A Longing for Children

woman in profile standing on sand dune in the desert

Whenever I make gefilte fish, I find myself talking to my grandmother. “Bubbie,” I say, measuring my offhandedness as carefully as I do the bread crumbs. “The rabbi asked me to speak before the Yizkor service this Yom Kippur.”

I pat the fish mixture into little balls as I anxiously await her response. Bubbie always knew how to fire an arrow straight into the heart of even my strongest conviction and I have no reason to doubt that death has compromised her marksmanship.

It hasn’t.

“Big shot,” she harrumphs as she smoothes my fingerprints out of the fish. “What do you know from grief?”

“I know from infertility, Bubbie,” I reply meekly. “Maybe if I share some of my feelings, it could help someone else.”

Feh.” She swings her open palm across the air, as if swatting a fly buzzing inches from my nose.

I know this gesture all too well. It is a complete and concise summary of her feelings about feelings. With one simple sweep of her hand, she has planted rapacious weeds of doubt throughout my delicate garden of self-confidence.

Perhaps she is right. In our congregation, the talk prior to the Yizkor service always echoes with powerful and personal recollections of tragic loss. My mind’s eye rewinds through images from bimahs past. I see Cathy recalling the death of her brother to AIDS … and then my own gay brother, living and laughing in an apartment full of tomorrows.

I see Nancy describing how her husband’s cancer suddenly left her alone at the Shabbat table with three small children … and then my own husband, teaching our children how to find the softest pieces of the challah.

And then I see the faces of my two daughters and Bubbie rests her case. How dare I presume that infertility even comes close to the tragedies revealed at that most solemn moment? What indeed do I know of grief?

Only my friend Harris has the courage to argue with Bubbie. “When we lose a part of ourselves,” he counters in his wise and gentle voice, “how can we do anything but grieve?”

Harris is right. Even losses that remain hidden from our collective consciousness are losses. Much to your discomfort, Bubbie, I am going to open the heretofore hidden wound that is infertility and show our congregation how it feels to be unable to conceive, bear or deliver life. Because, Bubbie, only when they understand, can they help those in torment begin to heal.

Feh,” she retorts as she plants herself firmly in the front row.

To fathom the loss that is infertility, you must first accept this: An unfulfilled longing for children is agonizing. Ample literature supports this claim, not the least of which is the text we examine beneath a gliding silver finger every Shabbat.

On Rosh Hashanah, for example, we come upon poor Hannah, so overwhelmed by her grief that Temple management thinks she’s drunk (I Samuel 1:12:11). We cringe at Sarah’s uncontrolled jealousy of Hagar’s swollen belly and we turn away in horror as her bitterness leads her to drive a young mother and a small child alone into the blazing inferno of the desert (Genesis 21:10).

But it is Rachel who sums it up most eloquently when she says to Jacob simply this: “Give me children or I shall die.”

Today, one in seven couples of childbearing age is infertile. In the average sanctuary, we sit on your left and on your right. But unless you know our hearts, you probably will not recognize our faces. The woman who seems so dedicated to her career may actually be dedicating month after month to a roller coaster of rising hopes and crushing failure. The man who cringes at your babies may in fact be recoiling from the emptiness of his own arms.

Even the family of three may not represent a contemporary lifestyle choice but rather, no choice at all.

Our struggle to become parents is more than just biological warfare. Infertility snatches from our cosmological cores expectations we have all nurtured since we were children. After all, most of us in this part of the twentieth century have successfully operated as if conception were a physiological faucet we could turn off and on at will. We are stunned and shattered to experience the slow and lingering death of a dream we had always assumed was our right.

Feh,” Bubbie grumbles none too softly from her seat. “You should only know from real tsuris.”

Yes, Bubbie, I know. We all experience deep pain at some time or another. That’s life. We instinctively turn to our spouses, our friends and family, our spirituality for comfort.

With infertility, however, these harbors are rarely safe.

Look at what happens between spouses. We who are infertile turn over our days to gynecologists, urologists, reproductive endocrinologists, laboratory technicians, in vitro clinics, sperm banks and, of course, Blue Cross. We sign over our nights not to love but to a drop of 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit on a basal temperature chart.

While reproductive technologies offer hope where never before possible, they also make it virtually impossible for us to know when to call it a day. We leap desperately onto the roller coaster each time a new hormone, miracle procedure or medical guru crosses our path. And we ride again and again and again, never really recognizing when the ride is over.

I myself gave the man in the booth my ticket 48 times.

You might think a man and woman would hold each other close as their lives careen out of control. Think again.

“Don’t get your hopes up this month,” he warns.

“No, I won’t,” she quietly lies to them both. He then watches helplessly as her soul hemorrhages at the bloody end of yet another month.

“Let’s talk about adopting,” she begs.

“I’m not ready,” he stiffens.

“Let’s talk about adopting,” he begs.

“I’m not ready,” she stiffens.

The emotional terrain of infertility is pitted with guilt, shame and repeated physical humiliation. Is it really any wonder that we are often unable to navigate our way to each other just when we need it most?

What about the open arms of friends and family? From the outside, infertility looks simply like a problem to be solved, rather than a process to be endured. So in your desperation to help, you naturally offer advice.

But innocent suggestions like “if only you would relax, it would happen already” only prove to us how alone we are. Because for every neighbor’s daughter who “took six months off” and suddenly got pregnant, thousands more women also relax. And fail. They just rarely pick up the phone to call.

As you who love us fail us in your compassionate efforts to help, we who ache in turn fail you tenfold. We demand empathy, not sympathy, but we cannot tell you where the line between the two lies … or indeed, that we move it from moment to moment. We exude bitterness so rank it darkens even the glow of your own positive pregnancy test.

And we remain deaf to the whimpers of your heart, leaving you alone with your longing for two tiny arms to clasp your neck and whisper, “I love you, Grandpa.”

Like so many others in pain, we frequently turn to our spiritual roots for sanctuary. Fortunately for the vitality of the religion, the synagogue resounds with the music of family life. Yet that is of small consolation to those of us with no instruments to play.

I found Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be the most wrenching of my spiritual encounters. The Days of Awe, after all, are an intense and intimate journey through the year gone by. Last year … last year … wasn’t that when I sat in this very same seat so sure that it would only be one more year before I took my tiny pink harvest up to the bimah as the rabbi once again blessed the year’s crop of new babies? Or was that the year before?

Or the year before?

The meditative nature of the High Holidays also creates an ideal opportunity for that last refuge of the truly desperate: bargaining with God. One Rosh Hashanah, the success of Hannah’s strategy inspired me to offer up a similar deal: If you will see that I get pregnant, God, I will see that my child becomes a high priest, or failing the revival of that institution in my time, at least a rabbi.

Vey is mir,” the voice from the front seat exclaims in disbelief “You can’t come here on yuntuf and sit nice like everyone else?”

Yes, Bubbie, I am often my own worst enemy, cursed forever to weave symbols out of the most ordinary of yarns. But the Torah, Bubbie. What am I supposed to make of the words by which my God asks me to live?

“God took note of Sarah as God had promised. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age…” (Genesis 21:12).

Isaac pleaded with God on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and God responded to his pleas, and his wife Rebecca conceived” (Genesis 25:21).

“God saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb” (Genesis 29:31).

“Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said ‘Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?'” (Genesis 30:2).

“Now God remembered Rachel, God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, ‘Now God has taken away my disgrace.'”(Genesis 30:2223).

“And if you do obey these rules and observe them faithfully, the Eternal your God will maintain for you the gracious covenant that God made on oath with your forbearers. God will love you and bless you and multiply you … There shall be no sterile male or female among you.” (Deuteronomy 7:1214).

God will love you and bless you and multiply you. Fertility, it seems, is an integral component of the covenant. Is barrenness, then, next to godlessness? If you who are fertile have received a sacred blessing, have we who are not received a divine curse?

Yours is the God of Sarah and Rebecca and Leah and Rachel. Is mine? These questions torment and shame me, even today. My only answer is that I have somehow stumbled upon a talmudic typo and that a critical compassionate sentence has been left out.

Judaism offers no words of comfort for infertility. Neither does it have a mourning ritual for those lamenting the death of a dream, whether it be a miscarriage, stillbirth or the failure to conceive. The Yizkor service urges us to remember, but what do you do when you have no memories of what you have lost?

The Jewish community must pick up where the liturgy drops off. How? By showing our infertile families that we acknowledge their loss and that we grieve with them. By offering our hands to squeeze, our shoulders to cry on and our capacity to listen, at times, to hope or fear, at other times, simply to silence.

When words do seem appropriate, we can remember that simple, powerful phrase we extend intuitively to anyone suffering a loss. “I am sorry. I am truly sorry.”

At the same time, you who are struggling with infertility must remember you are not alone. Turn to each other and to your loved ones and teach them openly and gently how to help you. They will surprise you.

Above all, take on the work of grieving, for only then can you begin to approach resolution. For some, resolution may mean adoption; for others, a decision to live child free. In many cases, it may fortify a commitment to remain on the medical roller coaster for yet another trip around the park.

For only by grieving for the tiny face that I would never see did the miracle finally happen to me. No, I never did get pregnant… apparently God’s bargain with Hannah was a one-time only offer. But it was a miracle all the same.

As the tears began to pour from my heart, I began to hear the sounds in the distance that had been calling me all along. A little voice echoing from the farthest reaches of Paraguay… and then another, reverberating amidst the tall trees of Oregon. I lifted my face and listened closer. When my sobs finally subsided, I finally heard the single sound I had waited for all my life.


I sneak a look into the front row as I collect myself and my papers. Nothing.

“So, Bubbie, what did you think of my speech?” I ask, measuring my offhandedness as carefully as I do my way down the bimah stairs.


She then snaps open the chipped gold clasp of her stiff black patent purse even now, she needs her purse and pulls something out from the zippered side pocket.

“Here,” she says as she pushes two candies into my trembling hands. “Nem for the kinder.”

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