I teach Sunday school, and we just finished Parshat Vayera, the story of Abraham and Sarah. The Torah is filled with barren women: Sarah, Rachel, Hanna, Michal, the list goes on and on.
There is both solace and frustration in this persistent theme for students of Torah who are, themselves, coping with reproductive health issues. On the one hand, it is helpful to know that this is an ancient struggle, and even our greatest matriarchs were not immune. Yet so often, these women were able to pray their infertility away. Sadly, for many modern Jews, prayer alone won’t solve the problem.
I was spared much of the angst of infertility because for years, I didn’t know I had it. Then in my 30s, an OB/GYN told me—with my feet still in stirrups—that I had endometriosis. That’s a condition that causes internal bleeding and scarring. Over time, it can interfere with reproduction.
When I got the news, I burst into tears on the exam table. My doctor was puzzled because I had come in to renew a prescription for birth control. But the pills were only supposed to hold motherhood at bay until I got married. I didn’t want to be sterile forever. Impatiently, the doctor said I was overreacting and explained that endometriosis wasn’t necessarily a motherhood death sentence.
I didn’t much care for her bedside manner and switched doctors.
The next one told me there was still time, but he couldn’t make any guarantees for the future. If I wanted to conceive, I’d better hurry up.
I was dating someone at the time, but he wasn’t my bashert.
Suddenly, becoming a mother was all I could think about. Walking by a playground full of children felt like a punch in the gut. Standing in supermarket checkout lines behind mothers and toddlers made me lose my appetite. A knot tightened my throat when friends announced engagements and pregnancies.
Just out of curiosity, I did some half-hearted research on artificial insemination, but I never seriously considered it. My father was a former foster child who worked in child protective services, so I grew up hearing about the chronic need for adoptive parents. I had hoped to adopt with a husband and have biological children, too, but I never got to jump a broom or stand under a chuppah. Apparently I wasn’t wife material—too black for white Jewish men and too Jewish for black Christians.
Lacking the right man to test my fertility and unwilling to conceive with a sperm donor, I resigned myself to the fact that adoption would be my only shot at a family. The upside was I didn’t need a husband for that, so there wasn’t any reason to wait.
I was 37 when my daughter’s adoption finalized, and 40 when I got a son.
A few years later it became clear I’d need a hysterectomy. As my surgery drew near, I braced myself for another bout of deep depression. Even though my reproductive years were dwindling, deep down I had not abandoned hope that a soul mate would show up at the last minute and give me a Torah miracle. If Sarah could have Isaac long past her prime, couldn’t I expand my family the traditional way in middle age?
That dream was dashed, but to my immense surprise, the new wave of depression never materialized. After I woke up in the hospital without a uterus, I did not mourn the biological children who would never be. Rather, I hugged my perfectly wonderful kids and looked forward to a new life without pain pills. Bonus, I could buy white pants! And sheets that weren’t burgundy!
For me, the gut wrenching distress of longing for children is over. But many, many others still struggle with it, often in solitude. Reproductive health is an inherently private matter, and many couples, and singles, for that matter, aren’t comfortable discussing it with loved ones.
If you’re grappling with this challenge, here are some resources:
Association of Reproductive Health Professionals
Jewish infertility support organizations
Domestic foster care
Just remember, miracles don’t only happen in the Torah. They also happen in IVF labs and fertility clinics, in surrogate wombs, courtrooms and overseas orphanages, and most importantly, in hearts.
Courtenay Edelhart is a journalist, Reform Jew and single mother by choice via adoption. She lives in Bakersfield, California, with two children, an obnoxious Chihuahua, and assorted dying houseplants.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.