are ways you can empower yourself, or help support the people you love once a person or couple has been referred to a fertility specialist.

Most fertility specialists will begin with a detailed intake that will gather you and your partner’s information including medical history, social history and the history of your reproductive health. Additionally, ultrasounds and labs may be ordered for the medical team to get an idea of a baseline and to begin identifying the source of what is going on. I always suggest bringing a list of questions to this first appointment that touch on the concerns you have. Suggestions for things you may want to ask:

  1. What is the process for identifying my diagnosis and how will this diagnosis inform my treatment?
  2. How long do you think the initial workup will take and when do you estimate we will be able to move forward with treatment?
  3. What courses of treatment do you recommend/are most commonly successful in your practice? Additionally, what are my treatment options?
  4. How long do we focus on each treatment and at what point do we move to a new treatment? For example: if we start with IUI how long before we discuss IVF.
  5. Is there anything I can do to improve my chances of becoming and staying pregnant during the course of treatment?
  6. Are there any lifestyle changes you recommend?

Infertility brings a landslide of emotions including immense vulnerability, feelings that you have no control and moments of intense sadness. When we think about growing our families we think about future homes, communities, holidays, birthdays and milestones. Experiencing infertility can feel like the biggest threat to those things. When you take your journey to have a baby from the bedroom to a doctor’s office it’s only natural that floods of emotion will come with you. Stress, sadness, excitement, grief and fear all bundled together. Here are a few tips on how to provide yourself self-care during this time.

  1. Educate yourself on the medical components of infertility. ​Gathering information and education can help you feel empowered and whittle away at the feelings of powerlessness that come with the process.
  2. Identify your support system, both individually and as a couple. ​Finding a therapist that specializes in infertility or a group for families going through fertility treatments will help you build your tribe and a support system that knows exactly what you are going through. Also, social media outlets have support groups that many women find helpful.
  3. Try your best to focus in the moment. ​Be your own best advocate and don’t get caught up in future worries and anxieties: what if this happens, what if this doesn’t work, what if what if what if. Do your best to live in the moment and don’t give too much power to the what if’s.
  4. Feel your feelings. ​You may wake up feeling great one morning and incredibly sad the next. You may feel you don’t recognize yourself, like you have changed forever and wonder if you’ll ever return to the person you were before you started trying to get pregnant. This is ok. Allow yourself the moment to honor however you are feeling and remember that all feelings pass.
  5. Engage in regular check-ins with your partner. ​Infertility is a partners experience. Make sure you keep up your communication, try to make time for fun and to connect to one another in some way. Given the stringent requirements surrounding treatment, sex may be off the table at certain times- practice other ways of sharing intimate moments outside of intercourse.

As the primary focus of fertility treatments is medical, I can’t stress enough the importance of tapping into your community to help support your emotional, spiritual and physical needs. While you work toward parenthood, know that your tradition and community stand behind you with great force, fierce love and an intense commitment to support you. Whether you yourself are going through fertility treatments, or someone you know and love is, it is important to always remember that no two journeys are the same and that a foundation of loving support and community can help ease the silence and pain of the experience of infertility.

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As part of  Passover preparation – removing chametz from our lives and planning to leave the narrow places – Hasidah invited several guest bloggers to provide support for dealing with Infertility during the holiday and beyond.
Aron Wolgel is an educator and infertility veteran based in Berkeley, CA.

The excitement of Pesach is upon us! Many families are preparing for their seder, planning menus, arranging place settings, and studying texts that will help unlock new understandings of the traditional tale. Guided by the Haggadah, we are told –  כל המרבה בסיפור יציאת מצרים, הרי זה משובח – anyone who expands the telling of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy ,

Many scholars have pointed out that the magid section actually contains four separate stories of yetziat mitzrayim – the Exodus from Egypt. During the Seder, we put these stories together so that we all participate in one unified narrative.

As such, here are four stories of infertility, thematically linked to four of the items on the seder plate: maror, charoset, karpas, and zeroa.

Maror – the bitter story

As with any difficulty in life, this journey carried with it bitter moments that overwhelmed the other aspects of life, often creating a sense of despair.

It began when the doctor explained that our situation was “not optimal.” After discovering that IVF was our only real hope for conceiving, we were extremely optimistic going into our first transfer. Then it failed. Then the second transfer failed. And the third. We felt a deep sense of loss, even though we hadn’t technically lost anything.

Were this the full story, it would have been bitter enough. But throughout the entire ordeal, we also overcame painful social interactions that presented themselves:

I endured the “playful” comments from community members when they observed me holding a friend’s child and would remark “that looks good on you.” Exercising restraint, I’d politely smile back, and think to myself, “It’s a baby, not a sweater!”

In fact, the deepest hurt existed at others’ celebrations. I can still remember the sting of people wishing me “soon by you” at every bris and baby naming. In my best attempt at empathy, I would reply “today is about their family”, so that I wouldn’t have to think of (the incompleteness of) mine.

Charoset – the bricks and mortar

The charoset reminds us of the mortar used by the Israelites in building Pharaoh’s cities. For our story, the charoset represents the tasks that simply had to get done.

I was challenged by how difficult this chapter was for my wife – her desire to be a mother was at the core of her identity. As such, I became the “logistics manager” in order to enable her to address her emotions in a more focused way, unencumbered by the extracurricular demands.

I appreciated the responsibility of scheduling doctors’ appointments. I found meaning in mixing the medicines for her nightly injections – it was my contribution to the process. Most notably, I felt like a partner in sharing my wife’s burden. By taking care of the details, I allowed her to free up the necessary headspace to deal with her emotions.

Karpas – the story of hope

On Pesach, many people have the custom of using a green vegetable, symbolizing spring, as their Karpas.

Fittingly, it seemed as though every time we found another glimmer of hope, (e.g. another embryo transfer) it felt that our parsley would be doused in salt water. The hope had been engulfed in sorrow. It was tricky to maintain my optimism, but I recognized how essential it was. I quickly learned that humor (albeit wry at times) would be my default coping mechanism.

At key moments, we clung to hope. Other times, I found it more helpful to seek respite. Sometimes the best feeling came from playing in my weekly frisbee game. For those 2 hours, I was able to escape my doubts and fears. For a brief time, I could release myself from the pressures of the home and remember the larger scenery of life – joking with friends, enjoying the outdoors, and appreciating all that I was physically capable of.

By providing a break, these moments of respite allowed me to return to my situation with a renewed sense of hope.

Zeroa – the story of strength

In the Bible, Israel is led out of Egypt with an outstretched arm. Consequently, the shank bone is associated with strength, or in this case, support.

We found ourselves continually reframing our situation to express gratitude for what we had. We were fortunate to have family and friends who supported us with outstretched arms. Though I occasionally reached out to friends to unload my burden, the most important idea for me during this time was to stay close to my wife.

We prioritized time for each other and found strength in three phrases, which became our mantra: “1) I love you. 2) We’ll get through this together. 3) This will eventually be resolved.” Now, I didn’t know what “resolved” would look like, or how long things would take before they were resolved, but as long as #1 and #2 stayed strong, it gave us hope for #3.

Each person’s Passover seder connection revolves around a different aspect of the day – songs, rituals, community, and in many cases, the food. Regardless of the personal association, our seder reflects a mixture of experiences. This is how we remember the slavery while simultaneously celebrating freedom.

It’s important to recognize when to immerse ourselves in one perspective of the story. By the same token, if we fail to engage in the other narratives, our story is not authentic. Similarly, my personal “yetziat mitzrayim” taught me to embrace all of the stories and flow between them.

We spend so much time and effort trying to create the world as it ​should​ be; this experience has taught me the importance of living in the world as it ​is.

Although my story may not be unique, its events and details make it mine. During this holiday season, may we all find the courage and conviction to tell our stories, and may we also demonstrate the kindness and sensitivity to empower others to share their stories with us. Chag Sameach.

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Guest Blogger Julie Bindeman is a reproductive psychologist, speaker and author based in Rockville, MD

One of the most familiar parts of the Passover Seder is the four sons/children. These children represent the different places in which people come to the Seder: knowing and wise; selfish (or wicked); simple (or not knowing); and the fourth is silent as he or she doesn’t know what to ask and is just taking everything in. However, this breakdown doesn’t include a fifth child missing from the Seder, whether we give voice to him or her or not. The fifth child is the child of potential: the child that those struggling with infertility are working to create or the child that almost was, but the pregnancy ended before its completion.

The biggest difference in the Passover Seder from other Jewish observances is that it isn’t expected to occur in a synagogue within a large Jewish population. It occurs in homes across the world with families and friends gathering to retell the story. People come to this holiday in all different places and spaces in life: managing their own struggles whatever they might be. As 1 in 8 couples experience infertility and 1 in 4 pregnancies end in loss, it would be foolish to assume that someone struggling with these issues isn’t attending a Seder with you. These struggles tend to be silent and invisible, especially within our holiday structure.

The idea of a fifth child is not a new one. In fact, the ​Lubavitcher Rebbe​ famously spoke about the fifth son of the Pesach Seder, but in doing so, was referring to Jews who had lost their faith and strayed from being Jewish. This idea has been one that my friend ​Rabbi Uri Topolosky​ has adopted and spoken about. He includes this fifth child at his Passover Seder, but not only as the child that has lost his or her Jewish way, but also as the child that is unformed and unable to physically be at the table.

Infertility and pregnancy loss are devastating experiences that are far too common and hidden. Giving them voice can be considered to be a great act of loving-kindness since many who struggle yearn to talk about it, but are unsure how others will respond. Many people attempt to say well-intentioned refrains such as, “Just relax, and you’ll get pregnant;” “G-d only gives you what you can handle;” “This is part of G-d’s plan for you” or “Why not adopt?” Hearing such advice often has the opposite effect. Rather than connecting, these comments make people who are on a fertility journey or grieving pregnancy loss want to retreat and isolate. It confirms that others aren’t able to put themselves in their shoes or understand their pain, and reinforces the need to stay quiet about these experiences.

Including the “fifth child” at Seder reaffirms that families experiencing infertility or pregnancy losses are seen, not only by family and friends, but also by their religion. Ways to include the “fifth child” at your Seder:

The story of Passover leads to the Jews wandering for 40 years in the desert, searching for the Land of Israel. This parallels the journey of a couple struggling to build their family: looking forward with hope, waiting for it to happen, potentially lots of false turns, wondering if or when their family will be complete, until (we pray) they reach their “promised land” of fulfilling the dream to parent. Whatever their promised land turns out to be, may they have a voice at the table. Let their hopes to tell the Passover story to their children be recognized.

In honor of this fifth child or for the many other reasons people may be missing from the Passover Table, considering asking a fifth question: who is missing from our Seder?

 

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Take the one with the best benefits. My dad gave me that advice when I was faced with the enviable position of choosing which job to accept after college. The advice struck me because it was not on my radar at all. It didn’t influence me much at the time, but it did in the long run. Benefits like health insurance, savings plans, and retirement plans become more important every year of our lives. Lately baby benefits are making news. They come with good intentions to be sure, but they are a privilege nonetheless.

Baby benefits are a growing trend in large corporations and provide various financial incentives, insurance, and other accommodations for family building. Young women are already  looking at jobs considering when they plan to have children. More often it is with the idea that they will postpone having a family until they feel they are established. So why not take the job that helps ensure you can have a baby whenever you want?

That sounds wonderful. What an amazing corporate citizen to help women in the work place, to support family building for men and women,  and to be family focused as an organization. However, what message is this sending to people who don’t have those jobs and benefits?  That’s most of us.

At a recent conference, one of the brainstorming topics was the growth of entrepreneurial endeavors that help companies provide fertility benefits to their employees. Hurray. It is about time that someone realized the connection between women, families, the workplace, and the need for full reproductive and family care. However, woe is us that we keep weaving family building into the fabric of business and not part of our culture. These endeavors are replacing the insurance industry – just as fertility clinics operate outside of most hospitals – because our culture has not made reproduction a part of any social policy. To be clear, outside of birth control, family building it is not part of insurance legislation, employment legislation, or conversations about inclusion and equity. The baby benefit is a business response to a social issue that isn’t being addressed otherwise.

Thank you to these innovative leaders who are responding to a need. Thank you also to the companies who see that supporting families benefits the bottom line and their employees.  That is perhaps a move towards social responsibility.  A healthy doubt about the insurance industry’s ability to navigate fertility or our government’s ability to legislate family friendly policies is warranted. But can we also ensure this does not create a have vs have not culture for baby benefits? Can we make sure this approach doesn’t effectively privatize fertility insurance? Can we consider the effects on small business and just about everyone else? What about the attempts to change the system and make healthcare include proper reproductive care? We cannot ignore the larger need for family planning and support.

Perhaps the introduction of business backed #BabyBenefits can be the beginning of a change in our social policy. People certainly will want to work at companies that offer good benefits. But the real success comes with #BabyBenefitsForAll.

 

 

 

 

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