Praying for a child: Infertility in religious society
Every couple going through fertility treatments is forced to deal with mental, physical difficulties, but religious couples must also face social isolation, crisis of faith and halachic complexities
In the religious sector, children do not just bring happiness – children are a must. Many religious women will tell you that just months after their wedding, people began staring at their stomachs in search of any changes in size.
Infertility is a terrible burden on any woman seeking to bring new life into this world. But when you're religious – it may be seven times harder.
Take Naama and her husband, for example. They have been trying to conceive for three years. Until recently they lived in a small settlement, but were the only ones in the neighborhood without any children.
Tali and Natan Or-Kalfa. 'Many religious people embarrassed'
"The first two years of the marriage were terrible," says Naama. "Waking up every day to the sounds of a crying baby in the caravan next to us, going outside to hang the laundry and seeing laughing children everywhere.
"Like many religious people, I wanted children from the very beginning, and when I realized it wasn't working and everyone got way ahead of me, I felt like I was in an endless competition. It caused a lot of tension and frustration. Eventually we couldn't take it anymore and moved to Jerusalem."
Hodaya (not her real name), who is now pregnant after three and a half years of fertility treatments, shares a similar experience.
"A religious couple with infertility problems is socially isolated. I have encountered quite a few cases of insensitivity. I remember sitting with my friends and listening to their conversations about baby formulas and diapers, while completely ignoring my presence and pain and not even considering changing the subject.
"This experience led to a decision that after I give birth, I'll never become that kind of person who only talks about her child taking his first steps.
"At a certain stage we were no longer invited to social events, people stopped calling and we remained isolated. In fact, we're still isolated, because our entire age group has at least two children by now, while we've been left behind."
What kind of reactions did you get while you were going through the treatments?
"I was subject to humiliating and insulting comments. We're a small sector, and people have a tendency to interfere and lack tact. I was forced to listen quietly to 'good advice' from people who were certain they knew what I should do. Things like, 'It's not working because you're stressed', or 'enjoy life as long as you can.' What is there to enjoy? I want a child."
"I can’t understand this intrusiveness," Hodaya adds. "It's obsessive. My ovaries belong to me and no one should have access to them. I remember I once went to visit a friend of mine after she had a baby. I was only married for a little more than a year, and she already had a child after 10 months.
"While we were talking, her mother interrupted, saying: 'Just ease the pressure. If you're not stressed, it'll happen.' I told her, 'I'm not stressed. Who said I even want a child?' And she responded, 'Are you telling me that you don't wait for it every day, that you're not sad every time you get your period?'"
The synagogue and neighborhood are not the only places where a religious woman suffering from infertility is reminded of her grim situation. A typical religious college usually includes a daycare center, a breastfeeding room and dozens of strollers parked outside. Women get special permission to bring their babies to class and submit their papers in late.
Childless women, however, do not enjoy any privileges.
"I was once late to class with a friend of mine," Hodaya recalls. "I had a very difficult treatment that day and felt awful. My married friend entered the classroom calmly and apologized that her child wouldn't stop crying. When I entered, the lecturer gave me an angry look. I tried to explain that I was in the middle of treatments, but all she said was: 'I had treatments too, you can combine the two.'
"I'll never be allowed to hand in my paper late, and no one cares that my body is filled with hormones and that I sometimes can't function, physically and mentally. As far as they're concerned, I have no children and have unlimited time. No one understands the crazy schedule of checkups, phone calls and injections that a woman like me has to go through."
Like any other issue, infertility in the religious sector is subject to a debate among those seeking to find a way between the restrictions of Halacha and the desire to utilize all options to the fullest, and those choosing to favor their sentiments over rabbis' instructions.
Tali and Natan Or-Kalfa from the settlement of Hashmonaim have been married for seven years without any children of their own. They recently began an adoption process while continuing their attempts to conceive.
"I don't remember asking myself any halachic questions," says Kalfa. "There are places I refuse to let rabbis into. We didn't ask a rabbi if we should have a sperm count and we didn't ask if we should adopt. We followed our heart.
"My friend says she went to a kabbalist and he told her not to adopt under any circumstances, because he expects it to happen naturally. I find that really insolent. There are women who consult rabbis on when to start treatments and when to stop, but I think that's that their private business and has nothing to do with Halacha, and a rabbi's advice may even cause damage."
Kalfa says that the most difficult halachic challenge during fertility treatments is practicing niddah (avoiding physical contact with one's husband during menstruation).
"Think about it," she says. "You have to go through injections, then follicle tracking (checking the development of eggs within the ovary from an immature state), then embryo transfer, then wait for two weeks, and at the end of this whole process – after you hope and pray – you get a negative answer followed by your damn period. And then you can't get a hug from your husband because you're in niddah.
"There's nothing more distressing. I remember that at a certain stage I despaired. I told myself I don't care about Halacha and hugged my husband."
Do you share with people what you're going through?
"Yes, and a lot. I noticed that there are quite a few religious people who are embarrassed by it, as if fertility treatments are something immodest that you're not allowed to talk about.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm doing it on purpose, because I want people to know what I'm going through and what I'm dealing with. Just like they send their child to the kindergarten in the morning, and later tell you what the teacher said and how the child replied – I tell them that in the morning I have checkups and blood tests.
"It's my daily life and I want to share it like everyone else. I'm also a member of an Internet infertility forum of religious women, and that's basically a lifesaver for me. You can talk freely there, say 'I can't believe my sister is pregnant' – without anyone judging you."
The infertility issue receives considerable attention in Judaism. Four of the Bible's main female characters were barren - Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Hannah. But when the biblical story becomes your own personal story, it is not that simple anymore, and quite a few religious women face a crisis of faith.
"At first you comfort yourself by saying that 'the more haste the less speed' and that it may only be in your own favor," says Kalfa. "But then you hear about a mother who murdered her son or watch your neighbor neglect her children – and something is shattered. You realize there is no justice in this world, that someone is not necessarily running things as they should be run. It creates a real dissonance.
"We're taught that the matriarchs were barren, and were redeemed by praying. And I have difficult moments when I don’t have any energy left to pray, because I'm angry and sad, and then I feel bad about myself.
"There's no doubt that what I went through made me very weak. My faith today is very rational. If I let my sentiments in – I'll be angry. Observing mitzvot is also a burden these days. My life is busy as it is with all the blood tests, and I relieve myself of as many religious tasks as possible, in order to invest all my energy and resources in the treatments."
Naama admits that she sometimes finds herself envying the way secular women deal with infertility.
"I'm a member of a forum which also has secular women, and I can see from the way they express themselves that everything is much simpler for them," she says. "They are much more optimistic about the treatments and allow themselves to say: 'Today I'm having my second insemination, hoping it'll work this time. As far as they're concerned, it's just the statistics that are against them.
"I'm burdened with the feeling that 'it's all for the best'. The recognition that I was allegedly chosen to play the role of the 'barren woman' and that it probably has to be a long and exhausting trial meant to turn me into a better person, and therefore it'll take a while before it happens. In this sense, faith is just a burden.
"There's also a huge difference between secularity and religiousness when it comes to the practical consequences of a forced delay in giving birth. For them, it's just a slight delay, and most of them eventually manage to deal with the problem and have two or three children like they dreamed of. But for me, the dream of a big family has been shattered. All my life I've fantasized about a house filled with children, at least eight or 10, and today I know it likely won't happen.
"I sometimes find comfort in the fact that if I only have three children, I'll be able to give them more, and I’ll have more time for myself and be able to develop a career. But eventually, my plans for life changed against my will, and it's not easy to come to terms with this situation."
A random visit to religious women's infertility forums can attest to the unique way they experience this terrible situation. The nicknames they choose for themselves demonstrate the burden of the crisis of faith: "Waiting for a miracle from above" and "One of four matriarchs".
Their posts include real lamentations: "Perhaps you're hovering up there among all the spirits. You know you were designated for us and we were designated for you… Looking at us from above and sending us messages. Saying, 'Mom, dad, I'm not supposed to come down yet. But I will come down eventually, at the best time."
"I don't want to be a great person," says Hodaya, "I just want a child. This is ongoing suffering which I don't wish on anyone else. I don't want missions and trials, and I don't care that I'm like the righteous women. I don't see any spiritual greatness in being infertile."