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Facing Tefillah, Community, and Family as a Couple Struggling with Fertility

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a time of reflection, a time of spirituality. For many people, tefillah, community and family feel like a warm embrace. To others, such as those experiencing infertility, these can feel more like a straight jacket.

I always ask my patients about their religious affiliation. Religion can be a tremendous comfort when someone is in pain, but it can also be a stressor. During the chaggim, it can be both to the couple experiencing infertility. If you are in this position, please try to understand how you feel, what you think the experience will be like for you this year and discuss with your spouse some strategies to assist you during this time of year.

First, let us set the scene: The davening during the High Holy Days has many images and themes. It discusses G-d as King; a G-d who is slow to anger, full of mercy and compassion. But it also speaks of a G-d who is deciding, “Who will live, and who will die…who will be born and who will perish.” The language used in our prayers can evoke strong feelings.

Communities spend more time together in shul at this time of year than at any other time. But with packed shuls, and often assigned seats, the couple experiencing a difficult personal time often feels crowded and overwhelmed. Young children and pregnant women seem to be everywhere, parents revel in bringing young children in for shofar blowing, and babies are passed from relative to relative. All of this can serve as powerful emotional triggers.

Lastly, family gatherings are often part of the yom tov season. Some families are very sensitive to members who are struggling with infertility, and some are not. Some couples have shared their fertility struggles with their families, and some have not. Intrusive questions, whether well-meaning or not, can ruin a holiday for a couple. The same can be said when families seem to only focus on children and not on the adults at the gathering. Many clients of mine have related how they feel that their parents “only care about the grandchildren,” and so even though they are expected to attend, it does not seem as though they are important as well.

What are some suggestions for the couple who is struggling with infertility to get the most out of the holiday experience and minimize painful experiences?

Family:

  1. Talk with your spouse about how much to disclose to family members. Decide what you will share and what you will not share BEFORE you are with the family.
  2.  Remember there is an inverse relationship between privacy and support. The more privacy you have, the less support you may receive. Decide together where the line is with each family member. If you both feel someone will be a big support to you, consider sharing with them your experiences.
  3. In these pre-chaggimdiscussions with your spouse, be honest about family members with each other. Not every family member is the same. If one of you does not feel comfortable sharing with someone, respect each other’s feelings.
  4. If you are with family that can be intrusive, come up with some phrases that you can repeat throughout the holiday. “Thank you for asking. We have decided to keep that private for now.” “We will let you know when there is something to know but have decided to keep the details of treatment to ourselves.” “Thank you for caring, but it’s not something I am comfortable talking about right now.”
  5. Know your limits. Create a signal between you and your spouse so that when you have reached your fill, you can take a break and leave the environment. You can take a walk, read a book or separate yourself in another room.
  6. Discuss with your spouse where you want to spend yom tov. What do you need as a couple now? What do you want to do for the chaggim THIS year. It does not have to be a permanent plan.
  7. Try to make sure that you cope together. Couples struggling with fertility are generally newer couples, couples who are still finding their way in each other’s extended families. Make sure you turn towards each other, not away.

Shul:

  1. Distractions: For some people, it is hard to concentrate, to have kavanah, when they have little children or a pregnant person in their line of sight. You can often move to the wall and stand and have some private time to daven off to the side.
  2. Change of minyan: There are times that you are better off in a different environment. Some minyanim seem to be more “family-oriented”; this may not be the minyan you chose to go to this year.
  3. Plan ahead: Know yourself. If you do not want to stand “catching up” with everyone after tefillah, make a plan with your spouse or another family member or by yourself to leave as soon as services are over. If you plan it ahead of time, it can reduce the anxiety through shulthat you will have to make small talk, and if others know you are leaving right away, it reduces the need to find them and tell them where you are going. Make a plan that “We will meet at home.”

Machzor:

  1. Take some time in this month of Elul to look through the tefillot. Even though it is familiar to you, you may be in a different place emotionally and spiritually this year; spending some time with the machzor ahead of time can help reduce the emotions of the words that poke at your wounds.
  2. Try to find the images and the words that bring comfort to you, words that help you relate to this experience so that they will stand out when you are saying them in shul. For example, is the image of “G-d as King” or “G-d as a caring Father” more helpful to you this year such that you want to make sure you focus on the verses that contain that image? You can use sticky note flags or mark those passages so that they envelop you during services.
  3. Spend some time with the more challenging images ahead of yomtov. What do they mean to you? How can you relate to them this year? How do they contribute to your relationship with G-d, and how do you talk to G-d about that? The conversation with G-d can begin at home, in a quiet room, just you and a machzor, and can continue through yom tov. While Rosh Hashanah is a two-day holiday, and Tishrei is a month-long, ideally we are in a lifelong conversation and relationship with G-d.
  4. Consider your resources: Some of the words and images may be difficult. Images of “barrenness” and of judgement are particularly jarring. If you have a relationship with a religious leader or current or former teacher, consider meeting together privately beforehand to discuss it if you think this can help.

Overall, you will have your own strategies and methods for coping with the holidays. Be thoughtful about who you and your spouse are, and what strategies work well for you and what does not. Know your limits and what you can change and what you cannot. Most of all, in the spirit of Yom Kippur and forgiveness, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for having complicated emotions and sensitivities. Be kind to yourself and take care of yourself, as an individual and as a couple.

Shana Tova Umtuka

By Karen Wasserstein

Dr. Karen Wasserstein is a psychologist in Maryland and Virginia with a specialty in working with those facing fertility challenges. She can be reached at drkwasserstein@gmail.com. This article was written as part of the Just for You: PuahCare Article Series. Because your fertility journey is so much more than a medical experience

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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.
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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Traditionally called the Season of Joy, Sukkot is inherently wrapped in fertility. Historically and religiously associated with agriculture, Sukkot is a harvest festival celebrating the fertility of the earth. Living in booths (Sukkot) commemorates the Israelite’s wanderings in the desert. Their temporary and unstable nature also reminds of of how fragile our lives and the world is.

The special reading done for this holiday is from Kohelet, which begins, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, a time to die…”

Fertility and the fragility are related. Those of us who have experienced fertility challenges know this all too well. But time plays a role as well. Most of it during a fertility journey seems to be spent waiting. A time to wait… and another time to wait. But Kohelet’s perspective can be helpful during fertility challenges. The verses continue that there is “A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Indeed all things under heaven have a time and a purpose. While fertility can feel all consuming, we do have other purposes in life. And time will continue. The message of fragility at this season is also a reminder of what endures. Our choice to laugh or cry endures. Our ability to reach out to another for support when we mourn and to dance when there is joy endures.

So if this Season of Joy seems hard to reach for you, if you are intimately feeling the fragility of the fertility world, remember there is a purpose for you in this world. Feel the enduring presence of your self and your ability to laugh and cry. And if you are mourning, know too that there will be a time to dance.

Always, there will be time.

Chag Sukkot Sameach – Warm wishes for a joyous Sukkot Holiday

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The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe. They are traditionally filled with reflection as we prepare to stand before God On Yom Kippur in judgement of our actions. The “awe” in Hebrew is meant to capture both the amazement and the fear of standing before God.
 
These days are reminiscent of the waiting period endured between fertility treatments and the following pregnancy test. The time is filled with a mix of awe about what might be happening, a heavy dose of fear that the intervention did not work, and sometimes a gnawing sense of impending judgement about ourselves and our situation.
 
So at this time of year particularly, with the Days of Awe passing slowly and the themes of fertility filling the liturgy, we are especially sending our thoughts and prayers to those among us who are struggling with infertility and fertility challenges.
 
The High Holiday prayers are recited in the plural (we) to make sure everyone knows they are not alone in their mistakes and in their ability to change. So too does Hasidah stand with you. You are not alone. Let our collective prayers ascend higher in hopes of wholeness and peace wherever the fertility journey takes you.
 
May your comings and going during this season and all of the Days of Awe be in peace and may you be inscribed for a good and sweet New Year.
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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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