In today’s speak-up, tell-it-like-it-is, immediate response world, the power of what is not said and the context in which messages are delivered can sometimes be overlooked. This is especially true when someone is carrying a silent burden such as infertility. This week’s Torah portion (Toldot) provides a vivid example of how noticing those nuances reveal an incredibly moving story of a personal spiritual awakening.

The Torah portion begins with two brief lines introducing Isaac as Abraham’s son who married Rebecca at age 40 and then says, “And Isaac entreated God for his wife, because she was barren; and God let God’s self be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived.”

One little line about Isaac pleading with God to have a child and then the story moves to the topic of those children. But do not blink. That one little line about infertility is a defining moment in Isaac’s spiritual life.

The rabbinic texts explain that Isaac and Rebecca were trying to conceive for 20 years. I struggled with infertility for three interminable years before my first successful pregnancy. 20 years seems unimaginably painful. The other biblical matriarchs Sarah, Rachel and Leah speak about having children. Yet after 20 years, Rebecca is silent and the story gets one line.

The significance of Isaac being the one to speak up cannot be underestimated. The last time the Torah shared something Isaac said was when his father was taking him up a mountain to offer him as a sacrifice. Isaac asks, “Father, here is the firestone and the wood, where is the sheep for offering?” He asks his father and accepts the answer – God will provide. For the rest of the story on the mountaintop, when Abraham raises a knife above his son, when a ram is found in place of Isaac, when they walk back down the mountain, Isaac is silent.

Later Abraham sends a servant to find Rebekah and brings her to Isaac to be his wife. Rebekah is very involved in the process, being active and vocal. Yet Rebekah is chosen without Isaac’s input. The Torah says Isaac takes her as a wife and is comforted after his mother’s death. Yet Isaac remains silent.

In the midrashic text Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, we learn: After twenty childless years, Isaac took Rebekah to Mount Moriah, which is where the Akedat Yitzhak/binding of Isaac took place. There Isaac prayed for Rebekah that she become pregnant, and God answered him.

At the place of the binding of Isaac – “Isaac entreated God for his wife, because she was barren” and God answered him.

This is Isaac’s story. This is Isaac’s awakening. Perhaps a childhood marked with a near sacrifice on a mountain understandably left Isaac silent and distant from God. Yet facing infertility, Isaac finally is shaken to the point of turning back to God. Years after the binding incident and 20 more years after marriage, Isaac is awakened and goes to the very same spot where he last encountered God. Isaac returns. He enters into relation with God once again to continue the covenant. Isaac petitions God. In turn, Rebekah, his wife, conceives. The story is relative to him. Infertility and turning to God is Isaac’s story.

This is not to say that infertility is punishment for turning away from God. That is a theology I cannot abide. However, this is to say that infertility can isolate someone from God. It can break a person to the core. Infertility can make continuing with the rest of life terribly difficult. It can leave a person isolated from loved ones and community too. Wholeness and healing in the face of infertility can come when we nurture those relationships, spiritual or otherwise.

Infertility caused Isaac to finally enter into relationship with God. Isaac reaches to God. Infertility is a yearning, beyond our own lives, beyond this world. Infertility can leave us utterly helpless. 20 years of helpless. It can also spiritually awaken us and make us act in ways we never thought possible.

That is the context of infertility. That is what is not said.

When Abraham takes Isaac to Mt. Moriah,
Abraham says: God will show us the sheep for offering.
Isaac goes along silently.
Abraham brings Rebekah to Isaac
And Isaac accepts her
And he is comforted.
20 years of infertility
And God waits
And Rebekah is silent.

And Isaac entreated God for his wife, because she was barren; and God let God’s self be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived.

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On the last night of Passover, the participants at the retreat I attended shared reflections on Passover themes. What were our journeys? What made us feel liberated? One woman, while describing the diversity of participants in our newly formed community, referred to me as a nursing mother. Me? Ironically, moments earlier I had leaned over to my husband and recalled how the first of many IVF treatments in our fertility journey occurred the day before Passover Seder. Our Seder that year was minimal but hopeful as I lay on the couch on bed rest. The hope ended when I had a miscarriage several weeks later on Mother’s Day.  The experience was a hard one and my identity will always be connected to years of infertility. Nursing mother, even just mother, is not an identity I wear easily or take for granted.
 
On this Mother’s Day, if you are a mother, please take this day to appreciate the gift you have been given. Not everyone gets to share in the experience. Consider making a contribution to Hasidah (www.hasidah.org/donate) to help those who yearn for that identity and are struggling along the way.
 
If you are not a mother and are hoping to become one, please know you are not alone, that others have been on the journey, and that we care and want to support you along the way.
 
Wherever you are on the motherhood journey, may Mother’s Day come with blessings for you.
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Hasidah’s founder and CEO, Rabbi Idit Solomon,  has an article published in Kveller. Many people assume that once someone is pregnant the pain of infertility is gone. This well received post explores how the effects of infertility continue even after pregnancy is achieved

For more information on the topic and additional support resources, see this wonderful article at OurBodiesOurselves.

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Headlines:
– Too much green tea may lead to infertility.
– A handful of walnuts is the secret to better sperm.
– Avocados may increase fertility.

If you have been diagnosed with infertility or are experiencing other fertility challenges and are looking for a quick fix keep looking.

Perhaps editors think a catchy title will get more readers or worse, authors think they have a solution, but most of these articles are not worth reading. Fertility is complicated. Infertility can be caused by hundreds if not thousands of combinations of causes.

I am not a doctor, nutritionist, or pedigreed health care provider in any form. However, I am a person with common sense.  I have read a lot of research, spoken to a lot of medical professionals, and heard countless stories of fertility struggles. Just as much as asking someone, “so when are you going to start having kids” has never ever caused someone to finally have one, I have also never heard of someone who just quit drinking “X” or started eating “Y” and was able to conceive easily after years of trying.

Careful reading of these types of articles shows that the links put forth and the solutions people hope to find  are tenuous at best. In regards to green tea,  “our study and others have shown that at high doses, it may have adverse effects” (emphasis added). Just how much tea may cause this effect? The tiny little flies in this study received 10 mg of tea. The average America tea bag has 2-3 mg of tea. 10mg for a fly! While someone some day may find a link between green tea and fertility, logic leads me to believe that 50 or 100 times the amount of anything cannot be very good for fertility.  The authors leave out this comparison of size and simply conclude with the obvious, “we suggest that green tea should be consumed in moderation.”

Brilliant advice.

What is most bothersome about these titles and articles is that people struggling through infertility can be truly vulnerable. Many will rationally ask themselves why not try drinking X, not eating Y or doing Z for that matter. If there is no harm, the thinking goes, just grab a handful of walnuts (link to article) and stop drinking green tea.

But the harm is that these articles are a slippery slope down an emotional hole that can lead people to start questioning everything and worse still – blaming. If only I had done X or tried Y is dangerous. Fertility seems so natural and we yearn for a simple answer that is uncomplicated and accessible.  For some the journey is a short one and just a matter of time and trying. But for others, infertility is complicated and long winded and hard to overcome. No nuts are going to fix it.

To be sure, there are many common sense steps people can take that can increase their fertility. That is assuming one knows what is standing in the way and the step taken does something relevant to that situation. Healthy habits, a balanced diet and exercise are always a good idea, but methods of achieving a successful outcome vary from person to person.

Struggling through infertility, however, can be an emotional journey, a physical journey, and a financial journey.  Keeping balanced, focused and whole means being careful of  simple solutions lest our hopes (or wallets or medical conditions) be dashed in the process.

Let the researchers continue their work learning and adapting their gains in knowledge to improving our lives when causation can be found and treatment can be tested. In the meantime, these articles might be best read “in moderation.”

As for the avocados, I made that up.   It sounded good and perhaps something in them is helplful. A couple a week pleases my palette, balances my diet and make me feel good. That has to help something. I don’t need a headline to tell me that.

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Pack your bags! Is it the beach, the mountains, the slopes, the amusement park, or the ranch? Maybe the spa? How about the clinic…

More and more people are traveling to seek medical treatment and infertility is no exception at all. Someone recently asked us about infertility in the US and around the world and how much travel people do for treatment. Considering there is no international data collection, it is difficult to answer. However, a recent article came out exploring that very question. Here are some facts about ReproTourism around the world.

  • Belgium – first for their invention of intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) which helped address male factors
  • Spain – best country for egg donation
  • Latin America – two major hubs for tourism
  • India – over 500 clinics (but debatable hub for surrogacy now)

Another trend is that medical tourism used to be from poorer regions to wealthier countries. ReproTravel is often the opposite. Treatment has become much easier and costs in less developed countries make it attractive.

Biggest reason for travel besides costs? Friendlier legislation. You can only have a treatment if the procedure is legal.

See the full article.

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man-facelessA couple very important articles have come up during the High Holidays featuring a topic in need of attention: Men and Infertility. So much attention is brought to women who experience infertility. In Jewish tradition, we hear about Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah etc. We do not hear so much about the fertility challenges of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elkanah, etc. Temporary as it may be, it is usually the women’s burden to bare.

But men face fertility challenges and infertility too.

One voice is not more important than another. All perspectives need to be at the table. So during the #10Days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, as we focus on how we can improve ourselves and redirect our energies toward better aims, we will share the articles below to rectify the missing perspectives of men.

Childlessness On the High Holidays
TheStigmaOfBeingAChildlessJewishMan

 

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Who is the ParentA recent article in the NY Post shows the growing legal complications of assisted reproductive technologies when it involves third party parenting.  The focus is on same sex couples and specifically when the relationships break up. Ironically the gender bias for custody is complicated if not ironically gone. The child traditionally going to the mother? Not so fast! Which one?  Which dad? The legal situation of custody can get more complicated when 4 people are claiming parenting rights.

While the focus on same sex couple is warranted, the article is correct in saying the legal outcomes will influence heterosexual couples as well. The article identifies three types of parents: biological parents, legal parents, or parents through the “assumption of legitimacy,” or in other words the person who is doing the parenting. Multiple categories are always the case for same sex couples, but are also the case with heterosexual couples any time third party reproduction is involved.

Judaism also has a similar spread of parenting definitions although they have different implications. In recent Jewish legal rulings, terms such as “intended parents” before the birth and “social parents” after the fact have surfaced to try to capture the on-the-ground “legitimacy” of parents who assume that role by living it. It is complicated enough, and sometimes sensitive enough, to be reminded of the definitions when one is not a biological parent whether a Jewish or a secular issue. Things are certain to get tricky when the legal system has to make the judgement of “legitimacy” without explicit predetermined definitions and multiple people are claiming the legitimacy.

One item missing from the article is the ability for same sex couples to adopt a non-biological child they are parenting. The article implies that this would solve a lot of problems. However, some couples do not adopt because it is/was legally difficult or impossible. The difficulty is usually not the case for heterosexual couples, although the laws are unclear and vary between states for third party reproduction.

Hasidah often gets asked about criteria for choosing a fertility clinic. Considering the clinic’s legal coverage is an answer that surprises people when we say it should be a consideration. Often the intentions seem obvious and the legality seems unnecessary to people when they are going through the process of insemination or IVF with a donor.   The “intended parents” for sure have true intentions and complications down the road can seem to distant or hard to believe in the midst of a dealing with infertility and focusing so much on just trying to have a child.

True intentions may be the case at the start, but life happens and people change their minds.

This article points out an important lesson: if a third party is involved in the reproduction process, make sure the legal aspects are considered and addressed. Before the fact.

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Breaking news in the infertility and pregnancy loss world: Mark Zuckerberg announced that he and his wife Pricilla Chan are expecting a baby girl after having endured three miscarriages. Almost unanimous support came pouring out for their impending parenthood and for their speaking out on the issue. The story has been getting traction across the media world from CNN Money, and Forbes (with an amazing list of stories to share) to Time (focusing on men!). And there are many more.

A couple of these articles cite a research study that indicates 28 percent of women who had experienced a miscarriage and learned about a celebrity’s pregnancy loss felt less isolated with that knowledge. All the more so, when learning about a friend’s miscarriage, 46 percent felt less isolated.

For many of us who have been through it, this is no surprise. Letting the world know about pregnancy loss – and Mark Zuckerberg did an amazing job of making that happen – is a tremendous gift.

Stigma is sometimes attached to infertility and pregnancy loss.  Even when stigma is not externally imposed, the experience leaves people feeling like something is wrong with them. On top of the sadness and loss they may feel deficient, defective, disgraced even. With the advances in technology that tell us that the experiences are normal, the outcome is often the same – a feeling of isolation. Many people are isolated by feelings of guilt.  Could I have done something to prevent this? Others think that nobody else can understand the pain, which can be physical, emotional and spiritual. This is so painful how can I cope with this? Nobody else must have been through it like this or I’d know. Surely I’d have heard about it. I should just get over it. It must just be me…

The feelings are all terribly normal. Doubt, guilt, fear, pain and sadness are common and one important form of treatment for moving through them is removing the stigma and the resulting isolation. Sharing stories let’s people know that our experiences, as horrible as they feel, are possible to survive. The stories build awareness in general about this important issue. They build a culture that encourages seeking help and supporting others. For that we are immensely grateful to Mark Zuckerberg for coming forward and sharing his story.

Besha’ah tova to Mark and Pricilla – in good time, may they be blessed with a healthy baby girl.

—–

Sharing your story can make a difference. If you have an infertility or pregnancy loss story, please consider writing about it to help Hasidah in our missing to support those struggling to build their families. You can submit here or contact us at info@hasidah.org. 

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© Nick Cannella | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Nick Cannella | Dreamstime Stock Photos

For Father’s Day, Hasidah is thinking of those who may not be celebrating. Some have lost children or fathers, some may have complicated relationships, and others are struggling to become fathers.

Av Harachamim, Compassionate Father, we are grateful for fathers and father figures in our lives and for the blessings they share that reflect your compassion. For those struggling to become fathers please, have compassion on them. Help them find strength in their relationships, peace in their home, and warmth in your care.

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Lists. We love the top 10 lists, the 5 most important lists. These lists are neither. They are simply important yet basic things to know. So they are a place to start.  In fact, we’d love it if you suggested more. Please do.

Ways to support someone experiencing infertility

1) Tell them you care. Whatever they are experiencing, remind them that they are not alone.
2) Take them out. To dinner, a pedicure, a game, a movie. Something focused on adults that is not family focused.
3) Offer to listen if they want to talk. Then listen. Offer to do nothing if they do not want to talk. Then keep in touch about the rest of their lives.

What NOT to say

1) Do NOT ask when they are going to have a child or if she is pregnant. For a close friend you may be able to sensitively ask about their family planning. We cannot simply ignore the subject, rather we must learn how to support with sensitivity.
2) Do NOT offer quick solutions, especially the “relax and it will be fine” solution. If solutions were that easy, there would not be millions (yes millions) of people experiencing infertility. Offering advice quickly ignores that you do not know their end goal and assumes you know the situation.
3) Do NOT compare their situation to someone else. When someone does share about their fertility journey, its about them. Keep it there.
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