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Elchanan Poupko

Infertility Lack of Awareness Month

Illustrative: An Israeli family seen during the Passover Seder on April 3, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

As we conclude Infertility Awareness Month, I propose we also begin observing infertility lack of awareness month as well. Let me explain. Especially as Jews, and much more so Orthodox Jews, there is a great deal of value, attention, and anxiety given to the field of fertility and infertility, which too often lacks sensitivity toward those struggling with infertility. Those dealing with the trauma of infertility find themselves having to face either too much awareness or a complete lack of awareness of the matter in a way that doubles the pain of going through something as difficult as infertility.

So here’s a list of situations, or if you wish, a directory of when increased and when decreased awareness of infertility might be good. 

To those who know it all — To those who know it all and have already decided why it is that someone does not have kids — much more awareness is needed. I cannot even begin to cover the number of times people publicly speculate as to why a couple does not have children, most often with no basis whatsoever. From “They do not have children? Is it because they are not very religious?” to “Of course, they don’t, the wife is a feminist career person who chose to be a doctor” to “They don’t have children? ya because she is a liberal and probably had an abortion”. These and many more horrifying examples, often with implicit accusations or assumptions those struggling with infertility face, especially in the Orthodox community, greatly lack in humanity or awareness of what people are going through and how painful childlessness can be. This same adverse treatment is often directed and older singles who feel like they are collapsing under pain of not finding a suitable partner, just to be accused by friends, family, and society that this is all their own doing and “if just” they would be less picky, choosy, or any other number of “if justs” this would not have happened to them. 

To the publicly praying – less of your awareness would be better — much less. Asking a couple for their names so you can pray for them, asking someone sitting at a fertility clinic to pray for them, asking the mother of someone who is childless for their name so you can pray for them is outright hurtful. You can care for someone, pray for them, and think of them without letting them know how worthy of your pity you think they are. You should never use your offering to pray as a way to prod a family member on the fertility status of their relative. If someone asks you to pray for them, it is one thing; inquiring into the matter is a whole different thing. Less awareness is needed. 

To the crowdfunders and fundraisers asking a couple without children to donate to your latest fundraiser for Bonei Olam, A Time, Puah, Hasidah, Yesh Tikvah, or any other number of organizations that support those struggling with infertility–more awareness would be better. You may have not thought of asking this specific person for your fundraising just because they do not have children, but that is what will come to their mind. The number of solicitations for charity in general, prying on those who do not have children yet, is large and abusive enough already; there is no need to add to that. From segulas to mekubalim to any number of individuals, the ads can be seen in almost every Orthodox weekly. To those who use the emotional vulnerability and pain of couples struggling with infertility for predatory behavior for profit such as selling your segulas or the latest homeopathic remedy–what I have to say will probably not change your predatory behavior, but I hope the community sees it and asks you to stop. Either way, as a community we should be much more sensitive to how hurtful gearing certain fundraising efforts towards those struggling with infertility can be a hurtful violation of privacy. 

To the innocent advisors – much less of your attention would probably be helpful from those who bombard couples with very “random” stories that are “not at all meant for them” but might just perhaps, to those who ask “random” questions, you would be surprised how noticeable you are pretending not to notice, while very much noticing, impacts those anyway going through this difficult journey. Whether you “randomly” speak to people you suspect are struggling with infertility about adoption, treatments they may not know of, your neighbor’s cousin having leftover frozen embryos that they would really love to give someone, or any other kind of advice you are giving someone because you think they are going through infertility treatments, please consider how hurtful your attention is. If someone turns to you for advice it is one thing; it is a whole other thing to just drop it along. 

 

To the very nice people in a shuls near medical infertility centers, from Los Angeles to Dallas, and from Cleveland to New York welcoming someone who is new in shul, asking them what brings them to town or otherwise welcoming questions – more awareness would be helpful. Couples struggling with infertility often run into treatments that can take place over weekends and holidays. As a community that loves to care, invite, and host others, it is important to also make sure there is space for privacy in our communities. Something I myself had to be more mindful of when serving as a rabbi is balancing taking an interest in people and being kind, and respecting their privacy. When I was younger and used to go for Yom Tov to friends who lived near a large medical center, I would be asked if I was here for Yom Yov to accompany someone to the hospital. There are ways to be kind and offer help in a general way without invading people’s privacy or prodding into their personal lives. This is not to say you should not be kind or welcoming; it is to ask for increased awareness of the fact that different people might be struggling with different things and that they may not always want to share that. 

To rabbis all different levels – more awareness would be better. Not just more, but MUCH more. The fact that you have attended a professional development day read a few medical ethics articles, or listened to a shiur or two on the topic of infertility in halacha hardly means you have scratched the surface of the topic. The lack of familiarity of too many rabbis with the full scope of halachic, medical, and emotional sides of infertility is all too common. Of course, no one who has not been through the experience of infertility can be asked to fully understand it. Yet at the same time, a dose of increased awareness, education, and sensitivity has never hurt anyone and are very consistent with the basic tenets of Judaism. 

To those struggling with infertility and shocked by an encounter with inadequate rabbinic responses: you are not alone. Sometimes it will take speaking with one rabbi; sometimes you will need to go look for another rabbi who will fully understand your situation.

Unfortunately, other times it might take three or four. Remember that rabbinic training does not include emotional intelligence training and that sometimes that might be what is lacking from the response you are seeing. 

To the hopeful encouragers — better awareness would be better. Yes, you think sharing with someone struggling with infertility the story about your 50-year-old friend just having a baby or the news story about the new medical breakthrough which overcomes this or that difficulty in having children–it might be encouraging to some, but it might also be very painful to others. Perhaps it is painful because they did not need someone to raise their self-awareness, or perhaps the good news you are delivering will never apply to their unique situation. You have no idea what they are struggling with, how hopeful or unhopeful they feel, or whether or not they would like to be even more self-aware than they already are of their situation. 

Truthfully speaking, encouragement to those facing infertility is very hard to quantify. Sometimes when coming from a truly caring place, they might find it to be immensely meaningful and touching, other times, they may find it to be invasive, cheap, pitiful, or insincere. Responding to someone’s generic Shana Tova or happy Passover wishes with a “refuah shleima” or “we are praying for you” might be deeply offensive to them. At the same time, coming from someone who really cares and is in touch with those going through their infertility journey, hearing a general: “we are thinking of you” that comes from the heart might be very meaningful to them. In general, more sensitivity and awareness would help.  

To the quiet calculators–more awareness is needed. Urgently. “Do you have children?” could have been a bad enough question that should never be asked anyway, but to follow it with: “How long have you been married?” is a grotesquely obnoxious invasion of privacy. It is painful to witness it and to see how acceptable it is in our community. You may be doing all these brilliant calculations and medical assessments inside your head, thinking no one else realizes why you asked, but you are hurting real people in real-time. I do not know in which context it is appropriate to ask people whether or not they have children unless they opened that conversation themselves, but following up with asking: “how long have you been married” can be gut-wrenchingly hurtful, tear-inducing, humiliating, enraging, or just offensive–depending on the person and the situation. 

There is never a reason to ask people questions such as: “Who is your spouse?”, “how many children do you have?” or “Have you married your children off yet?” unless they have chosen to volunteer that information. Rabbi Yissochor Frand has given a whole talk about how hurtful he has seen asking people if they married their children off yet; the same is true for any other number of situations. If you are short of talking points, always safe to refer to the weather. 

To the complimentors – more awareness is needed. Much much more. “The two of you would make such smart children,” “Your wife is so beautiful I am sure you guys will have beautiful children,” “I can’t wait to see the mini version of you,” or other statements the unaware might think are compliments, do not take into account the possibility that someone is struggling with infertility. Even to those seen doing so when a couple gets married, at Sheva brachot, or shortly after a wedding, it is inappropriate.  

 

To the overwhelmed by successful fertility – much more awareness would be needed. Complaining to someone who is trying to have children how overwhelmed you feel by your five healthy children is very much the wrong audience, and you never know who that person is. Seeing your child misbehave or overwhelm you with child care demands and saying with a snark: “OMG, would you like to adopt him?” or “Do you want to take them” is hurtful, especially since to those without children, the answer in their head might very well be: “of course I do,” 

Saying that perhaps you regret having nine children and only should have had eight, or any other lack of appreciation for the blessings in your life – even if you do not consider them to be blessings at the moment – is hurtful and morally wrong. Being more aware of what those going through infertility are going through would greatly benefit you. Regardless of infertility, complaining about the children God gave you or any other blessing in your life is probably not a great virtue in any situation.  

To the oblivious to the whole topic – sometimes you are the best thing that has happened to those struggling with infertility. To the people who (at least act) like the entire topic is not on your mind or radar, who are just fun and normal when speaking, who didn’t even think having children was on anyone’s mind, or do not even realize that anyone is trying, you would never guess how much some people appreciate being around you. Being able to escape for a moment from the pain, discomfort, and uncertainty and be treated like normal human beings is a gift you do not know you are giving to those struggling with infertility.

To the targeted Dvar Torah sharers –– much more awareness would be needed. Your latest Dvar Torah about Pru U’rvu (the obligation to be fruitful and multiply), your message about how much more Chesed (acts of kindness) people who do not have children can do, why Sarah, our matriarch, was infertile, and other similar thoughts lack in sensitivity in Biblical proportions. If the messages of the Torah indeed do resonate with you, the need to be more sensitive and aware of those who do not have children should be fairly easy to find. This is not to make certain areas of the Torah taboo or prevent anyone from sharing their Torah thoughts on any specific topic, but it is to say your targeted Dvar Torah is more of a sin than a good deed. 

To the social media sharers and the simply proud of your children – more awareness is needed. Anyone can put anything they wish online or in their office or brag about whatever children they have at a Shabbat table discussion. It is not forbidden, and people can go about their lives as they wish. 

There are, however, many people who do not realize what kind of pain they cause others by making those more aware of the lack of them having a child. Sure, no one can be asked to hold back from posing on social media that they got a new Maserati Porsche or Lamborghini just because others cannot afford the same kind of car. But know that splashing your children all over social media, your work desk, or inserting your pride into every conversation you have—even though you are rightfully and wholesomely proud–can cause others a great deal of pain. This is not just because others may not have children altogether, but it may be because others have health problems or any number of other problems they are dealing with that feel just a bit worse now that they have heard how amazing your children are. It is not the kind of pain of not having a luxury you have, and they don’t; it is a pain that can wrap their entire existence, make them feel hopeless, and perhaps even more broken and alone. How this awareness will affect your behavior is your choice, but it is important to be aware of this and to be more sensitive. 

To the happy ending sharers – more awareness is needed — much more. You have been through your infertility journey and have finally overcome all of your challenges? Great. That may not be the case for everyone else. Your success at the end of this path may not be the success of others or something they can even aspire to. No one truly knows what issues the other person is dealing with. 

To the profilers – much more awareness is needed. Some people might think the only ones who are struggling with infertility are married couples, women, or men. Some might think that someone with one or two children is not struggling with infertility, but they can be wrong as well. The thing about infertility is that you will never ever really know who is struggling with it or how much they are hurting. We can all do better by being more sensitive to the topic. 

As families, communities, and friends, we love trying to help others. The most offensive and hurtful things people will say to those who are struggling with infertility will be those coming with good intentions. Your urge to be helpful and encouraging–and most definitely your personal curiosity–does not give you a license to inflict great pain on someone that is suffering already. This is not to say you should not care, help, or love. You should. Sometimes your greatest act of caring might just be being quietly supportive, friendly, and nice. 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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