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The debate about questions and their stupidity is on-going. Dumb is subjective. Thoughtless or insensitive is a little more precise. Questions about people’s family planning are often in that category. In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud guides a lot of our behavior and provides guidelines for prioritizing situations. However,  Rav Abby, sister of Rabbi Landers, who might have been a cousin of Rabbi Manners have words of wisdom on this topic too.  They had a consistent approach which almost always applied to these questions: you are not required to answer someone else’s question.

How do I answer when someone (fill in the blank question that reflects someone else’s curiosity or possible good intentions but is a raging trigger for you and you are just trying to get your copies made already!)? Or even from a friend, how do I respond when (fill in the blank question that you have no intention whatsoever of answering at that moment regardless of your relationship to the person asking).

A recent NYTimes Social Q’s answer summed it up beautifully. Their fill-in-the-blank-question was a curious friend who wanted to know whose fault was causing the infertility for a couple (!?!). “Rather than bringing a useful talk to a screeching halt because of one dumb question, how about redirecting it (“That’s not what I was talking about”) or brushing it off (“Oh, that doesn’t matter”) and returning to the valuable part of the discussion?”  Besides that this does bring us back to the issue of “dumb questions” (there are two sides to that debate), they further point out that sometimes you are entitled to end a conversation and make others squirm. This is accomplished by one of my favorite responses, and tone is everything in this one, “Why do you ask?” That could be stated with chin downward looking out of the tops of your eyes, or with lips pursed and an icy tone, or a head tilt and furrowed brow and a dramatic forefinger and thumb around the chin for effect. All of these squarely place the issue into the hands of the person asking the question – to whom attention ought to be directed – rather than on you or your partner’s reproductive organs and private life.

The first attempts to redirect or brush off, however, are useful when we know or are hopeful that the other person really does have good intentions or is a good friend and just fumbled the attempt to open a conversation. As noted above, this is still accomplished without answering the question.

So here is your mantra. Repeat after me: “I am not required to answer someone else’s questions.”

And here are your multiple choice stock answers to keep at the ready:

a) “That’s not what I was talking about”

b) “Oh, that doesn’t matter”

c) “Why do you ask?”

d) “Interesting that you ask. What’s really on my mind is…” (To talk about it or to change the subject)

d) “That reminds me, I have always wanted to ask you and I know it’s not really any of my business… ” Silence. Blank stare. (Okay. Maybe not, but I’ve always wanted to do that).

Happy not answering!

 

 

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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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They always talked about having children, yet three years of marriage brought no babies. She was pregnant last year, but it ended in loss. Infertility and other family building challenges are quite common yet hardly ever discussed.  When these situations happen to someone you love, what can you do to help?

Finding the balance of respecting privacy, breaking isolation and showing support can be a challenge. The best place to start is asking yourself some questions and checking assumptions. Below are some questions to guide your support for someone who is facing infertility or other family building challenges.

1) What business is it of yours?

If you are not sure how to answer that question, stop right here. If you feel vested in this matter, ask yourself: How close am I to this person? Do I talk about personal issues with him or her? Do we have a level of trust and are we in a context that invites such a conversation?

Being a relative or acquaintance does not entitle you to intimacy or information. An appropriate relationship does. Do you have it? If you are still unsure, consider the next question.

2) What are you hoping to accomplish?

Curiosity is not a good enough reason because it is about your interest and not helping the other person. What do you know about her/his/their plans or attempts to have a baby? Do you have an opinion on what they ought to be doing? What is your motivation for getting involved?

You cannot make a baby for someone. You cannot force someone to give up, move-on, seek treatment, lighten up or keep trying. You likely cannot change his/her desire to have or not have a child either. People need to do this for themselves. Only your care for their well-being will be appreciated. And if your motivation is to share your opinion, don’t do it.

3) What can you offer?

You cannot force help upon anyone. Infertility can be isolating and painful and some people do not want to open up, impose on others, or appear weak. However, if you are truly prepared to give support and flexible about when, here are a few ideas you can offer:

  • Distractions – processing the emotions and getting medical treatments are all necessary, but so is a full life. Offer to be there for the rest of their life too. Offer a movie, massage, lunch or whatever you would normally do. Keep offering it. Time together is invaluable.
  • Be involved – you can help find support groups, learn together, ride to an appointment, etc.
  • Learn on your own – Don’t know what IVF, ICSI, PGS vs PGD, PCOS, IUI or TTC mean? Look it up. Knowing what someone is going through shows them you care to understand their pain. Then you can spend more time focused on them rather than their diagnosis.
  • Listen – without advice. Reflect on what you hear. Or offer a set time for them to unload. Just be present.

4) What can you do?

You can help someone feel less isolated. You can help them understand themselves. You can nurture a sense of wholeness while he or she is in the process. What could that look like?

  • Email and text to stay connected. This gives them the space to answer when it is comfortable for them. If someone really is struggling with infertility, bringing up the topic may feel more like an ambush than support. Take advantage of technology when appropriate.
  • Tell them you care. “I’m sorry this is happening to you. It makes me sad and angry at times. I hate that you are going through this. You don’t deserve this. I care about you no matter what happens and I just want you to know that.”
  • If someone does share and says something like, “I don’t know what to do,” or asks what do to, resist answering with advice. Some of the hardest and most important work to be done when facing infertility is keeping priorities and boundaries. Each person has to set their own. How many months/treatments/dollars/medications are the limit for you? Is there only one way for you to become a parent ? Where in this process is your marriage, mental health, social life, finances, etc? Help someone find their own way, not yours.
  • Follow up on all of those offers above when they let you!

 

The most important way to show respect comes down to knowing your place, putting their interests in focus, staying connected and supporting them as they find what is important for them. May you be a source of strength and may those facing infertility and other family building challenges be strengthened!

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Some things are just human and it doesn’t seem to matter much where you live. Facing challenges to building a family might be one of them.  A recent survey in England got the following stats from people struggling to become parents.

  • 90% say infertility feels like a trauma.
  • 94% don’t think their friends, family or colleagues really understand what they are going through
  • 55% feel hopeless and like a failure
  • 68% believe other people think less of them because they do not have a child.
  • 54% feel annoyed by other people’s comments
  • 37% feeling angered by what others say
Healthcare in England is different than in the US, but again, some things seem similar. The stats there revealed that 34% of those who paid privately for IVF put themselves in financial risk in doing so.
One third of people paying for IVF are putting themselves at financial risk.
So for those who didn’t put themselves “at financial risk,” what did they have to give up?  
What are you giving up to try to have a child?
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Reproductive rights have been hijacked. When someone mentions the phrase “reproductive rights,” the first things that usually come to mind are either birth control or abortion. However, the ability to prevent pregnancy is only part of reproductive rights. What about the right to have a child? This conversation has fallen by the wayside. Ironically, every year at Rosh Hashanah, Jews assert the centrality of having children, and we would do a great service to the world if we embrace that message a little more.

A married woman’s right to sex, which means access to fertility, was codified early in Jewish tradition. Initially included in the Torah’s injunction of a husband’s minimum obligations for food, clothing and sex (Exodus 21.10), the Talmud explains the women’s right to sex through an outline of the minimum sex a husband must provide for his wife (Ketubot 61b). For sure, mortality rates were influential in that process, but essentially Judaism has always been a pro-family, pro-child tradition. Early declarations of human rights spoke of enabling people to exercise their right to determine freely and responsibly the quantity and spacing of their children, along with the means for having them (see, e.g., the UN’s 1969 Declaration on Social Progress and Development, Part 1, Article 4). The language was not exclusive to birth prevention. It was inclusive of having children. The implied shift towards prevention has painful repercussions for millions who face fertility challenges.

Rabbi Daniel Polish, a contemporary leader on interfaith dialogue, wrote in that context in the 1980s, “The recognition of the importance of human life is at the same time both integral to the Jewish faith system and the first and necessary precondition for a belief in human rights.”

On Rosh Hashanah, God is coronated, and God’s rule is epitomized through opening the Book of Life and beginning to decide who shall live and who shall die. Fertility is the ultimate example of that synthesis and exemplifies the other themes of the holiday: the birth of the world, the beginning of humanity and its frailty, and God as ultimate ruler and source of life. The first words of the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah (Genesis 21:1-34) describe God “remembering Sarah,” meaning opening her womb to pregnancy. The Haftarah text (1 Samuel 1:1-2:10) then introduces Hannah, who is loved yet barren. She tearfully pours out her heart, God remembers her, and she has a child.

God’s ultimate power is exemplified through fertility. The connection comes together directly in a Talmudic passage:

Three keys the Holy One, blessed be [God], has retained in [God’s] own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger: these are the key of rain, the key of childbirth, and the key of the revival of the dead. (Taanit 2a)

While Jews remain a little skeptical about anyone’s ability to overcome death, most of us have come to recognize our ability to affect the rains. Environmental action is real, and can affect our planet for the better. The medical community enabled assistance for reproduction. When it comes to pregnancy prevention, modern Jews have spoken out. Are the steps leading to childbirth some exception that, unlike other areas of healthcare, we should stay out? Is assistance for conceiving a child exceptional and beyond our realm of action? The politicization of all things related to reproduction, the lack of insurance coverage, and the assumption that attempts to procreate will work whenever we want all seem to have silenced the topic.

Jews have almost always been open to intervention when our bodies have not performed as intended. The Torah states “Make sure he is healed” (verapo yerapei)( Exodus 21.19) in double (repetitive) language. The Talmud gleans from the double language that not only do doctors have permission to heal, but that healing is not considered to be an intervention counter to the will of God. (Baba Kamma 85a). Much of childbirth is out of our control, but bringing healing and relief to those facing infertility is something we can address.

I experienced years of infertility before becoming a parent. I have counseled hundreds of people dealing with a variety of fertility challenges. Wanting a child and then facing the prospect of not being able to have a child brings the importance of human life front and center. One of the ultimate expressions of our Judaism, of our faith in God and humanity, is through the creation of a new life.

Support, resources and advocacy are needed for people experiencing infertility and fertility challenges.

How can you help? Awareness is important and appreciated. As Rosh Hashanah’s messages of life, fertility, creation, and God’s power come upon us, remember those who feel isolated from that message. When we wish that others be inscribed in the Book of Life, include a prayer for those hoping and praying to be a part of creating life too.

Rabbi Idit Solomon is the founder and CEO of Hasidah, a Jewish nonprofit dedicated to building awareness about infertility in the Jewish community, connecting people to resources and providing financial support for treatment. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and three children.

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Hasidah’s name which means “stork” comes from the Hebrew word hesed, which means loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is showing support when people need it in the way they need it. Loving-kindness is maintaining their dignity while they are in need and in the process of helping them. Loving-kindness is helping them without making them beg for it. 

Every one of these baby crowd funding campaigns is a lost opportunity for the Jewish community to show loving-kindness, something we do so well for many other circumstances. Wanting to have a child is a basic desire that most of us understand without much explanation. Yet, we let people beg: Help me fund a chance to have a baby!

Thanks to the Forward for highlighting this issue. Let us know what you think – if the Jewish community will spend billions on trips to Israel in the name of the birthright, how can we direct support for the birthrate?

 

 

 

 

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Just hosted the National Jewish Fertility Network video conference about adoption. Experts represented an amazing array of approaches – adoption agency, adoption support, law firm, and Jewish adoption advocacy. Indeed adoption is a very Jewish and beautiful pathway to parenthood. These experts helped educate Hasidah and others in the Jewish community supporting family building. We learned more about the benefits, issues, and challenges of adoption as well as how to support those considering adoption.

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The statistic for infertility of 1 in 8 does not really care about race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political party. Fertility challenges can affect anyone and even those whose journey leads to children remember well the experience. See Melissa Langsam Braunstein’s interview with Second Lady Karen Pence about her experience with infertility.

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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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