I’ve been thinking a lot about childlessness lately. Probably because it’s the holiday season, and nothing highlights the sense of emptiness quite like dedicated family time, gift-giving, and childhood memories. Six of my friends are celebrating with new babies since giving birth this summer. They’re all over 30 years old, and almost all dealt with medical issues that had them fearing for their fertility. Their experiences bringing children into the world have me thinking about the fragility of pregnancy and birth. Evidently, despite modern-day medical advancements, it’s still not a given to conceive and deliver a healthy baby in 2015.
Perhaps, then, it’s not coincidental that I’ve encountered two new authors who have written memoirs about dealing with their childlessness: Elliot Jager (The Pater: My Father, My Childlessness, My Judaism, The Toby Press, 2015) and Justine Brooks Froelker (Ever Upward: Overcoming the Lifelong Losses of Infertility to Define Your Own Happy Ending, Morgan James, 2015).
Because the subject of infertility often rests in a sea of silence, shame, and guilt, the sheer fact that these authors are open and honest about their highly personal experiences is both inspiring and comforting. Among other attributes, their candidness and authenticity have the potential to dissolve the taboos around the infertility rhetoric among friends, family members, spouses, and society in general (especially in religious circles).
In The Pater, Jager recounts the ordeal of procedures that he and his wife endured, physically painful and emotionally draining. Although these treatments are significantly subsidized in Israel, which clearly alleviates the financial burden, they eventually decided that enough was enough, and stopped the treatments. By that time, they were frustrated and did not have the resources (emotional or financial) to go through adoption or surrogacy.
Jager poignantly journeys through the spiritual, cultural, philosophical, and social implications of not having children, and, in doing so, comes to repair his fractured relationship with his own father, whom he calls the “Pater.” He challenges the perception of the “barren” as seen throughout the Bible and rabbinic literature, and considers iconic personalities in history who happened to be childless: Henrietta Szold, Francis Bacon, Plato, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and others. He asks rhetorically: “Could anyone persuasively argue that the lives of the men and women recalled here lacked meaning because of the absence of biological children?” One can almost hear him yelling to the world, castigating those who judge.
As he comes to terms with his own childlessness and reconciles with the Pater, Jager interweaves short interviews with other men who do not have children, sharing their experiences and reflections. In this sense, The Pater can be seen as a sociological and cultural portrait of the childless Jewish man.
Froelker, by contrast, is a therapist and writer based in St. Louis. When she was a pre-teen, she suffered a severe back injury that exposed her to repeated medical scans. The unshielded procedures left her with permanent damage to her reproductive system. She and her husband married knowing they would not be able have children, so they consequently opted for gestational surrogacy, setting them back in excess of $30,000 (she specifically addresses the stress they face in repaying their loans on top of their college loans).
Froelker too details the arduous processes in depth: choosing and meeting the surrogate, the hormones and their strong side effects, two embryo transfers, the anxiety of waiting, the stress it put on her marriage, and the emotional roller coaster throughout. After finding the perfect surrogate, scheduling the retrieval and embryo transplants twice, the universe had other plans: neither implant was successful. Exasperated and grieving, they too, decided enough was enough. The couple decided to accept their reality to live a “childfree life,” Froelker calls it. As the subtitle says, they set out to “overcome the lifelong losses of infertility to define their own happy ending.”
Froekler is open about the challenges she and her husband faced, the shame she felt, and details how she began to recalibrate her life. She works through her hardships without hiding behind fancy jargon or by waxing poetic. In fact, much of the book is written in the vernacular and could use heavy editing (#nerdalert, sorry). Regardless, her practical strategies and her message are powerful. Froekler’s perspective on growth and relationships is thought-provoking and refreshing.
Knowing the potential damage that grief and trauma can wreak on a relationship, Froekler and her husband set out to rebuild and shape their childfree life together. They focus on renovating their new house. They take relaxing getaways. They have fun monthly date nights. They intentionally aim to build a mindset in which they see themselves as a family through and through, even without children. This mental shift can be particularly comforting during the holiday season, when many of us — those without spouses or children — feel a stronger sense of loneliness or loss. She writes:
“My magic, the magic of our childfree lives, will include all the childfull Christmas traditions…because after all, choosing joy and magic is a choice.”
What an empowering, revitalizing perspective: going from being “child-less” or “child-free” to having “child-full” rituals and traditions. A refreshing mental shift certainly, but not an easy one by any means. Changing that suffix in an existential way is no simple task. In the Jewish tradition, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the nineteenth-century father of the Mussar Movement, points out the difficulty of such a mental or behavioral shift. He taught that it is easier to learn the entire Talmud than to change even one character trait. In this case, going from a “childless” mentality to one that is “child-full” (however one chooses to express that) is a powerful transformation that requires much effort, mindfulness, and, as both authors attest, a strong support system of friends and mentors.
Through their challenges with infertility and childlessness, both of these authors have bequeathed a number of important life lessons to their readers regardless of age, gender, or marital status. It is my hope that sharing their wisdom and insights will offer hope and comfort to all of us as we end 2015, and begin a new year.
- People come in and out of our lives as we age, including friends and parents. Our relationships change, end, reemerge, and evolve. Oftentimes, we have to change the way we view the relationship and our expectations from it; “re-categorize the relationship”, as Froelker calls it.
There may be someone who you once heavily relied upon who simply cannot give you what you need at a particular time. This happened with my high school best friend — the friendship came to a halt for four years (yes, it was a painful time). For Jager, this happened with his father for thirty years. But these people can reemerge. The relationship changes, but when we build self-respect, validate ourselves, and are honest with ourselves and with the other person, that relationship can heal (I can attest to that myself.)
- In times of trauma and hardship, marriages and relationships will either evolve and flourish or wither and die. Oftentimes, there is blame, shame, or feelings of guilt involved. Each partner must allow himself or herself to be vulnerable and let the other partner in to work as a team.
- We all have a story to tell. Even if you feel ashamed about something. It’s okay — own that shame, and accept that you feel it. You don’t have to live trying to prove yourself to others. Respect yourself and accept responsibility for your decisions. (This approach is inspired by the phenomenal work of author and researcher Dr. Brené Brown, of TED Talk fame and as interviewed by my uber-heroine, Oprah.)
- You never know who you’re going to inspire; be yourself and your authenticity will make you shine.
- It’s really easy to get caught up in the complications of life. It’s important to have faith in something bigger than yourself.
- When your religious tradition doesn’t make sense to you, probe it without compromising your integrity or the richness of the tradition. Best to find a sensitive, intellectually honest spiritual mentor whom you trust (yes, they exist).
- Forgiveness, especially towards your parents, can offer an incredible amount of relief.
- Life’s challenges, even those that are excruciatingly painful and seemingly insurmountable, can offer us an opportunity for emotional, psychological, intellectual growth and spiritual exploration.
* * *
One of my best friends suddenly reappeared in my life after eight months of silence. No Facebook messages, no response to my voicemails, not even a mere “Like” on my Facebook posts. Silence. MIA. Needless to say, I was deeply concerned. She finally reached out. She’s been struggling. Married for eight years, they have not been able to conceive. She feels left out of her family-centric community that emphasizes Jewish continuity. She feels that she’s letting her husband down.
Without reading these two books, I wouldn’t understand her struggle. I probably would have tried to offer solutions (“maybe you can try to adopt”). But these books gave me some helpful tools to understand her isolation and offer her support.
The Pater and Ever Upward have opened the door into an otherwise dark, lonely place. The authors’ honesty and courage enable readers to understand more about the journey and possibilities for those who are childless, and to develop sensitivity towards them. Moreover, they demonstrate the power of forgiveness, the power of courage, and that fulfillment in life is possible when you are true to yourself.