Infertility Awareness Shabbat: Don’t Judge Someone Else’s Pain

This past Shabbat, our community participated in Yesh Tikva’s annual infertility awareness Shabbat by hosting three wonderful speakers.  On Shabbat morning, Dr. Aimee Baron addressed our community.  Dr. Baron is the founder and executive director of “I Was Supposed to Have a Baby,” a nonprofit organization that utilizes social media to support Jewish individuals and families as they struggle to have a child.  During her talk, Dr. Baron talked about her secondary infertility, how she had multiple miscarriages after having three children.  Her pain was so great to the point when she couldn’t function.  She couldn’t even get out of bed, and she had to quit her medical practice.

After her talk on Shabbat morning, a few people approached me and told me that they couldn’t understand her suffering because, after all, she was blessed with three children prior to her secondary infertility.   The people who shared their reactions with me are very sensitive, empathic individuals.  They could relate to the intense pain that someone who does not have any children must feel, but the enormity of the suffering that Dr. Baron described in her talk seemed disproportionate to what they would have expected given the fact that she was already blessed with three children.

During seudah shlishit, I approached Dr. Baron and shared with her this reaction, and she told me that she heard a similar reaction from some other people, as well.  I told her that this reaction reminded me of a class discussion that I had a few months ago when I taught the ethics of gender selection to Shulamith high school seniors in my medical ethics course.  We studied a case when a family with five children of one gender consulted rabbinic advisors at PUAH, an organization that works with Jewish couples with fertility problems.  The father was under psychological care because of severe depression at having single gendered offspring.  The depression was so severe that it prevented him from interacting with his children and functioning as a parent to them and husband to his wife.  After extensive psychological treatment, the psychologist felt that having a gender selected child could treat the problem and the PUAH rabbi allowed it even though, in general, PUAH rabbis do not permit gender selection.  When we discussed this case in class, some students did not understand why the father was so depressed.  What’s wrong with having multiple children of the same gender?  At least he is blessed with children?  They could not relate to this type of depression as being normal enough to allow a halachic dispensation.

Dr. Baron told me that there are women who have eight or nine children who have approached her and her organization for emotional support after experiencing trauma from multiple miscarriages while trying to have more children.  Dr. Baron sees her role as trying to support people who are in pain and not to judge someone else’s pain.  For me, that was the key message from the entire fertility awareness programming throughout Shabbat.  Don’t judge someone else’s pain.  Someone who is blessed with three children and who thinks that that is a normal, reasonable family size should understand that other people may think differently and if they are suffering because they cannot have more children, then we should be sensitive and not judge them.

I believe that this approach is rooted in Jewish values.  The Gemara in Masechet Ketuvot 67b states that the Torah requires us to provide for a poor person “dai machsoro,” or an amount sufficient to cure his deficiency if we have the financial ability to do so.  The Gemara cites the following example.  If a wealthy person was accustomed to riding on a horse and having a servant run in front of him, and now he is destitute, then we are commanded to provide him with the horse and servant if we are able to do so.  In fact, the Gemara states that Hillel the Elder obtained for a poor person of noble descent a horse upon which to ride and a servant to run in front of him.  One time he did not find a servant to run in front of the poor person, so Hillel himself ran in front of him for a long distance.  On the surface it would seem absurd to provide a poor person with a servant if most people don’t have servants themselves.  However, this person of noble descent was in emotional pain.  He was formerly a wealthy person and therefore, the fact that he didn’t have his servant was causing him tremendous pain.  Nevertheless, we are taught not to judge his pain.  Accept it and if we can alleviate the pain, then we are obligated to do so.

I think part of the reason why we may have a tendency to judge someone else’s pain is that we feel that we are being judged as being insensitive and cruel if we don’t express empathy, when, in fact, we may just be uneducated as to what someone else is going through.  We all understand the pain of primary infertility, but we may not fully appreciate the pain of secondary infertility.  Does that make us insensitive?  No.  It just makes us unaware, which is okay.  Similarly, many people who suffer from infertility are unfortunately on the receiving end of many insensitive comments, such as, “Just adopt,” “Trust me, you’re lucky you don’t have kids,” “Maybe you’re not meant to be parents,” “But you’re so young! You have plenty of time to get pregnant,” “What’s the big deal?  You already have a child?” “It could be worse.  It could be cancer,” or “Whatever you do, don’t give up.  It will happen.”  Many people who make these comments really mean well.  They believe that their role is to offer solutions, to be overly positive or to act on any number of behaviors that dismiss the person’s feelings.  However, they may be uneducated as to how to properly express empathy.  Whether it’s someone who is suffering from secondary infertility, a parent who is depressed because he has five children of the same gender or someone who was formerly wealthy and is depressed because of his current financial state, do not judge the person’s pain.  Accept that he or she is in pain, be there to support him or her and learn what is appropriate and not appropriate to say in the situation.  If we have limited resources, then perhaps we may assist people with certain types of suffering before other types of suffering, but we can certainly be sensitive to everyone.  If we can all work a little harder to be less judgmental, both of a person’s pain and of people who may say insensitive things but mean well, then we can create a climate of greater warmth, inclusion and belonging, one of which Hillel the Elder would be proud.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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