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Of infertility and loss – a father’s perspective

I will never know what it feels like for a woman to give birth to a baby she knows will be stillborn. But I know what it felt like to be the hopeful father
Illustrative. (iStock)
Illustrative. (iStock)

In the wake of the SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, I, like so many of us, have read numerous accounts of mothers’ own experiences as they considered or contemplated a heart-wrenching abortion. Other mothers — or women who wished to become mothers — seized the opportunity to open up about their infertility experiences.

I would like to share with you my own experience as an infertility patient from the perspective of a father, in the hope that my words may serve as a springboard for other fathers to feel comfortable sharing theirs, if they so wish.

Full disclaimer: In no sense will I ever claim to know what it is like for a mother, i.e., the one carrying a baby, to lose a child during pregnancy to miscarriage or stillbirth. Only a mother can know that.

Furthermore, as I write these words, I realize how blessed my wife and I are to have two healthy, adult children. I’m forever cognizant that not everyone who has shared similar difficult experiences is so blessed, and I pray that my words are not therefore viewed as empty.

When my wife and I got married, we just assumed, as any naïve young couple, that we would, God willing, be able to have as many children as we wished. Clearly, that was not meant to be. After a year of not conceiving, my wife, Leah, was beginning to be concerned, and she decided to visit an infertility specialist. Following the doctor’s advice, she began a routine of medication. When that produced no results, I too saw a specialist, who discovered that I was also in need of intervention if we wished to have a child. We became a self-medicating, self-injecting couple; we were literally in this together. At first, it pained me to be inflicting even momentary, minor pain on my wife as I gave her injections (there’s a reason why a doctor treating his own family members can be a conflict of interest), but I realized it was a necessary component of the infertility treatment equation.

Medication led to IUI (intrauterine insemination); IUI led to a pregnancy. A pregnancy, yes; a viable pregnancy, no. At some point, my wife sensed that the fetus was not growing. They say that a pregnant woman knows what’s transpiring in her body, that she knows, and feels, when something is wrong. And Leah was correct. We learned that the baby was not going to live, was not going to survive the pregnancy. When a heartbeat was no longer discernible, when the fetus was no longer living, when the daughter we were so looking forward to parenting and loving was not going to be coming home with us, we went together to the hospital for the inevitable outcome. Driving to the hospital, we knew that we would be having a stillborn child. Allow me to repeat a part of my disclaimer above: I will never know what it feels like for a woman to give birth, knowing all the while that she is giving birth to a stillborn baby. But I know what it felt like for me as a hopeful father. And I know what it felt like for me to have to watch my dear wife go through that hell. And yes, I’m crying now as I write these words.

I once heard from a wise man that God sends His angels; we just have to know where to look for them. Well, that doctor was one of God’s angels. The care, sympathy, even empathy, with which he treated us as a couple, and each of us individually, is simply remarkable. One memory that sticks out for me is that when Leah was asleep and resting after the procedure, the doctor offered to sit with me in his office and have a cup of coffee. We just sat and schmoozed like old friends until we were called back into the room. Even then, he made sure I was ready to return with him to the hospital room before we rose from our seats. He intuited what I needed.

We were sent another angel. In the recovery room, we were asked if we’d like to hold our child. We answered that we would indeed like that. The nurse then did something remarkable. She left our side and returned a few minutes later with a Polaroid picture (this was before the days of cellphones and filmless pictures) of the baby. She wanted us to hold the picture before we decided that we indeed were ready to physically hold our daughter. This beautiful act of kindness will forever be etched in my memory and heart. And only when we were ready, Leah and I cried together as we held our daughter who would not be coming home with us.

Fast forward approximately three years, and my wife and I were blessed with a healthy baby boy. He was indeed a “miracle baby.”

Another pregnancy, this time with twins, ended in a double miscarriage. I will spare you, my dear readers, the details, but suffice it to say that we were rushed to the hospital, as there was a possibility, albeit a slight one, that one of the babies could survive. Had he survived (yes, they were both males), chances are he would have had unsurmountable medical issues. In that sense, and in that sense only, maybe it was better that way.

As I alluded to above, more infertility treatment led to yet another pregnancy, this time to our beautiful daughter.

Our children are now responsible, wonderful adults. I could not be prouder of them. And I will always cherish and love them. At times, I indeed feel like I’m the luckiest father in the world.

At the same time, I will forever miss and love my other children too, the three who never saw the light of day, who never came home from the hospital. No, they were never alive outside my darling wife’s womb, but they will always be a part of me. They will always be my children.

Writing these words has been cathartic for me. I pray that, in some small measure, they bring comfort to others as well. My heart aches for all potential fathers who have undergone, or are currently undergoing, experiences similar to mine. And I am equally in awe, actually even more in awe, of all mothers who have been pregnant, only to have then suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth. You are saints, every one of you.

It is said that time heals all wounds. I do not believe that to be true, nor do I believe that to be a healthy attitude. Yes, time does indeed give us strength to move on, and move on we must. But we must always remember that wounds leave scars. Let us embrace our scars, as they become an essential part of us and make us who we are.

And to all the children out there who never saw, or never will see, the light of day, just know that you are loved.

About the Author
Rabbi Avram H. Herzog received semichah and a Masters of Hebrew Literature from Hebrew Theological College (Skokie Yeshiva). He was a classroom teacher for over 35 years, and served as a congregational rabbi in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Cincinnati. He is a sought after scholar-in-residence and has served in several communities throughout the United States, Canada, and Israel. Adult education is his first love, and he currently teaches live and online Torah classes through several venues. He also freelances as a translator and editor of both Hebrew and English works. Rabbi Avi and his wife Leah made aliyah in the summer of 2019 and live in Givat Ze'ev. He is proud to follow in his parents' footsteps, who made aliyah in 1996. Avi and Leah are the proud parents of two children, a son who plans to make aliyah in the summer of 2022 and a daughter who served in IDF and is currently a college student in Tel Hai.
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